Grief. It’s a part of life. It’s the part that reminds us how good the living part truly is.
I first encountered grief on a major scale when the Cruella DeVille that lived in the biggest house on our block left antifreeze out in dishes scattered throughout her yard to poison any stray cats or dogs (or whatever) that meandered into her property. One warm autumn evening, we returned from a high school football game where I’d been proudly providing ball boy services to find our gate open. My beloved basset hound George was missing. Soon enough we heard braying from down the street. George was wallowing in our front yard. We immediately knew the culprit, although that didn’t make it any easier. I remember my dad loading him up into his pickup as I went inside with my mom and turned on the TV. The music video show, Friday Night Videos was on NBC and it was playing Bobby Brown’s “Don’t Be Cruel”. How apropos can a title get? I stared at the screen, and listened to the words…but my mind was with George taking his last ride in that truck. I’ve never heard that song, or the name Bobby Brown since without thinking of this time and place. As we buried George the next day, the radio was on…the sounds of Vern Gosdin, Earl Thomas Conley and Randy Travis helped us cover him up and say goodbye.
Soon enough, I had a new dog named Casey. A tricolor beagle from Hubbard that would stay with me through thick and thin for the next 16 years. Which was a longer period of time than my age when I next directly confronted grief. I was 14 when my parents got a late night phone call on a December Sunday. After some hushed tones and worried looks, I was told to get my things together and that I’d be spending the night at my Grandma’s. My parents would soon be heading to the hospital with my Grandad. As we drove past the quaint holiday light scenes in our small town, Christmas carols played quietly on the radio. I plopped down in front of the living room TV at my Grandma’s and my mind was racing. I was wondering what was going on. I was worried about school in the morning. I was worried about my mom losing her dad. I decided to turn the channel and find some music. I had just landed on CMT when the phone rang once more. Hushed tones and worried looks arrived again. And I could definitely pick up what was going on. My Grandad had left this mortal coil after a tough fight. On the TV was Clay Walker’s “Live Until I Die”. How apropos can a title get? The grins from Walker and his Dallas Cowboys shirt while partying on a pontoon boat helped remind me to focus on the good times and then I didn’t feel so sad. We ended up singing a couple Christmas carols at my Grandad’s funeral.
I was living in San Marcos the next time grief darkened my door. I was 21 in the summer in Hays County…life couldn’t go wrong. Until it did. My favorite live show at the time was Cory Morrow. We crisscrossed the highways of this state to see him play. His Man That I’ve Been cd was our constant companion. The door darkening happened when I received the phonecall that my Grandpa was in the hospital and if I wanted to say goodbye I better get back to Waco in a hurry. I didn’t even pack a bag. I just headed straight to my car and hit the highway. Cory Morrow blasting along in the cd player as I sped north on 35. There’s a portion of 35 in south Austin just north of Buda close to Onion Creek where the road grades downward and a bridge is up high. In my college days it was a known speed trap, but I wasn’t thinking about it on this day. It was Friday the 13th, July 2001 edition to be exact. My mind was on Providence Hospital in Waco, TX. I was definitely going 85 in a 70 when I saw the line of motorcycle cops on the bridge. “Lookin’ at the World Thorugh a Windshield” blasting on the radio. The red and blues were behind me in an instant.
With a sigh, a curse and downtrodded mood dropping further I pulled to the shoulder. The officer approached me with the usual conversation and asked me why I was speeding. “Sir, I’m heading to Waco to say goodbye to my Granpa…he’s on his death bed.” “Oh, really? That’s the 3rd dying grandpa I’ve had today…hang tight while I write this ticket.” 15 minutes later, I had a date with the Travis County court at law and some time to make up. As I cruised into the hospital parking lot, Cory Morrow’s “Just Like You” hit the speakers. The perfect song for the perfect moment. For the grandson of a respected POW war veteran who was well-liked and known around the state it was a fitting musical tribute. How appropos can a title get? I did want to be just like him. He knew it too. As I got to his bedside,he opened his eyes. We talked a little and he closed them again. I was the last person Edward Beheler would talk to on this earth. A couple hours later he drifted away. His vitals didn’t give out until 12:01 on Saturday July 14th.
My 22nd birthday. We played “Just Like You” at the funeral and it still brings warm memories when it pops up in shuffle to this day. I ended up getting out of the ticket and a Summer 2 stats test when I provided the court and professor a copy of the newspaper obituary.
By 2003, I was living back in Waco and running amok as most young professionals with money in their pocket for the first time are wont to do. Most of my best buddies were still back in San Marcos, and my main running buddy had become my friend Trinity. We hit the bars and chased the girls. We became regulars at George’s, it didn’t matter the day of the week. We knew the bartenders by name and the waitress at the early morning greasy spoon knew our order when we walked in after closing time. I’ve written about this experience before, detailing how “Goodnight Moon” was the last song he played on the jukebox at George’s. Trinity and I were two different vessels on the same orbit.
