Man of Constant Sorrow Keeps on Smiling

Photo politely borrowed from Amazon web site. Warner Bros. is the record label for this 2015 album.

These days I’m rocking out to Dwight Yoakam’s “Man of Constant Sorrow” off a now six-year-old album, Second Hand Heart. I may be late to the party, but serendipity has no expiration date.

The original, published in 1913 by blind Kentucky fiddler Dick Burnett, is “the crown jewel of the Appalachian song tradition,” said Ann Powers for NPR when Yoakam’s record came out. The number has been widely covered, including versions by Bob Dylan, Ginger Baker, and Alison Krauss.

I found out about Dwight Yoakam’s rendition riding around listening to SiriusXM. Elizabeth Cook, a country player who moonlights as the sexy DJ of “Apron Strings,” a lively, eclectic Outlaw Country show, played it. It pricked up my ears. Then she commented on how she loved how Dwight hears something he wants to make his own and then just plucks and assimilates it.

Here, he takes his country inspiration to the place where, with the help of sizzling guitar work, it becomes rock ‘n’ roll. I felt the same way about Dwight’s “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Fast as You,” “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” (which tops an old version by hippie country band New Riders of the Purple Sage), and “Intentional Heartache” (an innovation with its rap overlay about the fury of a scorned woman).

Remember the 2000 Cohn Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson — the Soggy Mountain Boys — sing “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” (the original title) into radio mikes, a peak moment in an uneven film. I like the song better brought into rockabilly bloom by Dwight Yoakam.

I often find cover artists bring an original into new glory, as with Judy Collins’s “Both Sides Now” (Joni Mitchell) and Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s “Everything Is Broken” (Dylan). Since I heard Dwight’s nasal twang and impeccable nuance on “Man of Constant Sorrow,” I haven’t been the same.

BARB FINALLY decided she would get the shot, her first, a Pfizer, and wanted me along in case she got sick afterward. We rode to Cottonwood together and I put Second Hand Heart on her CD player. My Subaru Forester is a good ride, but the fidelity sucks compared to the symphony acoustics inside her Honda.

Barb dug the tunes.

“I love Dwight. Now I can have this with me all the time,” she said. Her car records CDs automatically.

After she got the shot, at a CVS, we found a Mexican restaurant and ate outside, warmed by the spring sun. I was glad to be with her, found myself gazing at this woman who has endured me all these years, will accompany me on a 22-year anniversary getaway to Lake Havasu soon, makes me see I have a good life.

In related news . . . I have decided to retire from Walmart.

Regarding my employment there, I have come to realize the ultimate, exquisite irony: I will be going out on top.

This job as an aging stocker represents the best work experience I ever had.

Used to be hard to grok this. Now it tickles me.

I grew up among Jewish kids destined to be doctors, lawyers, titans of commerce.

I have topped out as a member of the CAP 1 stocking crew at Walmart #5303 on Gale Gardner Road in Prescott, Arizona.

The overall arc of my lifetime “career” experience has made me a man of constant sorrow. But I have discovered something inside me I didn’t know was there: pure obstinate refusal to capitulate. I won’t lay down and stop living.

To have overcome this last work difficulty constitutes a win in a life that’s often seemed short on victories.

I am relied on to work the store freezers, stocking raw freight off pallets, and scanning boxes of binned frozen entrees and ice cream and carting this too out to the floor. On days I show up, this task awaits me and me alone much of the time.

I should be mad but I’m not.

I titled a perhaps unpublishable book Working the Freezer in Paradise, a kaleidoscope of linked vignettes, about (well, among other things) how a character is forced into this task by a resentful supervisor but never flinches. He makes the job his own to show how tough he is. Now, I find I can’t resent that this job is dumped on me. Given my old-guy hardiness and clear expertise, the store managers choose me because I’m good.

Yes, I am being exploited.

But I am also appreciated.

I did not feel this way as an editor slash writer slash journalist slash PR hack back in Cleveland, nor as a harried teacher tragically bad at disciplining recalcitrant teens in alternative Arizona high schools.

And so, here I stand at the end of it all, almost resistant to the idea of stepping down from this . . . misbegotten ascension into career fulfillment.

MY THERAPIST says that, rather than let Walmart drain me — because the job is physical, a real ass bust — I should think about retiring. I could write, travel, work around the house, go on bike rides, firm my aging musculature at Fitness for 10. After a life of putting my shoulder to the wheel of the Gross National Product, I can stop.

As far as the travel thing, we’re on it. After Lake Havasu (I’ve got to see that transplanted London Bridge), we plan a September ride to the Black Hills of South Dakota and the great annual “buffalo roundup.” I always was fascinated by Native Americans. Maybe I’ll stop being a white man; I’ll jump on a spotted pony with a bow and arrow when I see those bison thundering over the land.

I have geared down from four to three days a week at Walmart and, at Laurie’s suggestion, targeted my birthday, in October, as the demarcation point for my stockboy swan song. I used to worry about idleness and addictive behaviors, a resumption of old bad habits. Watching TV all day. Becoming an aged idiot seduced by internet titillations.

But I’ve got too many disciplines. And a growing gratitude list.

Though this life has had more than its share of misfires, blunders, embarrassments, losses, and unmet expectations, I will continue to digest, with gratitude and equanimity, the long, strange trip of this mortal round. Life is for learning, Joni Mitchell said in “Woodstock.” I’m gonna try an’ get my soul free.

