If you chase a song from the tips of its branches down its broad trunk, you’ll eventually hit cold soil and muscular roots. Good songs lead somewhere. They are present and fruitful when you need them. You can follow them the way a family follows a name to a great-grandfather on a boat, follow a song backwards and see where it appeared in your life and how you changed, how it changed you. “Angel from Montgomery” is my shadow. The song has been everywhere, and I follow it back.
My sister is sitting next to me in the backseat. The top of her head is against the window, the seat belt propping up her chin, and her eyes are closed. She is sleeping the way little sisters do, the way butterflies land on petals, with her eyes shut loosely, the pause fragile, like sleeping is only waiting to get up again. The song comes on the radio of the old blue Volvo and the flick of a Bic lighter makes the dashboard blush. A window is cracked. The song comes into the backseat with the first exhaled drag of a Marlboro Light.
“I am an old woman,” Bonnie Raitt sings. “Named after my mother / My old man is another child that’s grown old.” I remember feeling sorry for the lady, the angel, and looking at my sister and hoping she never found her life coming to a slow-winding close in a kitchen hoping for something more. I remember thinking how sad other families must be, families without the wholeness of my own.
“Angel from Montgomery” is seared to all the perfect moments of my life—there like a blinking light forever reminding me how good things were and how bad things could be for others. It made me want to tell stories, to make a life worthy of a story, to never leave the backseat of that blue Volvo, with the headlights quick in their coming and slow in their red departure, the green street signs sneaking up and flashing by like tombstones in a cemetery I made my sister hold her breath the whole way past. I wanted life to stick right to that moment, there in the backseat with the quiet rush of air from an opened window lifting the edges of my mother’s blond hair and making my sister’s bangs dance above her open, sleeping mouth.
Life doesn’t stick. It doesn’t even linger. Life is butter on a hot rock, holding its constitution until the inevitable pressure of time and heat do their work. Those car rides home from my aunt’s house, the whole family in one car, the smell of gravy lingering on our clothes, were only faded memories when the song came back to me at an apartment in Boone, where I sat stoned and lazy, listening to the wind play with the hills. The screened porch door was open, and the thick smell of a Camel lifted into the apartment’s vaulted ceilings. And there it was, “Angel from Montgomery.” This time it was a man saying he was “an old woman”—John Prine singing about my angel.
“He wrote it,” a friend said when I asked. “Prine writes them all.” Them being either all the good ones ever or all the good ones we were listening to in that apartment overlooking King Street. John Prine. A new name put to a familiar song.
The song entered my life that second time ten years later, around 2005, and lingered. At the time, my sister lived with my mom in Raleigh in a house way too big for just the two of them, and the song made me think of them. It made me wonder if my sister still slept with her eyes barely tucked closed, waiting for something new to come or fearing she might miss some family joke. Maybe, with dad gone and me gone and just mom there, she slept harder, knowing nothing would happen in her absence now that she was the family.
As I listened to Prine coming through a collection of thrift-store speakers, I decided I liked the former better, my sister’s childish, drifting sleep, like she was ready to open her eyes and smile. It’s funny how things like that go. At one point a song comes on and you think it’s the perfect song, that you’re part of the perfect family in a nice car cruising through a calm Raleigh night, and the next time you hear it, you’re on a couch thinking about how, here at school, you’ll start collecting the bricks needed to build a family with a better chance of surviving.
The Old Crow Medicine Show was a college favorite, too, a band that played strings and talked about Raleigh and the Blue Ridge Mountains. But I was out of school when I heard them sing “Angel from Montgomery.” I was riding with my wife on the Beltline around Raleigh, the same road we took home from my aunt’s house all those years ago, just a different part this time.
My wife was next to me, tired and not paying attention, so I turned the music up and let it crawl all over. I was smoking a cigarette, and the air was moving things in the car. The song came back like a habit. It found me again the way an ego finds a mirror in a crowded room. A song sticks better than life; it doesn’t melt. My sister was now off at school up in the mountains I’d just left, with mom alone in the house too big for her, and I was married and having a smoke. The backseat was empty save for some rustling trash and I imagined the next time the song played the backseat might be fuller.
I imagine a kid in the back seat the next time I hear “Angel From Montgomery” on a quiet night riding around Raleigh’s Beltline as the day begins to surrender, and I’ll think of the kid as me. I’ll hope he has perfect nights and envies how his sister sleeps. I’ll hope he smiles at his mom as she wipes a wild strand of hair from the corner of her eye. I’ll hope he remembers how good nights with full families smell. That kid in the backseat listening to the car speakers will be my son, and I’ll hope with everything I’ve got that somewhere along the way he finds a song.