The night he died started out like all the rest. Except he didn’t drink that night. He was tired. He just had water. He had only gone to the bar to try and strike up something with a girl. It didn’t happen and he wouldn’t get the chance to try again the next night. I’ll never forget the frantic beating on my window to alert me to the fact that he was gone. My cell phone was dead and nobody could get a hold of me. It was a rough few minutes. The overpowering emotion I had upon learning the news is something I’ll always remember. It was crippling. I still don’t think I’ve ever cried so hard in my life. I was physically overwhelmed. I felt like Capt. Call watching Augustus refuse to have his leg amputated times 1,000. I have a dove tattooed on my arm in his honor. “George’s Bar” is a rowdy anthem about everyone’s favorite beer joint, but to me since 2003 it’s been a somber reflection on the frailty of life. He may be gone, but I’m still here. It’s a mantra that I don’t take lightly.
I would soon undertake a long stretch without heavy grief entering my life. Both of my grandmother’s passed in not so surprising terms (one even survived the West fertilizer explosion prior to passing) and by now I’d learned fairly well how to process these experiences. I’d lost Casey the dog, some relatives and a couple distant acquaintances; however, none of that compared to the feeling of losing my father in 2015. Nothing prepares you for that. I was in my office at Baylor plowing through some paperwork when the call came. Leon Bridges was on the stereo. I rushed home and then to the hospital where my father hung on for a few hours before leaving us. The next 24-36 hours are a blackhole of numbness I don’t want to ever encounter again. There’s something about dealing with an unexpected death that just trips your brain out. There’s no amount of rationalizing that can change the outcome. Where rationalization failed, music succeeded. The outpouring of support I received from friends close and far was overwhelming. I listened to a lot of “He Did” by Adam Hood…and made sure it played at the funeral. It’s like Adam knew my dad.
One of the messages I received in the aftermath of my father’s passing came back to mind recently. My friend Kylie messaged me and said, “I’m here. In the meantime, enjoy yourself as best you can keep your head above water lean on your friends and the songs that give you hope. Love you, brother.”
I had already begun following her sage advice before I received it. But, she couldn’t have been more correct. I set about following my musical muse harder than ever. I traveled more. I listened more. Sometimes, in the last four years, I’ve actually ended up writing less…because I’ve discovered peace in not having to throw my opinion in on everything. Sometimes it’s good to not have the phone out at a show making notes, sometimes that record only means something to me. It’s a good place. And I arrived there due to some good music and some solid advice from a friend.
I was sitting in a meeting on the morning of September 5, 2019. My phone began incessantly buzzing my pocket. I excused myself when I saw what the first message said. “Brad, I don’t know if you’ve heard yet, but we lost Kylie Rae in a car accident overnight.” The other messages were variations of that refrain and texts asking if it was true. I immediately turned to the music. Just as I had with Bobby Brown, Clay Walker, Pat Green and Adam Hood.
Except this time, it was the music of Kylie Rae Harris. The woman that told me to lean on music was now helping me process the grief of losing her. Hearing her voice in this new, tragic light was strangely calming. I went through the entire catalog, but mainly stuck to the Taking It Back EP. It was better than I’d remembered…and I’d always known it was great. “Revelation” had always been a song that dealt with the end of a relationship. It covers the awakening one feels when they realize it’s time to move on. “This is not what I signed up for or what I had in mind,” had new meaning in the new light.
As the discourse got mean online, I found the wisdom she always held close in the words of “Sticks and Stones”…again originally written for a relationship but now applied to a larger meaning. When I hear any of her music now, especially the myriad cover versions of “Waited” that keep arriving daily on social media, it makes me happy. I’m not sad or macabre…it’s a sense of radiant joy. Kylie lived…and so am I. And so are you. And we’re all living by leaning on music.
I think the advice Kylie Rae Harris gave me four years ago to lean on the music is good for all phases of life. The grief and the joy. Music is all around us every day. The way we interpret it and what it means to each of us is dictated by circumstance. And many times circumstance acts as the perfect DJ. Henceforth, lean on the music in the good times and the bad.
-It doesn’t seem like it because of the Texas weather, but before you know it, it will be fair time, deer season, holidays…and then Steamboat and Mile 0.
-Speaking of football…how ‘bout them Cowboys?
-I posed this question on Twitter and soon learned that I was not alone. How many of you scour online reviews when researching a large purchase…yet never leave one? I put far too much credence in the words of anonymous product reviewers.
-Back on that Cory Morrow cd referenced above, he bemoaned $5 a beer…but there are some places where I’d welcome that at this juncture.
-Ken Burns Country Music documentary delayed this article. I couldn’t turn away from it. It’s held very little new information for me, but the breadth, depth and craftsmanship of the storytelling is second to none. It’s why he’s Ken Burns.
–This month’s recommended album: Paul Cauthen – Room 41. The bombast has increased, the quality has remained the same. Cauthen’s My Gospel was our Galleywinter album of the year in 2016. 2019 finds Cauthen pushing boundaries and pressing emotions further than ever before. The stories and melodies he tells with his booming vocals are as vivid as ever. Cauthen’s ability to mix the inane and profane with the righteous and profou
-”Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.” – Mark Twain