Place, Vocation, and Horse-Shoes

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Emily Dunbar Popular music has long celebrated the “desperado,” the “rolling stone,” and the “rambling man,” but has never been especially keen to rejoice in notions of vocation informed by a sense of place or permanence. This is perhaps unsurprising given the strong association of vocation with Lutheranism, and—despite Lutheranism’s long and robust musical heritage—the relative scarcity of Lutherans among those today producing anything like “popular” music (the very much underrated Lyle Lovett being a notable exception here).

I was therefore thrilled recently to get my hands on an album highly recommended by an old friend, Emily Dunbar’s 2009 Catch It When You Can. (Full disclosure: I had the pleasure of getting to know the Dunbars when Emily’s husband Paul and I studied together at Concordia Seminary.) A little bit folk, a little bit country, all Americana, Dunbar’s songs are wonderful (in the many meanings of that term) evocations—and celebrations—of the everyday graces that inhere, for example, in the rootedness of place and family.

The celebration of place, for example, is especially strong in the opening track, “Barcelona,” in which earlier international travels are recounted only to be set against the refrain:

If I had to compare the Champs-Élysées and our town square, If asked to contrast the present with the past, If I had to choose between Barcelona and the three of you, Barcelona would lose.

Similarly in “One Cup of Coffee,” where are extolled the simple pleasures of a lazy Saturday morning at home with coffee and the morning paper (and horse-shoes).

Vacation in the Riviera—good gravy, I declare, I would take it, take it if it came my way. But I won’t sit and hold my breath; That’s one sure way to catch my death, And I’ve got music and horse-shoes to play.

The quirky but heartfelt “John Cusack” can acknowledge the real pleasures of marriage and family while still confessing the temptation to see greener grass in other pastures.

Sometimes I dream I meet John Cusack in an airplane, And together we fly off, and I live off his fame.

By song’s end, though, the folly of such a temptation is recognized:

If I ever meet John Cusack in an airplane, I might ask for his autograph, and tell him I loved Say Anything But I’d step off the plane, and I’d get out my phone, And tell my husband and kids, I’m on my way home.

Perhaps most impressively, though, it’s “Ohio” that paints a picture of one coming eventually to recognize and to embrace the fundamental goods of place, family, and vocation. Telling the story of a small-town girl whose only dream is New York City, and whose dream is consistently thwarted by circumstance, the chorus throughout laments:

Oh my oh, Ohio, It’s almost too sad to believe; Oh my oh, Ohio, She never thought she’d never leave.

Until, that is, the song’s conclusion:

Come April she’ll have a daughter, Who’ll grow up next door to her grandfather. Bobby loves her, they’ll be okay; She’s set her roots down, she’s making her way in

Oh my oh, Ohio, It’s not as bad as she once believed; Oh my oh, Ohio, She’s got new dreams, she don’t want to leave.

Oh my oh, Ohio, It’s better than she ever believed; Oh my oh, Ohio, She’s settled down, why would she leave?

Oh my oh, Ohio, It’s quiet there, you better believe; Oh my oh, Ohio, She’s happy now and she’ll never leave.

An understanding and appreciation of the goodness (and given-ness) of place and family, and the vocations attending each, can of course be taught and learned in a classroom or by means of a book. (And Lutherans have plenty of each.) Like so much of what we take to heart, though, these can also be acquired and reinforced via story and song, especially when done well. Catch It When You Can is very well done indeed, never mind its being the first album of a relatively recently self-taught musician. Especially if you’ve got any fondness for country or folk music, I’d encourage you to grab a copy at the link above, thus helping to make possible a follow-up. Or, at least, a new set of horse-shoes.