Mar. 9, 2020
It is my first full day of spring break, and my mind is fried from juggling an endless array of tasks that I now know will never come into fruition: extended midterm deadlines, production strikes, summer internship applications. Despite my mental exhaustion, I want to be there for my dad. When our plane touches down in Colorado, I’m once again reminded why I enjoy coming here; unlike the marshy depression of Virginia or the rolling hills of Connecticut, out here you can point in a direction and see for miles onward. The sky seems so huge here, stretching inexorably in all directions. Only the mountains rise above us, the jagged fray of a horizon.
It is only on spring breaks that I truly spend time with my father, uninterrupted by the rest of our family. Ever since I was a child, born as one of three triplets, time with my parents has always been a group effort, a team sport. Sure, there were moments when I got to have one-on-one time with my mom, such as our frequent trips to the movie theater or to art galleries. But those moments with my father were few and far between: he was a football-playing, fraternity rushing white man and I’m a mixed-race gay person getting a theater degree. He tolerated sitting through campy musicals as I sat awe-struck, but what really excited him was the prospect of watching sports, invested in the thrill of competition, and reminiscing about crazy stories to anyone who would listen. More often than not, the people who would listen would be my brother and sister, both college lacrosse players.
My family’s obsession with sports came at a price: starting in high school, spring breaks seemed to not be a break at all but centered exclusively on practice tournaments for the lacrosse season. My mom volunteered to help coordinate these trips, which left me and my dad to figure out how to spend a week or so alone. Before high school, the whole family would go on spring skiing trips; my Dad grew up going to West Virginia every year and was determined to pass on this tradition onto his kids. He decided independently my freshman year that the two of us would go skiing together in Park City, Utah and I obliged. Who was I to turn down this trip? As I became better and better at skiing every year, the trips developed into an annual tradition between the two of us. Even now, these trips are some of my fondest memories of my father: me tracing the lines he carved with skis into the snow, weaving through trees on a steep side of a mountain, getting caught in a blizzard, my eyes staring through my goggles as if into a glass of milk.
It wasn’t like that at all this year. I expressed my apprehension about traveling to my parents before we had even left for spring break, as the news of COVID-19 outbreaks happening in the United States started to trickle into the news cycle. But since my parents had already paid for all the trip’s expenses, they insisted that I go on and live my life. Who was I to turn down this trip?
But every hour into the journey, news of brewing chaos interrupted my vacation: numbers of COVID-19 cases jumping from the thousands to the tens of thousands, shutdowns happening across the world, infections being spread on surfaces, handshakes, and through the air. As soon as we finished skiing those first two days, I immediately went to my phone, scouring news sites and my social media timeline for any news I could find. At night, my mind raced, filled with thoughts of surviving an impending apocalypse, ready to see the world plunge into darkness, every cell of my body being obliterated by an incurable plague.
I now know that I was having daily—if not hourly—panic attacks, brought on by my severe anxiety. But I couldn’t bring myself to break down in tears in front of my father, I couldn’t bring myself to show up like a child to his bed, reporting my horrific dreams. This was the time we were supposed to be bonding with each other, and any kind of confession risked creating more distance between us when we felt so far apart already. I kept myself in my room and covered my mouth when the tears came.
My only refuge was music. Staring at the snow-covered mountains, I was reminded of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and decided to put on my favorite version of the song: the cover by The Chicks (the band formerly known as the Dixie Chicks). The Chicks—comprised of musicians Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer, and Martie Maguire—provide a bluegrass twang to the original acoustic song, filling it with distinctive three-part harmonies and violin solos. It’s the only song I know that each member of my family has put on the car when we’re driving together: it hits everyone with a heartfelt, nostalgic ache. The cover seemed to be the only sense of consolation in the midst of the world ending: the landslide would bring me down, but it would crush me beautifully.
On Mar 11, the University canceled in-person classes for the rest of the spring semester. This result was inevitable, but it kept my catastrophizing going 24/7: How was I supposed to function? How could I be safe? Where do we go from here? In the midst of a panic attack that night, I put on “Landslide,” but the song had been played so many times that it had started to feel hollow. I scrolled through the rest of the album that track is on, the 2002 album “Home.” The last song caught my attention, since I felt so high up, far away from everything, my perspective suddenly having a birds-eye view of humanity in that huge sky. The song was called “Top of the World.”
Here’s the song’s story, originally written by singer-songwriter Patty Griffin: An old man has just died. He watches over his daughter from beyond the grave, recounting all of the things he wishes he had done for her. He remembers all of the petty ignorances on his part: rejecting her calls for dinner, pretending to be asleep as she visits him before she goes to work. Before the man lies everything that he should’ve done, but it’s all too late now.
Reading this story is one thing. It’s an even more poignant experience to hear Maines singing the haunting lyrics.
“I wished I was smarter,” she sings softly, before moving into her distinctive vibrato. “I wished I was stronger / I wish I loved Jesus / The way my wife does / I wish it had been easier / Instead of any longer / I wish I could’ve stood where you would’ve been proud / That won’t happen now.”
As soon as Maines referenced having a wife, my ears perked up. Usually, songs by The Chicks take place in two narrative registers: either folk storytellers recounting a tale, or rough approximations of themselves being young, falling in love, hoping to make it big in Nashville.
