So (two) people have been wondering why I’ve stopped commenting on popular culture. As well they should, insofar as I appear to stink when it comes to political predictions, current events, and so forth.
Fortunately, I’m able to tell you about my pop experiences in Atlanta this weekend. They are basically middle-brow and old-guy. And they were fairly potent antidotes to the tendency we all share to get “way existential” about what’s going on in electoral politics.
My wife and I went to Chastain Park to see Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and the sons of Merle Haggard, who continue to anchor Haggard’s back-up band, The Strangers. Merle himself was originally scheduled to perform, but he flew away at a very inconvenient time for the tour.
Chastain is a beautiful, entirely outdoor venue in an upscale neighborhood. And upscale people bring gourmet meals, fine wine, tablecloths, and candles to tastefully enjoy at tables while the concerts are going on. That means, of course, that the audience isn’t there just to see the show, and there’s an audible buzz of conversation even during the most compelling performances. It’s not a favorite place for serious musicians to play. But it is quite the place to be.
The main problem with Chastain, though, is parking. That’s why those in the know stay at the Wingate in Buckhead and get shuttled over there in a vehicle that is somewhere between a limo and a bus. This time, it was quite the sing-along party, a limo-bus full of a diverse and mostly unpretentious array of white folks — one of whom came over from Spain just for this experience. They weren’t the usual Chastain crowd, but they were classy in their own way.
Kristofferson played first, starting early and without any introduction. He sang most of the legendary tunes he wrote as a young man. He’s obviously fading in his old age, but he sang forcefully and with genuine emotion, adding the occasional comment to show he is still in touch with the meaning of what he wrote. He knows as well as his audience did that this is pretty darn close to his last rodeo. He didn’t demand but he got respectful attention for who he is and what he’s done.
So all you can do is wonder about the sophisticated and poetic Rhodes scholar in literature who knew enough to know that his real mentor should be Johnny Cash. And that his heart was big and American enough to write both “Why Me Lord” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,” of course, has been picked up by anti-liberals such as Carey McWilliams to describe an America emptied out by negative freedom. But, you know, there’s also a Christian way of spinning that poetic observation, about surrendering all the seemingly weighty baggage that’s truly smoke that weighs nothing. It’s also about being in love in the present, about letting the devil take tomorrow, because tonight all you need is a friend. Even put that way, it remains pretty Christian — both humble and grateful.
God knows what drives Willie Nelson to keep touring, and certainly his stage show hasn’t changed much in, say, a decade or two. But he’s still great, and maybe better than ever on the guitar. He closes his show with the spiritual trilogy “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Amazing Grace,” and “I’ll Fly Away.” And it’s those tunes that move the audience most and get the most singing along in Atlanta.
So Willie’s heart is big and American enough to be otherworldly and wryly ecological: He wants to be rolled up and smoked when he dies.
Another distinctively Atlantan tradition is Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, joining Willy for part of the trilogy. This time it was during “Amazing Grace,” to the wild applause of the audience.
It’s easy and necessary to criticize President Carter for his many misjudgments over the years, but he is a Christian and a class act. The folks on the limo-bus on the way back raised their glasses to the greatest of the humanitarian ex-presidents, while usually adding they actually vote Republican.
I would certainly be happy enough to be able to vote for Jimmy this time around. Sure he’s no Reagan, but all politics ends up being comparative politics — and compared with what we have now . . .
And so there’s a kind of nostalgia for something lost that somehow encompasses Kris, Willie, Merle, Johnny, and in some way even (to a very limited extent) Jimmy Carter.
I’m not talking here about making America great again or about the manners and morals of the old South. It’s the Baptist, Okie, Texarkansan, big-sinning, hard-drinking and smoking, the-nightlife-that-ain’t-no-good-life, wayfaring-stranger, cowboy/highwaymen/outlaw tradition without nostalgia but with regret for love lost through one’s own damned fault.
I have more experiences still, but next time . . .