SOMETIMES a song finds its way into your internal soundtrack while subverting expectations that surrounded its original composition.

Dwight Yoakam’s “Man of Constant Sorrow” is life affirming, rousing and joyful, but the words are dark, frank, gloomy.

It’s the way he channels the pain. Like blues, country celebrates our human agonies and frailties.

And so, to paraphrase and even fuse stanzas from my new favorite song:

I may die tonight on this train . . . you may learn to love another as I lie sleeping in my grave . . . but you will meet me on that golden shore.

And all that’s fine.

At least we lived.

I Feel Justified in Watching It Again

Timothy Olyphant as U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. (This is an FX show, all intellectual property rights being theirs. May they forgive this benign theft.)

Just got back from lunch with one of my favorite people, a man who once was my boss and still is an original Kentucky hard-ass. U.S. Army helicopter fighter pilot and Vietnam veteran Jim Taylor ran Yavapai County High School, a place in Prescott Valley for at-risk kids where I felt nurtured and loved teaching English for quite some years.

I didn’t know what I was going to blog about, but, driving home from seeing him, along with some other good friends from that happy time, I knew it had to be about one of my favorite TV shows.

It’s as Kentucky as he is.

I watch shows all over again that I’ve already seen if they’re that good. I plead guilty of doing this with Breaking Bad.

If I opt to re-screen such a show, I study it this time around.

I enjoyed Timothy Olyphant’s ramrod-spined sheriff in that genre-defying HBO western Deadwood. Now I’m watching him (again) as U.S. Federal Marshal Raylan Givens in the FX drama Justified (currently available on Hulu). He was a righteous, wrapped-tight lawman in the former show, winding that tension up so high his eventual carnal release with a languid, glamourous laudanum fiend was all the hotter.

His character is a little looser in Justified. With his lanky, ambling stride in blue jeans and cowboy hat, and that curious smile, he’s a throwback to another era of law enforcement, though his rigid adherence to the principles of traditional American masculinity and heroism — that menace lying in wait behind the drawl — recalls Seth Bullock of the South Dakota mining town.

Justified sprang from an Elmore Leonard novella I’ve been meaning to load onto my Kindle. Where else in written or visual fiction do you get the satisfaction of a protagonist whose daily job requirement is that he be quick on the draw? And, of course, he’s the loveable badass, always a little at odds with his boss Art Mullen, amiable chief deputy of the U.S. Marshals field office in Lexington, a role well played by Nick Searcy. There are lots of great roles here, including women who are easy on the eyes, some of whom wind up romantically entangled with our hero.

I’m on season two. If it’s not the show’s best season, it’s close.

If you hated Margo Martindale as Hilary Swank’s ungrateful trailer-trash mom in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby but found her talented, you were right. What a brilliant character actress! Her KGB operative Claudia on The Americans, a role devoid of the rural southern accent Martindale has elsewhere exploited, showed us her full range. Here, on Justified, she’s Mags Bennett, matriarch of a family of hillbilly pot growers, and more than a match for everyone who comes down the pike to challenge her, including a high-heeled head of a rapacious mining concern. Martindale seems outfitted for roles loaded with the macabre. Her Russian spymaster ordered many hits in a show ghoulish in its depiction of politically motivated execution. We will come to associate the drawling backwoods general-store owner Mags Bennett with her cinnamon-flavored, sometimes deadly moonshine, “Apple Pie.”

But I think the steadiest glittering jewel of the show is a character who spanned every one of the six seasons: Boyd Crowder. Here’s where you want to see Walton Goggins, who has since looked silly and ill used in a sitcom whose big conflict was him trying to get dates.

Goggins steals Justified. As with southern-bred Martindale, Alabama-born Goggins’ own roots help with the speaking style that loads so much credibility to the role. When we meet him, he’s a hillbilly criminal mastermind commandeering a group of white supremacist terrorists. After a run-in with Raylan’s unerring gun (only a wounding shot from the old friend), Boyd renounces the idiocy of that former lifestyle and resurfaces as a backwoods preacher.

The thing that’s exciting about Boyd Crowder is your inability to nail him down. His slow speaking cadence packs an almost Elizabethan tang, as when (I can’t wait for this to happen, way up ahead from where I’m at now) he confronts a rich hypocrite up the hill who fatally underestimated the outlaw down the holler. Great bad guys have sympathetic qualities. We find ourselves rooting for Boyd; we can’t help ourselves.

It’s the old buddy story, the thing between Raylan and Boyd. The last episode of the final season culminates with Raylan saying, “We dug coal together.” It’s a mantra of the show.

It explains everything.

Raylan Givens understood Boyd’s potential for evil better than anybody, and was sworn to defeat him – indeed, wielding an anger parallel to that of his nemesis — but the two men have a bond as old as the hills.

When I find myself getting all twisted up in the dreary memory of my own tepid life, and how it erupts in blogs that then embarrass me, I come to a show like this, a show this exciting, for nurturance, a way to recharge myself, even my zeal in exploring the mythology of my own hero journey.

Yeah, it’s guy stuff. Barb is bingeing on Grey’s Anatomy; I go to Harlan County.

Having entered into the soundtrack of my mind is the innovative theme song by Gangstagrass, “Long Hard Times to Come,” a divine melding of rap and bluegrass. It’s so good I still have yet to hit “skip” on my remote when it plays each time, inaugurating another episode.

It’s so good I feel justified.

Below: Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder and Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett (both photos politely borrowed from FX, which has the right to sue me)