In March of 1996, I left the job I had been working at for five years — film critic for the Fresno Bee — and joined a then up-and-coming technology company called America Online as their in-house writer and editor. I had joined AOL for two reasons: The first was that the Bee wanted to put me in a more general reporting position after years of being a critic and columnist, and I was unhappy with that unilateral change, and the second was that AOL was part of this exciting new thing called “The Online World,” which represented the future, and the future was where I wanted to be. There was also a third reason, which was that AOL offered twice the salary I was getting at the Bee, and, well, I liked that, too.
Going to AOL was not without its complications. I was traveling from California to Northern Virginia, where I knew almost no one and where I had never lived, and my wife of less than a year had to stay behind in California for a couple of months to wrap up some things. I was going to be alone in a new place, with a new job, with new people, none of whom I yet knew. It was a weird interstitial time for me, and it made me feel reflective and introspective about who I was and where my life was going.
As it happens, a few months earlier, Emmylou Harris had released Wrecking Ball, an album that represented some very similar themes. Harris had with her last few albums gotten to a point where it looked like her career had gone as far as it was going to go; she was beloved but she wasn’t getting much radio airplay, and she felt at odds with the culture of country music of that era. Rather than attempt to fit in, she connected with producer Daniel Lanois and the two of them created an album that no one expected from her, one that helped shape in the in-between-folk-and-country-and-rock subgenre called “Americana,” and which found Harris openly questioning her place in the world, a questioning nowhere better represented than in the opening track, “Where Will I Be.”
I had bought and loved Wrecking Ball when I was still in Fresno — I’d not been a Harris fan before, but I was long an admirer of Lanois, so I bought the album on his association — but it was in Northern Virginia that this song and the whole of Harris’ album sank into my soul. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was homesick and especially missing my wife, and while I was already making friendships with people that would last even to this day, they weren’t yet in a place where they were soul-filling. I was adrift, like Harris’ music on Wrecking Ball suggested she was adrift. This album and particularly this song became my solace.
This ends happily: After a couple of months Krissy traveled to Northern Virginia to stay with me, and I got to introduce her to my new friends, who became our new friends, and we ended being very happy in the area until we moved, in 2001, to be closer to her family in Ohio. The first concert Krissy and I went to together in Northern Virginia, as it happens, was to see Emmylou Harris on her Wrecking Ball tour. She was wonderful.
A couple of years later, Wrecking Ball was playing in the room when Krissy was giving birth to our daughter Athena, who was born to the song “Waltz Across Texas Tonight.” And I’ve been an Emmylou Harris fan ever since, going backwards and forwards in her discography from Wrecking Ball.
If I had to pick one album of all the ones I have as my all-time favorite, Wrecking Ball is likely to be it — for the stunning quality of the album itself, but also for what it represented to me, and did for me, in a lonely, slightly lost time of my life. The opening chiming guitar of “Where Will I Be” takes me back to the moment, and also to the knowledge that thanks to that song, that album, and Emmylou Harris, I had something beautiful to hold onto until that moment passed, and a good life followed.