A few days ago I typed a message to my mother. She’d asked me if “the old one was worth fixing,” referring to a turntable with a bent arm — I typed back accidentally, “the old world is worth fixing,” and then of course realized it was one of those Freudian typos. I laughed and told her, “the old world isn’t worth fixing but the old turntable probably is.”
In March I was about to go out on a three week tour with my friends Mary Lattimore and Steve Gunn. I had decided to give up the room in Los Angeles I had lived in for three years, because I wanted to feel out what an untethered year full of travel and touring would be without being tied to a lease. (The untethered part followed for all of us, but not in a manner we could have foreseen.) I had already moved most of my stuff into my sister’s garage when “the week of cancellations” started raining down on everyone in the music business. Not knowing what anything was going to remotely look like for the future, I got in my car and drove to Nashville as the initial pandemic set in, to be closer to family.
I drove along that backbone of Interstate 40 through Flagstaff, Santa Fe, Amarillo, Fort Smith. At each stop, the sense of dread and surreality was reinforced. Strangers exchanged bewildered looks at gas stations and in hotel lobbies — afraid to touch surfaces even — though at this point, of course, no one was wearing masks. I got back to Nashville with a sense of true escape and alarm, absorbing the new charged reality with as much fear as acceptance.
That first month or so was good. A lot of us believed somehow this would all pass in a less abstract amount of time. We took up gardening, baking, watching movies. Maybe the many of us that weren’t ever sure where we fell on the introvert/extrovert spectrum finally felt like this was actually a good kind of pause. But every day, the news brought more tales of anguish and loss, from Europe, New York, and many other places. I could look out my window in Nashville at the relative calm and frankly placid pace, and was starting to have a hard time reconciling what the privileged nature of quarantine actually even meant. So many were out there fighting the virus and saving lives, or couldn’t take time off work. As with all things, this latest calamity was decimating those with the fewest resources fastest; I sensed something larger and more tectonic shifting in the disconnect of class, race, and privilege in my country, even as the spring limped along. A death would hit our community — John Prine, a family member, a restaurant or bar we all cared about preemptively shutting its doors — and even if the loss wasn’t felt directly, there was still this sense of detachment, partially out of myopic mental survival, partially out of the impending sense of being overwhelmed.
I read a book on tour last year by Greg Grandin called The End of the Myth. It deals specifically with the long and tortured history of American imperialism in regards to the fluid concept of “the frontier” — that the West, Manifest Destiny, and expansion throughout the hemisphere marked a kind of perpetual myth of endless land and stolen resources. It is a central, founding myth of whiteness and power in our country that reached its logical conclusion with Donald Trump’s promise to close the borders. But thinking on a larger scale about what this kind of American mythology means also seemed applicable to many of my own decisions in the last few years.
In 2016, I was one of the least surprised people that Trump was elected. I don’t presume to be wiser, I just have an understanding of how archetypes work in political culture, and of how timely and dangerous Trump as an archetype was. He was seemingly both playing the role of destroyer and upholder/restorer, all through the lens of a white supremacist enemy of the perceived elite and failed establishment. Much of what was failed about the establishment was true, but rather than offer a transformative and alternate vision of change, the Democrats were forced into a constant role of defense against this new malevolent political force. I remember watching the election results in a hotel room in Utrecht by myself on tour with Wilco, seeing the states get called one after another, and feeling a witness to a terrible and seismic moment.
My decision to move to California in retrospect was a reaction to what happened in 2016. I had lived in the South my whole life and figured if there was ever a time to change my surroundings, it was now. And looking back, I was in a way investing into my own myth — doubling down on it not just as an artist, but as an individual. Nashville and Los Angeles are both cities built on illusions and ego, but in California there is a doubled illusion, the denial of the environmental impossibility of a space with too many people, too many cars, and not enough water.
The last four years — maybe my entire adult life — I have been waiting for some pivotal moment in America when people wake up and acknowledge the unsustainable and, frankly, oppressive nature of the illusion that is ‘“the American way of life.” In the short term, Covid didn’t provide that. But as the protests for social justice transformed our nation this summer, I felt myself as lost as ever in ego and depression even though I knew I had to be more present for the moment. That I, with all my assumed perspective, was grasping at straws — senses of self and loss and ego and just frankly fear. Shame was mixing into reflection but shame didn’t equate to true accountability. I also frankly realized that I had been totally emotionally closed off to dealing with mourning, reckoning, and grief- on a macro and micro level. Feeling like I was close to hitting bottom — maybe even suicidal thoughts — I went to see a psychiatrist who I had seen briefly six years ago. After an hour of talking about my issues with anxiety, ego, alcohol, and my own desire to be mentally equipped for what feels like a true turning point in our nation, I kept feeling like I was hitting mental cul de sacs. He told me, “the problems you face are not different from what you came to me about six years ago. The only difference now is that you seem somewhat better equipped to bear witness to them.”
