30-Day Song Challenge, Day 23: A Song You Think Everybody Should Listen To
I’ve often said that the year I spent working as a telephone customer-service representative was the worst 12 months of my professional life. That’s not entirely true — the year I spent struggling with underemployment, as the expression goes, while pretending I knew how to be a freelance writer was objectively far worse, not to mention the times when I’ve been out of work entirely — but yeah, my experience as a “phone drone” was… not good.
It was my first “adult” job after graduating college and leaving behind the safe womb of the movie theater, where I’d pretty much done as I pleased without much supervision or many rules. The phone shop was different. There, I was tied to my desk and phone console, my productivity rigidly monitored, my time micromanaged to the extent that I was warned for taking too long in the restroom. There was always the possibility of someone listening in on my calls without me knowing about it. Opportunities to get to know any of my coworkers were severely limited. It was my first experience of really, truly feeling like a faceless cog in the machine. I hated every second of it.
And I had a commute for the first time, too, a half-hour drive each way instead of the minutes it had taken me to reach the theater, in heavy traffic in one of the busier parts of the valley. I hated that too. But out of that, at least, came something good: I discovered a radio station I’d never heard before, “The Mountain,” KUMT, all the way over the end of the FM dial at 105.7. The format was something called AAA, “adult album alternative,” which in practical terms meant a little bit of everything. On The Mountain, I heard deep cuts from familiar classic rock artists, occasional pop tunes from the ’50s right up to that moment in the early ’90s, stuff I would later learn was called “roots music,” and stuff I had no idea how to classify. You could hear things like Los Lobos followed by Boston followed by Annie Lennox followed by the Grateful Dead. It was “jukebox” programming years before iPod shuffle mode made that a thing, and I liked most of what I heard, which I could no longer say about most of the other stations in town. Naturally, though, something that cool wasn’t destined to last; as I recall, “The Mountain,” at least in that format, was around only about as long as I was a phone drone. In the end, though, it had served its purpose. It kept me sane during my daily drives to and from a place I really didn’t want to be, and it introduced me to a number of artists I hadn’t known before and possibly never would’ve stumbled across any other way. Sonny Landreth, Nanci Griffith, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang. And most especially a cat named Keb’ Mo’.
Keb’ Mo’ — street-talk for Kevin Moore — plays a style of music I describe as “happy blues.” The sounds and rhythms are undeniably classic Delta blues, but the lyrics and overall tone tend to be upbeat, infused with a gentle and frequently self-deprecating sense of humor. His music is simply good, and listening to it makes me feel good. I first heard Keb’ on The Mountain during one of my nerve-wracking commutes to my nerve-wracking job as a phone drone. The hours I spent in that office were soul-crushing, but if I caught a Keb’ Mo’ song on the way home, it was like healing energy coming from the air itself. He quickly became a favorite, and Anne and I have now seen him live four or five times. We were scheduled to see him again this fall, with a personal meet-and-greet before the show, but this stupid plague we’re enduring put a stop to that.
Anyhow, for my “song I think everyone should hear,” I’ve chosen the title track from Keb’s second album, Just Like You. It’s always a showstopper when he performs it live, especially in outdoor settings after the sun has set and a breeze is floating through the crowd. The lighters come out — well, smartphones now — and the mass of people begin to sway as one, and in that moment, that sweet, wistful, yearning moment, you believe that maybe we really can figure all this out and learn to live together.
I’d like to think this song could have that same effect right now, in this Year of the Plague 2020, when people are in the streets crying out for justice and others are telling them, essentially, that they’re not justified in feeling the way they do and that they should shut up and stop raising a ruckus. I know, of course, that it won’t. It’s just a song. Lots of people don’t even pay attention to them. But… I do like to think. I hope you’ll give it a listen and pay attention and maybe walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
And no, your eyes don’t deceive you: that’s Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne in the video, lending a hand…