As if full-time employment at Cornerstone of Recovery combined with weekly contributions to The Daily Times weren’t enough, I’ve been contributing some other music-related pieces to Blank Newspaper in Knoxville over the past several months.
It’s a free monthly alternative newspaper that fills some of the niche left behind when the Knoxville Mercury (and before it, Metro Pulse) folded. One of the things I contribute is a column called “One More For the Road,” a look at bands of East Tennessee’s storied musical past. For next month’s edition, I’m working on a piece about Dixie Dirt, a four-piece rock ensemble that remains one of my favorite bands to ever come out of this region.
Talking with former bassist Brad Carruth this week, I found myself tumbling down the rabbit hole of memories I cherish about that group, and the way that it lifted me up during a time in my life when I needed it most. My first marriage was coming to an end, and while I had several years clean at the time, it was a rough place to be in. My head and heart were often a maelstrom of things I felt but could not express — overwhelming sensations of love and loss ... of sadness and joy ... of primal fury and aggression ... of unbridled passion and anguish so intense it made me want to run through the darkened woods at night, howling like a wounded, dying animal.
During addiction, I used drugs to barricade the door to that room in my soul where those emotions are kept, to shut off having to experience them. But like all visceral pieces of our essential humanity, they had a way of escaping that room, of filling up the crevices of my heart until the heaviness of it drove me to my metaphorical knees.
The antidote to that heaviness in those days was to be in the crowd whenever Dixie Dirt took the stage.
Carruth (who now calls Austin, Texas, home), guitarist/keyboardist Angela Santos and guitarist/vocalist Kat Brock weren’t just friends, although I call them such. They weren’t gods or prophets or therapists, although they never failed to stir my soul and lift my spirit, before they even picked up their instruments. But when the amplifiers were plugged in and the opening notes to a song like “Pieces of the World” were ticked off and the tapping snare drum rolled through the speakers like falling rain ... they held up a lantern against my inner darkness and beckoned me to face the painful things lurking therein.
Each time I saw them play, I would swear they couldn’t get any better. And then I would see them again, and they did.
Those uninitiated to a Dixie Dirt experience sometimes considered it hubris when they would turn their backs to the crowd, facing one another while they played, but such an assumption was mistaken. To catch a glimpse at the faces of each band member in those little moments was to see how miraculous music could be. They weren’t not posturing or masking their expressions or trying seem cool or aloof. They were just caught up in the moment, faces contorted in a combination of ecstasy and agony ... caressing and cradling their instruments like living things, coaxing and choking music from them ... shifting rhythm and time and direction like a flock of birds, all turning at once with little more than a glance between one another.
And the music they made ... it often took my breath away. Hearing it, seeing it performed live, was like taking a guided tour through that overflowing room. Dixie Dirt took me by the hand and helped me to sift through those shards of heartache and pain, holding each one up to the light and setting them all to music. From the somber “Parachute” to the full-on fury of a song like “Small Town Crisis” or “Sleep Part 2” ... from the building tension of “Fire” to the urgency of “Appetite” ... from the sheer beauty of “Shined” to the slowly building tension of “Boulevards” ... each note, each song, each show was part of a soundtrack of particular period of my life.
Watching them play ... the way Angela treated her guitar like a sparring partner, the way Kat held hers like a lover, the way Brad and drummer Chris Rusk solidly anchored it all ... it let me know I wasn’t alone. When Kat’s face scrunched up in pain and heartbreak as it so often did when her intimately personal lyrics were shared with the masses ... it let me know that I wasn’t the only one who felt adrift on a sea of emotional waters with no name. It reminded me that I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t speak the intensity I felt.
Thanks to that band, however, I found it in music. Dixie Dirt became a soundtrack to my life and the turmoil that being a spiritual being having a human experience so often entails. Their songs acted as a lighthouse to push back the night, as well as an outlet for tears turned inward and joy too blinding to be articulated.
And in the end, it was the soundtrack to change, to growth and to renewal: Tessa and I went out for the first time at a Dixie Dirt show in February 2007, and 12 years later, we’re married with two children together. We fell in love to Dixie Dirt, and we were there when the band played its final song several months later.
The members have gone their separate ways, but I hold them, and the music they made, close to my heart. I have seen and loved other bands, but few come close to the majesty that was that band at that time. It was a perfect storm of circumstance, I think, but their music reminded me that no matter what I felt, things would be OK. And that, friends, is what rock ‘n’ roll, or any music, is supposed to do.