Aunt Tammie sent me a text a few weeks ago. She’d discovered the band Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, and she wanted more. Rateliff came from Missouri just like Tammie did. The band’s music and what it inspired in Tammie came from a place you won’t find on a map, somewhere just north of the soul and south of heaven.
Tammie, my dad’s little sister, was the one who always had a wink in her eye like she knew something the rest of the family didn’t. She was 16 years old when I was born, a year in which an impressionable music lover had to be careful. Tony Orlando was at the top of the charts, and, in a vacuum, that kind of thing could be very confusing. But that was also the same year Stevie Wonder released “Higher Ground,” and Bowie’s “Space Oddity” charted in America. Given the right compass, someone who digs music could still find truth north.
I quickly sent Tammie some suggestions that fit right into her wheelhouse: Jason Isbell, Shovels & Rope, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Chris Stapleton, and Sturgill Simpson.
“I knew you would come through,” she said.
I never feel as connected to a person as I do when we share music.
It’s not the same as liking the same TV show or playing the same sport. It’s not a deep love for barbecue or affinity for good whiskey. It’s closer to some sort of emotional telepathy. At once, music is shared joy and pain, angst and celebration, love and hate. If we share music, we are already closer to each other than most people ever dare to get in their lives.
In all the ways that Greenville made sure it was my home, music was the first.
The first and longest-lasting friends I made in Greenville were the ones who shoved music in my hands and ushered me to concerts. We saw Eddie from Ohio, Cigar Store Indians, and Acoustic Syndicate at the old Handlebar on Mills Avenue. We sat on our porches, played guitars and sang until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. We packed our cars and drove north to Black Mountain every year for the Lake Eden Arts Festival where we would listen to music for four straight days.
I watched my older son grow up dancing on the grass of Piazza Bergamo at Downtown Alive. I stood – a sweaty and emotional mess – with my wife, cousin and his fiancée as we watched Shovels & Rope at Fall for Greenville. I smiled for hours after Robert Randolph and the Family Band’s Rock the River show because the bass player leaned down and let my kids hammer out the show’s final notes on his strings.
Greenville, perhaps more than almost any other place in the region, is becoming a city of transplants, a collection of diverse and interesting people who are helping reweave the fabric of the community. When people ask me how that’s happening, I remind them of how this city welcomed me and so many others with its music. It may not have the same scene as Charlotte, Atlanta or even Asheville, but it’s getting better. Whether it’s a busker on Main Street or Pearl Jam selling out the city’s biggest arena, Greenville continues to sing people home.
Over the next couple of months, I’ll see Chris Stapleton at the Charter Amphitheater and Jason Isbell when he plays a fundraiser for the Greenville Zoo. When I do, I’ll be thinking about my aunt who would’ve wished she could be in the crowd.
It was a warm Sunday afternoon when we buried Tammie, and the wind was blowing hard enough across the little Civil War-era cemetery to turn the oak and maple leaves upside down. A few days earlier, just a couple of weeks after asking me for music to fill her soul, Tammie died at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was 58 years old.
The funeral service was simple by most standards. My uncle stood next to his sister’s casket and read poetry. Family members stood one by one and offered their memories of a sister, aunt and wife who spent more time making sure her family was loved than she ever did asking for love in return.
When the speeches were done, my uncle started singing the first bars of “Amazing Grace,” and I joined everyone else as they sang along. I stopped singing when I heard my cousins Rachel and Sarai locked in a perfect harmony. They were as close as you’ll find to angels on Earth. I closed my mouth and just listened. I could never have written anything as beautiful as that sound.
It had been just a few weeks since Tammie had asked me about music, and I wondered how much she got to hear before she closed her eyes the last time. Another gust of wind tussled my hair, and it occurred to me that Tammie’s text was more of a gift to me than I could’ve given her.
She knew what made my heart beat, and she wanted me to share it with her one last time. That’s what I call love.
Brad Willis is a writer who lives in Greenville County. In addition to his other professional work, he writes at RapidEyeReality.com.