From 1995-1997 I became a Midwesterner for 24 months as I attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale for my graduate program. It was a magical time in my life and maybe the best two years of my life. I moved there in June of 1995 after accepting a graduate assistantship sight unseen. I had never been to that part of country except passing through on cross country road trips. I immediately fell in love with the area. It was beautiful, the people were nice, and the pace of living was amazing. It had four seasons and was exactly what I needed at that time in my life.
Son Volt and this album was essentially the soundtrack of my life for those two years. The gritty Americana sound of them, Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, the Bottle Rockets, and more. These bands were from Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago and other sites up and down the Mississippi river and they sang how it felt to live there. I would play this CD in my car as we drove to catch a game in St. Louis. We would have the windows in my car down, riding past corn and sunflower fields and stopping to eat at a cafe. Southern Illinois looks like this record sounds. Roadside bars that were dark, even during the day that offered cheap beer and always had a Cardinals or Cubs game on.
I went to Carbondale not knowing a thing about what I was going to find and that is the beauty of discovery. As I drove down highway 13 from Marion to Carbondale to my apartment in Murphysboro each road sign, building, and front yard welcomed me with open arms and let me know I was truly on my own for the first time in my life. A few weeks later I went back to North Carolina and brought back Nicole because it would not be the same without her. It was time we embarked on our life together.
So, the story within the story is Son Volt also reminds me of a summer tradition in Carbondale. One of my first jobs as a Grad Ass (that is what Don Castle, my mentor called us, more on that later) was to help every week with Sunset Concerts. This tradition was a collaboration between the City of Carbondale and SIU and feature six to eight summer shows aimed at building community and celebrating our great parks. Families and students would come out, drink a few beers, grill out some food, and listen to some amazing local music like the Soulard Blues Band. Over 1,000 people a week would attend.
So at the first Sunset Concert Nicole attended we had a cookout. I introduced her to my boss Joanne who was the director of the Student Activities office. It was a fun but seemingly unremarkable evening. The next day Joanne called me into her office and asked me what Nicole was doing, I said she wants to be a counselor but will apply next year. She said, well, my boyfriend runs the counseling institute on campus and was impressed by her. he wants to know if she would like a graduate assistantship and to be in the counseling program. And just like that my future wife went from working at McDonald’s to also attending SIU. We owe a lot to that night, this music and that town.
But this post is not just about the hope of that time but the sadness I now feel. When you listen to Son Volt it is full of pain and loss, Tear Stained Eye and Out of the Picture are painfully sad. And while Live Free, Windfall and Drown are less so they have have the same themes. There are two men who mentored me when I was at SIU and stepped in to help me grow up the first time I was away from home. Jim Wallace was my major professor at SIU. He taught like 60% of my classes and he was my guide when we traveled across the south with the Historically Black College and University class and was my thesis advisor. He also welcomed Nicole and I into his home for dinners and to watch football on Saturdays. Jim lit the fire of teaching and mentoring others in student affairs and really challenged me on issues of diversity and inclusion. Don Castle was my Grad Ass boss in student activities and taught me most of what I know about event planning, working with students, and producing concerts. He also showed me how to work with students with compassion, humor, honesty, and care. He was like the cool uncle I never had.
Both of these men showed me examples of how to be a better man and a better professional. Jim died in 2013 and we lost Don this last Spring. I miss them both so much. For years after I graduated I would send them messages, we would talk on the phone every so often and keep each other updated. They both somehow found out when my father died in 2005 and called me to offer their condolences and were always the voice I needed at the time I needed it. So Son Volt and this album Trace reminds me of that time, that life, and those men . . . . . I’ve said enough.