This was something else entirely different. Although my first thought was that this was a queer-adjacent cover where Maines was singing from the perspective of a boy in love (see Taylor Swift’s “Betty” for an example), it soon became clear that Maines is singing as the deceased father to his daughter, who is herself a singer. It’s only in death that the father can finally connect with his daughter, their voices collapsing and merging into one.
This point is further emphasized by the song’s music video, which portrays each of the Chicks as significant women in the old man’s life: his mother, his wife, and Maines as his daughter. As the video quickly cuts between the three generations, the daughter and the old man’s faces are transposed on one another, singing the same words:
“Cause everybody’s singin’ we just want to be heard / Disappearin’ every day without so much as a word somehow / Wanna grab a hold of that little song bird / Take her for a ride to the top of the world right now.”
Hearing these words with my father in the next room, not able to hear the cries I was stifling, created a rupture in me. It gave me permission to feel the feeling that I had been trying to deny, the feeling that would come to define our lives under the pandemic: grief. Just as The Chicks choose to embody the grief of someone who is powerless to help his family, I could choose to embody the grief of everyone who was suffering, powerless to save their families from contamination.
Alone in my room on the other side of the country, I felt so far away from campus, and couldn’t stop imagining all the things students would never get to do again. We all had something tying us to this campus, some unwritten song we wanted to express, whether that was completing a thesis, hanging out with friends, or finally admitting feelings to a crush. And over the course of just a few weeks, everything disappeared, with hardly any warning.
The Chicks know what it’s like to have everything taken away overnight. The band rose to prominence in the late 1990s, gaining a reputation for their odes to leaving of small-town America (“Wide Open Spaces”), spunky break-up tunes (“There’s Your Trouble”), and “9 to 5” style rants against misbehaving men (“Goodbye Earl.”) But most people only know them for one event: their criticisms against George Bush at a London concert, right before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The country music world immediately rejected them, their CDs were destroyed en masse and all of their songs pulled from radio rotation. They made a comeback with a defiant reclamation of their political stance (“Not Ready to Make Nice”), but to this day they remain personae non grata in the relatively conservative, male-dominated country music industry.
The Chicks have gained an outsized reputation for being unabashed in their politics, but that reputation ignores that underneath their sweet melodies is a world of loss, directly related to America. 2002’s “Home” serves as the most trenchant example of this fact, simultaneously being their most traditional country album while also offering commentary on a jaded American consciousness. “Travelin’ Soldier” is a rural romance that ends with the death of the love interest in Vietnam; “Long Time Gone” sets the loss of an entire way of living all to an upbeat track. Their most political songs aren’t actually borne out of over political commentary—although they have those too. The Chicks’ best songs are soothing elegies to worlds that can no longer go back to the way they were before.
Listening to The Chicks reminds me of home, of the long car rides my family would take on vacations, listening to country music on a never-ending Virginia highway. My father listens to them with a streak of recognition, his one point of reference in my music collection that otherwise consists of musical theater albums and Mitski. Both of us knowing the lyrics to “Travelin’ Soldier” reminds me of how few times I’ve actually felt close to my father, how often I’ve feared being myself under his watch.
Three nights after I moved back to my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, my father came to check on me. He knew that something was wrong. My room was a mess of halfway-unpacked bins and hastily assembled boxes. I was staring at a New York Times chart, projecting that the pandemic would extend to the end of 2020, and was panicking. It seemed to me as if the world stood at a complete standstill, ready to tip over, with no future or sense of safety. I showed the chart to my father and then got into a heated argument about it with him. I thought the rest of my adult life would have to be spent in solitude; he argued back saying that I had let a few pieces of scientific theory ruin my entire night. In a way, we were both right. But I couldn’t stop this sense of gutting loss, and every time I tried to explain it, I just sounded pissed off and entitled.
“What do you want me to do for you?” my father eventually asked, exasperated.
I didn’t know. There was nothing to do. I asked to excuse myself, walking into the other room, trying to make myself and my depression invisible to him again.
Later that night, we reconciled. He came into my room and asked if he could lie next to me in my bed. We did that together in the silent darkness, an act I haven’t done since I was very young and needed to hold his hand before I fell asleep.
“You know I love you, right?” he said to me. “We’re so lucky to have someone like you in our family.”
In my mind, I could see the two of us from a bird’s eye view, those words circulating in the air, ready to land on this page. And for the first time, I grieved all the time I lost with my father because I didn’t trust him.
A few months after this moment, The Chicks released “Gaslighter,” their first album in nearly fourteen years. There are elements from The Chicks persona the world is more attuned to: the drum-heavy political song “March March,” and the scorched earth cry “Sleep at Night.” But the album still carries with it the sense of loss, this time of youth, of marriages, of time spent in vain.
But the best moment to come out of The Chicks’ recent resurgence in the music industry was their performance of the national anthem at the Democratic National Convention. They perform the song not as a bold reclamation of America, but as a heartbroken indictment of it. Dressed in all-black attire, their faces partially in darkness, they sing the song as I’ve never heard it before. The trio’s harmonies are always on the verge of being discordant, just barely resolving at the last moment. In the wake of so much death this year, from the pandemic and police brutality, and climate change, they are in mourning. That is how they celebrate this country.
I watched this performance just as I was packing up my stuff to go back to campus. Hearing it felt familiar but discomforting, proud but disgraced, surreal but grounded. It felt like being next to my father, not knowing what to say. It felt like home.
Nathan Pugh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @nathanpugh_3