Bear witness. Being accountable to yourself and your loved ones so that you can be accountable as a citizen in a time when the wheels of the American myth are coming off. And being open not just to being wrong, but to being empathetic at all times, to your own grief and even when that grief feels like it comes from a place of privilege. To not close off, to not shut down. To have spectrum awareness.
I call this kind of awareness “the New Necessary.” Part of the New Necessary for me has been challenging my own sense of self, and how that relates to an irrevocably changed landscape. Capitalism has presented over the last 40 years a more and more simplified model of what “success” is. The social welfare state was condemned as weak — greed was good, and since the dawn of the era of social media technocrats, it has become anathema to even criticize or question individualism and the gig economy. Celebrity was an end in and of itself, buoyed by reality tv and social media. “Going viral” has become some sort of aspirational gold standard. Streaming companies told us as artists that there is “nothing between us and the audience” — when, in fact, the model of payout was widening the gulf. The grotesque illusion of the gig economy in the last decade has warped the idea of work, endless hustle, and promotion into being their own kind of reward. No time for reflection, and the profit of most people’s labor matriculates up to a smaller and smaller group of disconnected elites, loyal only to their own wealth.
As artists, we have largely not only bought into this model — because it is essentially the only one being presented — but we have also been shamed out of questioning it. Sure, you aren’t selling records like you used to, and the streaming platforms don’t pay fairly, but as long as the seemingly endless motion of touring guided our restless energy, it was difficult to stop and truly question the model. With no touring, many musicians are finally waking up to the sham part of libertarian capitalism we’ve all been playing a part in.
If this year has radicalized me, it has further radicalized me against the form of cruel capitalism we are sentenced to believing is the only reality. We all know it is unfair, unsustainable, and both exhausted and exhausting. The cycle of abuse that is referred to in addiction recovery is an appropriate metaphor for our systemic injustices and insanities — and part of my own difficult path this year has been acknowledging that I am more afraid of breaking my unhealthy patterns than I am of changing and actually feeling better.
Back in August, facing a new wave of personal loss and political turmoil, I had a friend text me, “August breaks people.” A week later, another close friend lost a family member. A few weeks later, the West Coast was engulfed in wildfires of a historically unprecedented scale. And through it all, I tried to maintain an accountability, but also an openness to joy in the small moments. Seeing friends or making new music — the ambiguity of the New Necessary. There is no actual dissonance in consciousness that allows for you to be outraged over our nation, terrified of a virus, be grieving for your own personal struggles, and feel actual joy in tangible experiences. It is spectrum awareness — and, frankly, a good deal of what I see as privilege in America is being able to selectively compartmentalize emotions and information in a linear or binary way. This year I feel that many of us are experiencing this prismatic version of reality for perhaps the first time, and if it feels exhausting, then it’s worth checking yourself and where you’ve been all this time so to speak.
It’s been said in many other places that live music might be decimated by Covid. We all know it isn’t coming back in the way we remembered it seven months ago. But I choose to feel a kind of practical optimism that is intrinsic to existing in the New Necessary: We fight to save lives, we fight to save small businesses, we carry on as much as we can for ourselves and for, most importantly, the younger generations trying to make their own sense of what is going on. Losing hope and imagination now is as toxic as surrendering to the myth of fear and discord being offered by what’s left of Trump and his regime. The New Necessary is essentially an openness to not only challenging our own privilege and egos, but also dispensing with the myths we’ve fought with and acquiesced to.
There is an innate human need to gather together in small rooms and share food, share music, share movies, just to share an experience that is tangible. This model will change but it will still be a model. At the same time, all of us who are conscious (and thankfully there are more of us now) as individuals — we have to cease being shocked by the failure of the old myths. As a man confronting a skewed version of masculinity, I was served; as a white person confronting the gross myths of white supremacy, and an artist struggling with ego issues and the financial challenges of the socio-economic model I have willingly bought into my whole life — none of these things are mutually exclusive. The New Necessary is at its heart my hope that we as individuals never cease to challenge our own assumptions and privileges, while at the same time being our own true allies — vulnerable, worthy of self love, and open to challenge and reflection.
In the darkest moments of my depression this year, I know that to surrender to the darkness, whether external or internal, is just not an option. Ego transformation is not ego death — it is a hopeful yet terrifying acceptance of the great unknown. And the New Necessary would, I hope, not only force us to confront our own demons but to reckon with the demons of our society and how we can only mend that when we love our fellow citizens with familial empathy. The illusion for many of us has been irrevocably severed and for many the clarity might be fleeting. But in the New Necessary I see a kind of steadied, patient diligence to change and transformation that I do think can truly change our society for the better. The “old world” wasn’t worth fixing; the new one is yet to be cast.
(Photo Credit: Dave Scholten)