I wanna see your smile through a pay phone...season has changed

Son Volt - Trace

It was 1996.

I was in my final year at Morehead State.

Classes and finals had all wrapped up. All that remained between me and that degree was six-weeks of geology field camp.  I figured if I was going to spend that much time walking/crawling/gasping across the West making geologic maps, I probably needed to take along a few  good CDs for the Discman.

At that time, Wal-Mart had little listening stations in their music section.  There was a little device that would let you select certain CDs to bring up and sample.  You just slipped on a set of headphones…sanitizer be damned…selected the CD you wanted to hear, and gave it a spin.

One of the choices that caught my eye was Trace, by Son Volt.  I had heard one song…Drown…on MTV and liked it, so I wanted to see about the rest of the CD sounded like.  As I clicked from song to song, I remember thinking, damn…every song on here seems pretty good…definitely worth checking out, so I grabbed a copy, headed out, and packed my shit for the big adventure.

I honestly can’t remember what other music I took with me besides Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette, but I will never forget the next several weeks and that Son Volt album.

For the first little bit, we bounced around out West, heading from campground to campground…learning about the geology…getting to know each other…deciding as a group who we’d all hate for the next five weeks.

We’d only been gone for a couple of weeks, and from a payphone at a campground in Durango, Colorado, I found out that my dad had lung cancer.

I knew when I left for field camp that May that something was wrong. He’d been dealing with hoarseness and a raspy voice for a couple of weeks prior to my leaving and had been taking medicine for that, but then his left arm had started swelling, so it felt like something more.  I just had no idea how much more.

Still, he was certain it was just some kind of sickness that would pass and said he’d be getting it all looked into.  The day before I left, he talked to me a little about his time spent out west in the Army, and he gave me some advice about being careful if we found ourselves down around the Mexican border, and off I went.

I’m sure I checked in from time to time over the first little bit, but I will always remember calling home from that payphone in Durango and getting the news from my mom.  I was crushed.  I knew I had to call my dad and talk to him, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to keep it together and privacy was hard to come by.

We talked for a bit, and he told me he would be fine.  He told me I needed to stay and finish field camp.  He said there wasn’t anything I could do at home anyway.  I tried to sound positive and hold it together until we hung up the phone, but after the call, I just needed to be away from everyone.  There was a river that ran past the campground, so I walked down to the water and had a little breakdown.

That night, I couldn’t sleep.  My thoughts would not stop spinning.  So in an attempt to occupy my mind, I slipped my headphones on, put Trace in the Discman, and hit play.

Now, I had been listening to the CD here and there by this point, but I don’t think it was until that night that it hit me and embedded completely and forever into my soul.  The first track started to play…

“Now and then, it keeps you runnin’…never seems to die…
trail spent with fear…and not enough livin’ on the outside…

Never seem to get far enough…stayin’ in between the lines
Hold on to what you can…waitin’ for the end…not knowing when…

May the wind take your troubles away…May the wind take your troubles away
Both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel…may the wind take your troubles away”

I laid in the darkness of that tent and wept.  I had listened to the songs, but I realized in that moment that I hadn’t actually heard them yet.  And as each line unfolded, it felt like this music was supposed to be with me on this trip.  For this moment and for the rest of the weeks ahead, this music was my comforting companion.

I had never heard anything like it.  Steel and acoustic guitars..fiddles…but this wasn’t country…overdriven guitars on vintage amps and hard driving drum beats…but this wasn’t rock…what the hell was this?

And the next song plays…

“I wanna see your smile through a pay phone…season has changed.
I wanna see you in it…lights that shine are caustic…without you”

Good God.

It kept on from there.  Line after line in song after song.  These songs sounded like the cries of an old soul who longed to be somewhere he wasn’t.  They spoke to me and connected with me in a way I wasn’t sure I had ever felt before…and in light of the circumstances that were going on at the time, don’t know if I’ve ever experienced since.

On top of the turmoil going on inside me about being out there and not being with my dad, I was trying to convince myself that an ongoing relationship still WAS, when, in fact, it definitely was NOT.  To cap it off, I was dealing with some other bullshit that was going on related to my dad’s situation, and, well…it was just a lot.

“When you don’t see me…I’m catching on to you
You don’t see me…I’m catching on to you”

Every song felt like a message to my soul.

It wasn’t fair.  My emotions were not prepared for any of it.  I ended up leaving the tent that night and going to the van to try and sleep because I didn’t want my tent partner to hear me in case I needed to bust out crying.  Well, that and my emotions had turned my insides into a knotted mess, and I didn’t know what may be coming next.

“The Mother Road remains…It provides no more…It can only take us away
Southbound, you can taste the weather.  It feels like home.”

I mean, what the hell.

To me, Trace feels like a love song to living on the road and longing for something else.  For being home…for being anywhere but where you are…but still trying to find comfort in whatever little things you can.

Looking for a purpose in a neon sign…

Switching it over to AM, searching for a truer sound…

Trying to make it far enough, to the next time zone…

While I was on the road, pining for a return home just like the voice in all of those songs, I wasn’t preparing myself for the fact that sometimes what keeps the fantasy of returning so magical is, in fact, not returning.  Returning doesn’t always live up to what you’ve been longing to return to.

When I got home, the reality of the situation got a lot more real, and eight months later, my dad was gone.

I don’t know if I ever thought about letting him listen to that CD…letting him hear this music that had been my soundtrack and kept me company for six long weeks…to see if he heard in it what I did.  Things were crazy and chaotic, and I’m not sure it ever even crossed my mind.

But every time I listen to this album…EVERY time…I think it is perfect.  It takes me back to the road…back to walking and driving across several states…and wanting nothing more than to be back home.

Like to hear your story told…With a two-step beat and rhyme
Could be Tennessee or Texas…On and on that road winds

I mean…just…perfect.