On a recent Monday night in Nashville, I went to a small music club to hear a performance by a local singer and songwriter named Walt Wilkins. Wilkins played his guitar and sang, accompanied by Tim Lorsch on the fiddle and Mike Daly on the steel guitar, both of whom can produce an incomprehensible range of sounds on their instruments.
Interesting music is hard to find these days, even in Nashville. The large corporations that control radio and the production of music have generated a homogenizing force which music of substance has a hard time penetrating.
Wilkins is one exception to the current field of blandness. His music defies convention by treating difficult subjects without providing cheap, formulaic responses. His songs develop complex characters who struggle through life but usually find a way to hang on to their souls.
I have heard Wilkins perform live about a half-dozen times and the one song included in every performance was “Ruby’s 2 Sad Daughters,” which is recorded on his 2000 CD release “Fire, Honey, and Angels.”
The song tells the story of two teenage girls who flee what they see as the limited life of a small town. The two girls are viewed through the eyes of a teenage boy who works as a janitor at Ruby’s diner and sees their picture on the shelf as he cleans the floor. He reminisces of having a crush on the pretty sisters, but their eyes were too fixed on the road out of town for him to get their attention. Ruby’s daughters become the symbol of all that escapes the small, dusty town.
Wilkins avoids the potential cliche of speculating on what became of the two sisters when they left. The boy whose voice sings to us cannot fix them, or the town, but he repairs the broken glass in the picture frame. “Ruby’s 2 Sad Daughters” more than holds its own among classics like Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown,” John Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow” and Emmylou Harris’s “Red Dirt Girl,” which treat similar themes.
Until this most recent show, I had not heard a live performance of “Lessons Never Learned,” also from “Fire, Honey, and Angels.” Again, Wilkins takes a common theme, the lonely, traveling life of the musician, and fills it with an urgent sense of the tension between longing and satisfaction.
Jesus, the ultimate nomad, makes an appearance as a whippoorwill in this song, adding his own plaintive cry, and linking the call of this traveler to that achingly beautiful first line of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
In the midst of the melancholy of travel, the exuberant “Moan and Whine” arises, another live show favorite from “Fire, Honey, and Angels.”
On this night Wilkins gets the words mixed up on his first try and has to start again, but his good humor makes the moment fun as a voice from the audience helps him get the lyrics straight. The show, like life, is more about the work of music in process than the polished perfection of a finished product.
“Moan and Whine” celebrates the sounds of the highway–engines, wheels, and asphalt.
When it comes my time, I won’t mind dying
I’ll just ask God kindly for a highway shrine
On the center line, by an exit sign
Where I can hang forever
And listen to the moan and whine.
Man I love the moan and whine.
Wilkins music is not often overtly religious, but it contains a powerful undercurrent of faith flowing from the mix of joy and suffering portrayed in nearly every song.
Religious themes are unavoidable in the grievous “Seven Hillsides,” from Wilkins most recent CD, “Rivertown.” This song tells the true story of the preacher from a small Appalachian town which lost seven young men on D-day. The preacher cannot sleep on the night before he must perform all seven funerals.
Tomorrow I’ll walk up seven hillsides
And tremble before my flock on seven hillsides
Seven sorrows, seven sons, seven mothers and every one
Will turn to me for the word of God, What could this mean?
And there I’ll stand, good book in hand,
Shepherd to these precious lambs,
What will I say? What will I say? What can I say?
I am still waiting to hear a live performance of “Some Men Fall (6/21/01),” also from “Rivertown.” This song is inspired by an unnamed man who climbed a construction crane in Atlanta, capturing significant attention, before jumping and taking his own life. It happened that the well-known actor Carroll O’Connor and the great blues singer John Lee Hooker died on the same day. Wilkins juxtaposes these two gigantic lives with the seeming emptiness of the suicide.
Some men fall, some fly
Some men stumble, some shine.
In the grandest scheme, sometimes it seems
There ain’t no scheme at all.
Some men fall, some fly.
If all this were not enough, Wilkins that night also played my favorite Johnny Cash song, “I Still Miss Someone.”
Wilkins’s music defies the classification of the common genres. These categories exist primarily, or perhaps entirely, for those who market music. The category which calls itself “Contemporary Christian Music” rarely offers more than shallow sentiment or syrupy clichÃ©.
Walt Wilkins’s music takes life and faith too seriously to offer up explanations or slogans. Instead, the listener feels the heartbeat of the characters in his songs and lives their lives with them for a few moments, and the music of their souls feeds our own.
Mark McEntire is assistant professor of religion at Belmont University.