33. Hope on an artificial hill
November 11th, 2020

Robbie Basho - Visions of the Country
(File under: music, walking, mountains, rain)

Listen: gnomelife.bandcamp.com/album/visions-of-the-country

What feels like a full calendar year ago, but was actually just the Wednesday before last, I went for a long walk in a jacket that was not remotely waterproof. Having spent all of Tuesday staring at a map of America until my eyes went dry, I felt stale and helpless, so I did what usually helps me in similar situations: Find the biggest hill within walking distance, stand on it, and shut up for second.

Arthur’s Seat, Wawel Hill, Twin Peaks, Mount Royal—admittedly most of these are mountains and one is an extinct volcano (and apparently a Marilyn as opposed to a Munro), but I’ve walked to the top of all of them and found relief waiting for me. Either that or the altitude made me light headed, but the effect was the same. I live on a hill already, so in walking to Gas Works Park here in Seattle, I was actually descending to an elevation that pales in comparison to all the peaks mentioned above. It’s not even a natural hill, it’s man-made entirely for the purpose of flying kites, and even then—

Sorry, this email isn’t about hills. It’s about Robbie Basho.

I listened to Robbie Basho’s Visions of the Country as I walked, because I was tired of thinking of America as an abstract shape portioned out in duotone, described only in counts, calls, and percentages. Originally released in 1978, out of print for 35+ years, and not nearly as well regarded as other American primitive records from that era, Visions of the Country is, as the liner notes say, “simply an LP of Guitar Paintings of the Americas and other joys.” It’s filled with nature and mysticism, elk and eagles, waterfalls and mountains, all drawn with mesmerising technical proficiency on 6- and 12-string guitar and piano. It’s beautiful.

The first track on side B is ‘Orphan’s Lament’, a tremulous piano ballad that sounds wrenched up from somewhere both deeply tragic and strangely triumphant. It’s not a song that you listen to while folding laundry or doing the dishes. The best way to listen to it is while climbing a hill in miserable weather, ideally reaching the top just as Basho is belting out the song’s chorus, not giving a shit about the fact that you’re soaked through, or that this year has been one existential catastrophe after another, until it wasn’t—until you finally got a reprieve and a reminder of what hope feels like, while stood on an artificial hill in the rain, with visions of the Grand Tetons.

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