My life is a mixtape. Is yours? If you are reading my blog or listening to my radio show, I have a hunch that you might listen to your life as a similar soundtrack too. The songs, the sounds, the life that is under your skin and always in your ears.
Highway 111 is one of my favorite highways. It can get me from Cookeville to Sparta, the town where I have worked as a part-time pastor for the last two years. Highway 111 is also the way we get to Chattanooga and Atlanta, a road trip we frequently take, most often for music, for friends, for festivals. Highway 111 is well-traveled but never crowded like I-75 or I-24, the nearest divided-lane of the interstate alternatives to go south and east. Highway 111 is where I recently went from dabbling in Rob Sheffield’s memoir Love Is A Mixtape to falling in love with his book, reading it out loud to my wife, laughing out loud, crying out loud, choking on the words.
This man is the Anne Lamott of music writing, my mind told me, without knowing how Anne Lamott or Rob Sheffield, both working writers, would feel about this comment. But what I love about Sheffield I love about Lamott. Honest. Hilarious. Self-deprecating. Down-to-earth. I have always considered music sacred, but now we can see how the old-school cassette mixtape itself is sacrament.
When I think about mixtapes, I think about this radio show I do called Teacher On The Radio. When I think about Teacher On The Radio, I think mixtapes. I tell you I have been making mixtapes for you as audience for this radio show since 2007, but actually, I have been making playlists. I don’t remember my last proper mixtape, made for a friend or made for myself, except that it was more likely a mix CD. I know I made one on April 20, 2003, and I called it the 4-20 mix, yet it was not about weed, but about love and the Iraq war. But I never stopped making mixes in hard copy, either tapes or then CDs, until I got into the DJ booth again, after a 20-year hiatus, at the beginning of the fall semester 2007. That’s when I started making playlists on my laptop, using various platforms.
Lately, I have been making mixes as a form of time-travel, going back a decade at a time, hence the pair of recent 1968 mixes that have aired on the show, and of course, the 1978 and 1988 mixes that are coming soon. In the process of planning these shows and sampling songs for them, I am confronted with numerous personal pecadillos regarding my playlist philosophy. I guess these have always been there, but now, now I am required to regard them more seriously, now that I have wrestled with them fully.
What is this pesky playlist problem? When I sat down to start previewing tracks for my 1978 mix, I had to ask myself: what was I listening to in 1978? Granted, I was only 10, but I had to confess, I had no idea then who some of my favorite from 1978 would be come 2018. At thje same time, I had to include, against the wisdom of what you might think of me, the groups I actually loved in 78 -- even C’est Chic and the Village People. The time-machine mixtape is a beautiful thing. Earlier this year, I also made a mix with one song for every year since I was born, including the year I was born. I had been telling myself this was 50 years of music, but I am bad at math, and we are actually into our 51st year of my music-listening life. I also don’t really do math, so the idea that 11th anniversary really marks the beginning of our 12th year, actually blows my mind.
I come from that place in the 1970s when many albums had spaceships on the cover and where bands had one-word names that would never Google very well, but we did not have Google back then. The very early 1980s were for me just a continuation of the 1970s, before I discovered U2, R.E.M., punk, Deadheads, or had my own radio show on the high school station, so it would be that my imaginary basement air band of 1980s was simply called Rebellion. Our theme song was a variation on the Beatles “Revolution,” and I created a private history and mythology of this massive group inside my own head, an all-too-sincere and naive version of the fantasy rock biopic that would later be invented and then destroyed by Dewey Cox in Walk Hard. To explain how epic this band was between my ears, they wrote both “Freebird” and “Stairway To Heaven.” I hope you kinda get the picture!
And even though I could not sing to save my life, I was the lead singer of this band, mouthing all the vocals, with our cassette-mixtape backing track in a boombox and cranked up loud. My friend David played lead air guitar on a tennis racket, and I am sure he is not looking back on this memory right now, if he remembers it all, with the same affection that I am. My journey to the mixtape began with a family cross-country car journey around 1978. Dad purchased some cheap low-fi blank tapes, and each family member was encouraged to make lists of nominations. These eclectic messes were delightful in their intergenerational variety and what my heart would give to hear one now.
The ripped-from-radio mixtape was never my favorite, but Sheffield writes of the static feedback and reverent presence of recording “in the now” -- what with the imperfect cuts and DJ talkback, all a part of the ambiance. I remember one 90s mixtape, a road-trip tape made mostly made from CDs in the Hendersonville basement of my first Tennessee home. It had the likes Aaron Neville and Nanci Griffith and was all about my new adopted southern status and my new-but-used Ford Econoline van. But it all began with the Jason and the Scorchers version of “Take Me Home Country Roads,” stolen from the airwaves of Lightning 100, still a great Nashville station.
When I set out to make a mixtape (I mean playlist) for the 11th anniversary of my radio show, I did not know how it would end up. I started by reviewing the earliest playlists from Teacher On The Radio. What were we listening to on the show back in 2007? Somehow this mix is marked by quirky cover songs, an idea I arrived at when I decided I had to include the aforementioned Jason and the Scorchers track in this show.
But this show is not just cover songs, not just a time machine to September of Oh-seven! There are current tracks that currently speak to me that had to be included. It’s actually an unlikely messy mix like those old family road trip cassettes. Speaking of road trips, it also includes Kerouac. Why? Because in 2007, we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of On The Road, and I am still obsessively exploring my fixation on the Beat writers. I think my better mixtapes over the years include at least a little spoken word or showtunes or some kind of found sound.
Rob Sheffield shows us how love is a mixtape. How true love with his late wife Renee Crist was formed and transformed by shared music fandom. I have lost count of all the ways in which my wife Jeannie has embraced music fandom with me and how we have made travel to music shows one of our regular adventures. One of the first places we went together when we first met was to the third floor of the university center where our radio studio is. It sounds trite to say that music saved my life or even that more precisely, making music mixes has saved me. But after Jesus and Jeannie, this hobby-passion-and-avocation, is right up there with black coffee as one of the wondrous worldly things that keeps helping me live with hope and joy. Yep, life is a mixtape.