So turn that jukebox way up high,
And fill my glass up while I cry.
I’ve lost everything in this world,
And now I’m a honky tonk girl.
Now I am in Austin, a birthday gift from the girl who met me on my first day in Canada, a girl who is about to become a grandmother. Wendy and I have come from our cities on the west coast for the fiftieth anniversary of Honky Tonk Girl. Jack White has brought Loretta out of retirement and introduced her to a new generation with Van Lear Rose, an album for which — for the first time — she wrote all the songs. On this night, we watch Loretta, feral and furious on stage. She lets us have all of her, all of the working class girl who endured and grieved and prospered. Wendy and I remember the hard luck times of our own wifehood, motherhood, artistry; we hear it through the music. Later, we pour out into the rainy night and find the Broken Spoke, a honky tonk where the men wear cowboy hats and the women are sweet and resilient. Wendy orders a beer, I sip a Coke with ice. Some old boy with worn boots and a line on his ring finger asks Wendy to dance. I slide against the wall and watch them two-step on the tiny floor. Outside, a six hundred million dollar complex with upscale apartments, a fitness center, a yoga studio, and a bocce ball court, encroaches. But inside, warped tiles, corrugated metal, the aroma of country-fried steak, and the sweet sound of country troubadours holds the walls together. I tap my feet to honky tonk, outlaw, rockabilly, and forget for a time about my losses and diseases and failures. In fifty years, Wendy has left two marriages; I’ve lost one to a brain injury. We’ve let our bodies, our minds, and our friendship go for years at a time. We’ve had “many nights we laid awake and cried,” but this isn’t one of them. After midnight, we pull out of the gravel parking lot, a thunderstorm cascading across the dark valley, the spring air on our bodies. Out on the road, we laugh at what has passed away: barbecue joints and tabletop jukeboxes and second wave feminism and Richard Nixon. When we sing “I’ve lost everything in this world, and now I’m a honky tonk girl” we know what we mean. We know that like the women before us, we are tender and tough. Even though becoming ourselves has involved much more candor and defiance than we imagined when we were girls, we haven’t had our grandmother’s struggles. Still, we sing it for them. Sometimes, we grow into songs we love.
This piece is part of an ongoing series called Superunknown: Stories About Songs.