[Editor’s note: This piece is the second in a series begun by Mark Geil called “Old Favorites,” where various contributors to the blog reflect on some of the most beloved, well-worn albums in their collections. Today, we hear from Jonathan Rogers about Arthur Alligood’s album, One Silver Needle.]
Arthur Alligood, as I have said elsewhere on this site, makes me think of Hank Williams in his ability to take hurt and transform it into something beautiful and soulful and swampy. His 2012 album, One Silver Needle, is one of my favorite records of all time.
I have always had a soft spot for sad songs. I grew up listening to country music—the twangy, lugubrious kind about cheating and leaving and drowning one’s sorrows, not the bro-country kind about going to Cabo. But, of course, I never met Hank Williams or Patsy Cline or George Jones. The hurt they sang about is abstract for me; they provide a thrill of vicarious sadness without any of the actual pain. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is three minutes of emotional tourism.
When I first listened through One Silver Needle—before I had ever met Arthur Alligood—I immediately loved those sad songs the way I loved the old country songs. “Why’d You Let Me Go Cold?” sounds exactly like a question Hank Williams would ask, halfway between “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used To Do?” and “Your Cold, Cold Heart”:
You caught me in that spot.
I was just rolling into a boil
When you turned the heat down.
I can’t muster a simmer now.
Why’d you go, honey?
Why’d you, honey, let me go cold?
I think the bridge on that song is perfect, by the way, in its plaintive wondering why the beloved won’t receive the love she needs:
I could have burned for you, baby,
Been that star in the night,
That light to save you.
I’m going to resist the temptation to go through and discuss my favorite parts of each song. You’ll have to go listen for yourself.
Not long after I got introduced to One Silver Needle, I became friends with Arthur Alligood. Not long after that, Arthur’s first marriage began to fall apart. And One Silver Needle started to feel like a very different kind of album to me. These songs weren’t about abstract and imaginary pain. This was pain I had seen in a friend’s eyes and heard in his voice. This wasn’t emotional tourism, but a walk through the valley of the shadow.
A song like “It Shouldn’t Be That Hard” was suddenly almost too hard to listen to:
It shouldn’t be that hard—
That’s what I told you when the walls came crashin’,
That’s what I said when the words got lost.
That’s what I told you:
It shouldn’t be that hard.
I’m all to pieces and can’t seem to fit,
Seeing no sense in going back at all.
It’s a hard confession to give
“Oh, this shouldn’t be that hard”
I recently asked Arthur about One Silver Needle and that time in his life, and he wrote, “Looking back I see that record as me in some mysterious, subconscious way dealing with the unraveling of my marriage before it even started to happen.” Which surprised me. I had assumed that a writer so articulate on the subject of hurt must have been already feeling the hurt. But, come to think of it, the conscious mind isn’t always (or usually?) the source of the best writing.
The songs on this record aren't just about the hurt. They're also about the balm. Before Arthur even knew what hell he was heading into, a 'suprapersonal wisdom' was showing him a way through.Jonathan Rogers
George Saunders writes about the novelist’s need to listen for a “wisdom of the novel” that goes deeper than the novelist’s understanding or wisdom. I suspect the same thing goes for songwriters: “Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.” Arthur’s songs seem to have understood something that Arthur didn’t yet understand.
At Hutchmoot 2014, Arthur performed “Darkness to Light” from One Silver Needle. The audience was absolutely gobsmacked by the beauty and the passion of his performance. Most of the people in the room didn’t know that Arthur hadn’t performed in over a year, nor did they know how deeply he was suffering or that his marriage was ending. But everybody knew that he was telling the truth when he sang,
I’m waiting for the morning,
Waiting in the night
When that sun comes over the mountain.
She gonna turn this darkness to light
Here we arrive at what, to me, is the real miracle of One Silver Needle. The songs on this record aren’t just about the hurt. They’re also about the balm. Before Arthur even knew what hell he was heading into, a “suprapersonal wisdom” was showing him a way through.
Arthur has come through the valley of the shadow that he walked through in the years after One Silver Needle came out. He’s happily re-married and making music once more. And my experience of this old favorite album has changed yet again. Now I pay more attention to the hope that is woven right in there with the pain.
Some of my favorite lines on the album are from the song “Bring My Heart Out.” I find myself singing them at the most unexpected moments:
I shook the hand of heartache
Said “I’m taking another road
That you can’t follow down.”
One reason I love the old country songs is because it’s nice to wallow in (imaginary) heartache every now and then. But I’ve come to see One Silver Needle as doing something better and more significant—not wallowing in heartache but shaking its hand, acknowledging it, then taking another road.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.