Merle Travis's "I Am a Pilgrim" from the late forties (first recorded by him in 1946), country gospel, white soul, was my introduction to one branch of the subgenre of music I heard constantly on the radio in east Tennessee and western North Carolina in the forties and early fifties. God-haunted, salvation-minded and evangelical, the storyline seldom varied: change your life or heaven won't be your home. My initial interest came from the orchestration, the instruments, the rhythm, the "song" itself. The lyric, the human theme, remained the same, whether it was a coal-mining song, love song, wandering song or gospel song: death, loss, resurrection, salvation, leaving, leaving: an ultimate inability to cope with life, a life we all lived, unavoidably, in this world. "Dark as a Dungeon," "Let's All Go Down to the River," "Dust on the Bible" . . . .
WCKY, Cincinnati 1, Ohio, was the power station in my area, the late-night music brought in with a Zenith Trans-Oceanic portable radio. This was the gene pool I later drew from in the more fleshed-out articulation of The Carter Family, one of the two seminal acts in the history of country music. They came from outside Gate City, Virginia, in the Clinch Mountains, across the Holston River from my hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee. They had finished performing when I became aware of them on records, but their mountain origins, their insistent reference to these origins in their songs, the ballad and hymn meters that A. P. Carter consistently wrote his gospel songs in, the song lyrics themselves, traditional and oddly surreal at the same time, drew me easily into the intimate circle their music projected: one of interiors, the point of view of someone watching, from inside, the world go on outside, and always aspiring to something beyond that world that waited as surely as sunrise. And written as though the songs had been to that place already and come back with their messages: "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone," "Farther On," "Higher Ground," "Going Home." Coming, as they did, from my area, articulating, as they did, its native tongue and values so inescapably, and synthesizing, as they did, so brilliantly its bedrock beliefs, I find it not surprising that I listened so many years, and listened closely, to what they had to say, and how they said it.
Nineteen sixty-one, the year I first began to study poetry in an organized way, the year I first met Miss Dickinson, the poet who, to this day, remains the only one who has ever "spoken" to me, the only poet who, when I read her, I feel as though I understand, I know, and have heard before, somewhere, what she is trying to tell me. . . . And why. I admire and revere and am awed by a good many writers; I have been in thrall to several. But Emily Dickinson is the only writer I've ever read who knows my name, whose work has influenced me at my heart's core, whose music is the music of songs I've listened to and remembered in my very body. Part of that, of course, is her genius. But another part belongs to another kind of genius, and goes back to country music, and especially to The Carter Family's licks and spins, the white soul of the mountains. Emily Dickinson's poems, in their surreal simplicity and ache, are without question the artistic high ground, the city of light, in this uniquely American landscape. But I like to think A. P. Carter's songs from his side of the river did not fall on deaf ears when he, too, was called back to join the writer of this hymn:
Just lost, when I was saved!
Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with Eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!
Therefore, as One returned, I feel
Odd secrets of the line to tell!
Some Sailor, skirting foreign shores--
Some pale Reporter, from the awful doors
Before the Seal!
Next time, to stay!
Next time, the things to see
By Ear unheard,
Unscrutinized by Eye--
Next time, to tarry,
While the Ages steal--
Slow tramp the Centuries
And the Cycles wheel!
--from Charles Wright, HALFLIFE: IMPROVISATIONS AND INTERVIEWS, 1977-87 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988), pp. 53-55