It was a transcendent moment driving down Briley Parkway in Bordeaux — not a location known for its transcendent moments. The sun was shining. We were young, in love and broke as a joke. "Mon-AYE," Sharon Jones bellowed over the speakers as the wife and I barreled down the highway. "Mon-AYE, why don't you like me?" Earlier that day, our mechanic had called to tell us the weird noise coming from our automobile was less of a cry for help and more of a death rattle — and we didn't know if we could afford the funeral. But for a brief moment we reveled in our conundrum, singing along with Ms. Jones and her Dap-Kings on their latest album, I Learned the Hard Way: "Mon-AYE, why won't you stay awhile?" Simply stated, it was one of those moments that makes a person buy soul records in the first place.
This was on Friday. By Sunday, the wheezing, crumbling car we were trying to drive into the ground — and the ground was closer than we thought — was the least of our worries. The torrential downpours that had lulled us to sleep the night before had wreaked havoc while we slumbered. Our city was submerged, the water was rising and we could feel the steely grip of panic closing in on the city's collective consciousness. Our Facebook news feeds were filled with friends looking for lost loved ones, friends bracing for evacuation, counting the moments until they'd have to abandon their homes.
And then it was Monday — the rain had stopped and the sun had come out, but the rivers hadn't crested and the damage assessment was just beginning. If you listened closely, you could almost hear the cries of, "Mon-AYE, where have you gone to? Mon-AYE, where are you hiding?" echo across Davidson County as the panic ebbed and reality flowed to the forefront. From our shared cultural landmarks like the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Schermerhorn to irreplaceable family heirlooms and vintage music equipment, the flood took what it wanted, no matter the cost.
But what the flood couldn't take away, and what money could never replace — the most valuable of all the things in all of our lives — was our humanity, our caring and the quality of our city's character. Our soul, so to speak. And that soul is what kept this disaster, as tragic as it has been, from becoming worse. We could have been greedy, we could have made a dash for the cash and ransacked to our hearts content while the city was at its most vulnerable.
Instead, we grabbed our kayaks and our chainsaws and set out to find those that need help. We rallied our social networks to let the world know that our neighbors were in trouble when the national media were ignoring us. We rushed to volunteer and nearly crashed the organizing websites. We stopped showering, stopped washing our dishes and stopped watering our lawns when the call came out to conserve water.
And while it might seem like a trite and tertiary thing to be writing about soul records in the shadow of this most tragic and despairing event, it's times like these when we need a great rhythm and blues record the most. There's comfort and catharsis to be found in just throwing up your arms and singing along with someone like Sharon Jones, there's warmth in sharing your sorrows and fears with a sympathetic soul on the other side of the speakers.
I Learned the Hard Way isn't an album about storm water and piranha-infested shopping malls (that would have been eerily prescient) but it still connects with our time and our place. From the laid-back breakup anthem "Better Things" — "My head is high and my spirit is strong" — to "Without a Heart" — a wonderful breakdown of the tragic downside to not caring about other people — The Hard Way is ultimately a study in love, loss and perseverance through the good times and bad.
While some critics have said that the Dap-Kings have drifted towards the pop realm from their underground soul and funk roots, upon listening to their latest album it's hard not to see them as inching closer and closer the universalist ideal that made soul music the cultural force it is. And in light of this tragedy, we could all use a moment or two of transcendence like that Friday afternoon, barreling down Briley Parkway in Bordeaux.