“Show a little inspiration, show a little spark,” Mary Chapin Carpenter sings in her song “The Hard Way.” Kelley Hunt, one of my beloveds and my songwriting partner, happily obliged her by summoning up the inspiration and spark to strap ourselves into my peanut-butter-colored car so we can once again worship at her feet and replenish our songwriting well.
This year we trekked to Wichita for a long day’s night to the Wabi Sabi (beautiful, decaying, and full of soul and vibrancy) Orpheum Theater to see this shining soul sing some of the greatest songs we know, such as “Stones in the Road,” once the best songs I know of about America. Listen to it sometime, and hear what she says about all that’s on fire in our history and lives, including lines like these: “And now we drink our coffee on the run, we climb that ladder rung by rung/ We are the daughters and the sons, and here’s the line that’s missing.”
When Kelley and I write our own songs together, I like to think there’s always an invisible and palpable icon of Mary Chapin in the room, right on top of the purple piano where we compose music, occasionally nodding at us and always making eye contact. So many of our songs — such as “Love,” “You’ve Got to Be the Vessel,” and “Let it Rain,” — speak to some of the deep-river themes of hard-won love, healing, and courage flowing through MCC’s songs, such as her song “Why Walk When You Can Fly?” and “Jubilee,” in which she sings:
And I can tell by the way you’re searching
For something you can’t even name
That you haven’t been able to come to the table
Simply glad that you came
So it’s no wonder that we drive, drive, drive to be with MCC and her kick-ass, open-hearted band, including many bandmates she’s played with for decades. She’s someone I would leap over long highways and through 100-degree days to see, well, her and Bruce Springsteen, and you know what? This year, Mary Chapin ended her concert with a Springsteen song, “My Love Will Not Let You Down.” Sitting in an ancient theater with one of my best friends, witnessing this moment and many others together — like when she sang “This is Love” — my heart overflowed and my being exhaled in pure joy. As she sang, “The wrong things aren’t supposed to last,” and “You would’ve thought a miracle/ Was all that got us through,” I realized how some moments, maybe all if I was awake enough, are the miracles that get us through, leading us to do and be all the rights that do last.
Bonus song: You’ve got to hear “Jericho,” a song that inspired Kelley to write a song and me to write a poem of the same name. Here is Kelley performing this live on Kansas Public Radio (and you can support Kelley writing even more amazing songs by supporting her Patreon campaign here), and here’s my poem:
How long have you been lost? All your life?
Then you’re getting somewhere.
The walls don’t fall for those who think
they know where they are.
It takes music, low and from the bottom of pain,
like what I sang out in childbirth, each call
a plea to open and let the new one come through.
Or the sound of the handful of dirt the new widow releases
slowly quickly the long way to the top of the wooden casket
where a thousand hands hit the same drum at one moment.
Or the breaking laughter of a two-year-old running for the first time,
about to trip. Or the inhalation of surprise and verve on the cusp
orgasm in a cold room where all the blankets are kicked off.
Knowing the path has always been overrated
although washing the dishes and cleaning the counters helps.
Loving and looking for clues is all we have–the slant of the sun
across the dusty wooden floor, the ache of leaf toward earth,
the weary smile of the stranger who gives you his parking space.
When the big wind knocks you down, look carefully
for what’s ready: the horizon suddenly flashed by the brilliant
wings of an Indigo Bunting vanishing into the future
in a stand of cedar where you’ve always lived.
Jericho was never forgotten and never forgets.
His feet remember how to follow the outline of the city
ready to unmake itself into something better. Let yourself
stop trying to hold up all that weight. Come and sit
on this beautiful, cold ground. Be as lost as the rain
making its way, through the veins of the universe, home.