Four-Wheeled Stereos

The engine revved as I pressed slowly down on the pedal, trees flying by as I whipped back and forth in the low hills of East Texas. A goat clipping away at grass near the roadside leapt into the air and charged away from my passing SUV. The summer sun beat down while the canopy stood strong above me, shading the better part of the road. Here to there. A to B. Driving.

Pop the hood and I will scratch my infantile beard and thoughtfully appear to consider the twisting coils of metal, plastic, and rubber snakes. Ask me a question, and I will point at the large blocky thing in the center and say, “That’s the engine.”

Likewise, I can’t tell you about makes and models and manufacturers, or even what shiny color of what sexy motorbeast I might prefer. But stick me behind the wheel, and my eyes light up. I can’t give you a zero-to-sixty on any of the cars I’ve driven, and I don’t have the vocabulary to tell you how it handles. But I know fun. Give me the keys, and I can feel the fun.

I have not owned a car for two and a half years. I do not drive, and the little college town in which I reside has no need for cars. Everything is in walking distance.

During that time I have listened to far less country than ever before. Without wheels, without road, I need no radio. I spotify my music from a safe corner in the house, on my tame little laptop. And when you’re sitting there, plowing through the oldest books from the hardest classes, and your ADD is acting up, and the birds are singing, and you can’t help but want to fly out that window like a maniac and run screaming into the hills—in those times, the lyric-centered, steady-rhythmed deep peace and shallow grin of a country song just won’t cut it.

Now, as I stagnate in my chair or on my couch or bed, I don’t stop listening to country. I still plow through albums and formulate playlists and occasionally pull up our local station’s online app to keep up with the times. But my play queue is slowly filling with blues rock, selective rap and hip-hop artists, and the occasional Disney song. Older funk and rock-and-roll leak out of my speakers, and Irish reels by Aussies and Boston Yankees begin to make my foot tap. But George Strait and Montgomery Gentry, Eric Church and Little Big Town, they all drift quietly to the back.

But the moment I stepped off the plane and back into the sweet, wet air of East Texas, something changed. Southern lilts and country tilts in the rhythm of residents of this fine state started working on me like a drug. Big pines leaned over my head and whispered rumors of sacred songs I had forgotten. And finally the moment came when momma put they keys in my hand told me to run an errand.

Twangs and trains and country livin’, broken hearts and rednecks, wild parties and foolish youth and old wisdom blended and shook up and spilt from my speakers like the call of the wild and I was off. Windows down, radio up, across Starr and University, around the Loop, through back roads and brick streets and into driveways from the wrong direction—all to the sound of a guitar. Fiddles came from time to time to remind me of my roots, and banjos burst on the scene like a long-lost cousin. Somewhere in the air a steel guitar let me know where I came from, and I croaked and yelled to an old song with a Darius Rucker twist.

Fifty-five, forty, fifty, forty-five, thirty, and twenty in a school zone. Don’t they know what I am doing here? This is country music on the radio. None of this slow stuff, I drive with a steady lead foot. There’s something about turning tires and the quiet rumble of any old engine that calls for country. Or maybe it’s the wind flying past, and the cars on the road, and all these trucks driven by Aggies, Longhorns, and Lumberjacks. Whatever it is, I can’t get behind the wheel and stay on any pop, rock, or hip-hop station. The radio’s on, and it’s Texas and Nashville, Southern voices and the backwoods brogue of a down-home drawl. The car and the radio, it’s all one instrument, and I know how to play it.

But eventually the errand ends. I go home, park the car, and turn off the beginning of some old song about “time to kill.” Time is killing me. I’m called elsewhere, and my four-wheeled stereo of speed and sonic bliss will have to wait a while. Inside, the house is quiet and my little laptop is sitting patiently. I have words to write, a challenge to meet, and I can’t do that on a highway. So I set the keys on the counter and head upstairs to peck away at the keyboard. But hey, I don’t head back to the land of the pedestrian for two weeks. And there will be errands to run for days to come. I’ll drive.

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