Good Letters

Nobody stops in Bucyrus, Ohio unless they have to. Columbus, the big-city capital, is an hour and a half to the south. Cedar Point Amusement Park, the preferred destination for roller coaster enthusiasts, is an hour and a half to the north. The Lincoln Highway, US 30, which bisects the country from New York to San Francisco, used to split the town in two as well, but these days you’d never know it. Now a bypass directs the transcontinental travelers around the town. Most people don’t even know that 13,000 people live and breathe and die less than a mile from the cars that go hurtling past the cornfields and silos.

There are a thousand struggling rock ‘n roll bands from a thousand towns just like Bucyrus. But as far as I know, there is only one from Bucyrus. They call themselves Two Cow Garage, a little tongue-in-cheek reminder of their farm town roots, and their latest album Speaking in Cursive has been in heavy rotation on my iPod for the past year.

They’ve got a record deal on a small indie label, and a bit of a following; enough to warrant packing up the gear in the van and criss-crossing the country, playing another bar in another city, night after night, looking for that elusive big break. They haven’t lived in Bucyrus for a while. But they haven’t forgotten:

She wore a Led Zeppelin t-shirt
A Virgin Mary tattoo
Like a badge of honor on her left shoulder
But faded green to blue

That’s the way one of their songs starts; a model of economy that lays bare an entire unraveling life in four short lines. It’s a sad, lovely, raw lament about one of those Bucyrus kids who couldn’t handle the crushing tedium of watching the corn grow and who spiraled downward in the typical, sordid ways.

What is not typical is the way songwriter Micah Schnabel piles up the telling little details throughout the song, and the private tug of war he chronicles between the forces of good and evil.

There have been songwriters in the past who have extolled the wonders of small-town living. In fact, John Mellencamp has virtually turned that focus into his own musical genre. And there have been songwriters like Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen who have captured the ennui and desperation of dead-end lives in dead-end towns.

But for Micah Schnabel, the standard approaches and the standard dichotomies aren’t sufficient. His songs take in the complexity of lives formed by Vacation Bible Schools and county fairs, of the stability of multiple generations of families who live down the street from one another, of shuttered factories and unemployment lines, of kids who alternate between shooting heroin and guns out of sheer boredom, of meth labs tucked away on the Back 40 because that’s the only way Old McDonald can make a living in these desperate times. Welcome to Bucyrus, Ohio:

She used to pray to Jesus
From her bedroom floor
Just like her mama taught her
Now she’s not so sure
That he’s listening anymore

It’s an old and futile formula if you’re trying to scratch out a living for yourself: take one gravel-voiced singer, some rampaging, overamped guitars, and a literate approach to songwriting, and make an unholy racket. If you’re Two Cow Garage, slackers in torn jeans and John Deere caps, you don’t stand much of a chance against the bright, shiny packaging of American Idol and MTV.

No matter. I don’t know the band members, nor can I pretend to understand their motivations, but I’d still bet that they do what they do because they like making an unholy racket, and because they believe that the story of Sadie Mae, that poor, lost kid, is worth the telling.

Micah Schnabel, like most artists, appears to have a streak of insecurity as wide as the Ohio prairie skies. He sings:

It was arrogant to think from the start
You were the only backyard Dylan with a folksinger’s heart

But he doesn’t need to sweat it. Like the infinitely more famous inspiration he name checks, Schnabel has a penchant for nailing the complex conundrums that comprise a human life, for giving a name to the gnawing, restless dissatisfactions that plague our heads, regardless of whether they are topped with John Deere caps.

Who knows what prompts a farm kid to strap on a guitar night after night, to play for indifferent patrons who want nothing more than a little background noise for their beer and conversation? Perhaps it’s as simple as the fact that he has no choice but to write and sing about what he’s seen. The cars rush by day after day, bound for destinations east and west, and the people in them have no idea of the small but infinitely significant dramas enacted just beyond the interchangeable, unending cornfields.

But somebody sees.

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