At work I spend long periods of time by myself, being mostly quiet or listening to NPR too much. While I’m convinced that mild depression and periodic anxiety are completely rational responses to the world at large, my dour outlook, though consistent and painfully well founded, bores me to tears these days. Sometimes I think I’ve forgotten how to have a good time.
So when we pulled onto the gravel road last Saturday for the Bonnie “Prince” Billy show and crossed the border into the state of Funtown USA — a private tract of undeveloped property in J-town with a field, a small lake and a tiny log shack — I was delighted and relieved to find out that I was immediately having Fun.
We were instructed to follow a young lady in bare feet and a bikini, who kindly directed us to a parking spot. As we stepped out of the car into the freshly mown field, we were greeted by a Stan Rogers song on the PA system and friends glad to see us.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s newest record, Lie Down in the Light, has lately been the source of some real comfort to me that I didn’t even know I needed. It’s alternately playful and thoughtful songs have afforded me a long internal sigh — its conciliatory tone parlaying all my quietness into unhurried introspection. The concert seemed a direct corollary to my experience with the record that expanded into a whole evening, as Funtown and its citizens briefly seceded from the state of small compromises that we all must make — just to make it.
Two gentlemen from Homer, Alaska, happily primed the burgeoning audience of lapsed city-dwellers by picking songs of Steve Young, Hank Williams and others. They were followed by Thomas A. Minor & The Pickin’ Line, a six-piece country/bluegrass group whose dirty-joke-telling frontman led them through a mixed set of originals and what I assume were some covers, which is to say that here is a fit and able songwriter who I look forward to hearing more of.
The same band then served as the latest iteration of Bonnie Billy’s ensemble. The alternate arrangements of Will Oldham’s newest material and a choice selection of familiar older songs were nothing less than perfect for the venue: Calibrated country instrumentation with long draws of a well-rosined bow, front-porch picking, freewheeling hand clapping, perfect harmonies and beautifully imperfect ones, too.
It was just a field party with a small stage, but it seemed like more to me. I felt like I’d been given a thimbleful of undiluted summer. Not the toil and sweat of summer as an adult, but the illuminated, platonic form of summer that I only hoped for as an adolescent. We laid out blankets and unfolded chairs. We caroused, easily dispatching a large pile of frigid cans of beer.
Had we been in the city, the volume of our laughter would’ve been as suspicious and out of place as the grown men doing gainers and cannonballs off the dock to the taunts of their friends and the easy delight of their women, treading water in nary but their underthings.
We were ninth graders with beards and fuller bodies. We ate nice food, smoked cigs, enjoyed the company of friends and were entertained. We had fun.
It was enough, and for several hours on a late summer’s evening in Kentucky, everything was all right.
Joe Manning is a singer-songwriter from Louisville. His new solo album, Clever Bird, is out now. Find him at myspace.com/joemanning