It’s a long road from Austin to Houston, a long and lonely road. Other than a few stripmall towns and a beaver-themed reststop that people seem proud of there’s nothing but a lot of flat, muddy land. I’m sure some people here would call them ranches. Northerners like me would call them fields. Either group, if forced to be objective, would call them depressing.
I drove this road just two times this year, once by myself and once with Orla, and neither time did anything to challenge the impression of the other. As a result I’ve conflated the trips into one soggy memory that may or may not be factually accurate.
The main fact in question is when I was driving and heard from a dying KUTX signal that Merle Haggard had died. I’ve never had much of a relationship with Haggard or his music. Still, the news seemed poignant somehow, and important.
Shortly after some on-air banter, the DJs moved on to playing a new Sturgill Simpson track that hadn’t officially been released yet. It turned out to be his cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” where Simpson adds to the lyric with the parenthetical below:
But he don’t know what it means
(to love someone)
Yes it changes the entire song, but it also fits beautifully with Simpson’s dirge/triumph-rhapsodic rendition. His entire drawling delivery takes on a sadness and bitterness revealed in the otherwise throw-away line:
Nature is a whore
Nonsense and sarcasm takes on a new weight (and a new protagonist) as Simpson weaves a tale of a lovelorn sailor docked late in life with salt-encrusted regrets sung so plaintively that any small amount of apology is covered by a hardscrabble truth. The ending isn’t so much triumph as it is defiance. Gained by the singer only by the ability to talk about himself in the third person.
What does this have to do with the long drive from Austin to Houston? Not much. The first time I drove it I felt like something awful arrived and hitched a ride back home. Any sense of innocent optimism I’d felt since moving to Texas felt stripped away for good. The following months were dark, largely joyless ones. The second time I drove I felt the whiff of spring that quickly boiled off in my first sweltering summer. The heavy air that blew in was oppressive, but warm.
In the end there’s no poetry in any of that.