Home & Garden

Our Lives: Listening to a Piedmont soundtrack

John Valentine.
John Valentine. jleonard@newsobserver.com

The field crickets aren’t going quietly.

Their sweeping, triple trills dominate the late evening and early morning. I want to walk through their sound cloud, absorbing their dense, pulsing power and echoes, wave after wave of lush rhythms, but as I step deeper into the dark, they pause and start anew, with feeling, 20 yards down the trail.

The first hard frost will end the cricket’s nighttime reign. The sounds of late fall are much different, muted and less vigorous. Far-off neighbor dogs barking, a siren from the fire station 2 miles away, the startled bleat of a deer foraging for something green, testing her luck near the hostas and rogue garlic plants.

Some early evenings, I’ll be standing on the back porch and it’ll feel like a movie set – someone has just cued the northwest winds. High up in the pines and poplars, the thin branches and remaining dry leaves will rustle, the trees will sway in unison, dancing slowly with the gusts.

As more leaves fall, a complete circle of auburn curtains drifts to the ground everywhere. No longer tucked into the woods under a canopy of green, our house opens up to the hidden sights and sounds of the forest beyond. A familiar hillside path now has colorful definition through the bare woods. We can see the owl that watches us at night, the squirrel’s nests 50 feet up in an elbow of branches. The moon reflects curiously off sheets of tin covering wood piles 100 yards to the south.

We can hear the drone of a tractor a half-mile away and in the other direction, the deep appreciative moos of a herd of cows as dinner hay is trucked out. Every hour something terribly alarming is happening to one of the more vocal chickens over near the garden. Someone’s in her favorite nest, the water’s almost empty or the cracked corn is stale. Or maybe she’s just commenting on the latest pecking order poll.

I know the patterns, the turn, turn, turn. Soon we’ll be hearing the thump of axes and wedges on wood, the squishy-squashy of boots in puddles, and the scratch and scrapes of raking, raking, raking. All the bird feeders need restocking as the cardinals and wrens remind us each morning. Wintering over, they need their seeds.

At a neighborhood potluck, a college buddy (our woods bookend each other now), mentioned that a few local musicians had been out at his barn recording an album. That’s pretty cool! Then the conversation moved on to kids, heart pine, Duke basketball, Quaker resilience and a plum dessert. Later, my wife and I walked over to the power line cut, home to feed the dogs.

A few weeks passed; a friend waxed poetic about a new album he’d just heard, using words like, “magnetic, irrepressible, confessional” so I went down to my local record store and picked up a copy. I like new tunes on the way to work, always on the lookout for fresh content. Great reflective road music! Hiss Golden Messenger sings, “Shake, children, shake. Shake your tambourine,” and I’m with him. I can see the boat on the water.

One morning, driving into town, I hear a strange, intermittent sound under the hood. That happens. Then it goes away. I finally isolated the chirps. Turns out it was coming from the music itself.

The new HGM album had cricket sounds as guest vocals introducing the title cut, “Lateness of Dancers.” Every time I played it, which was often, I heard them. They sounded so familiar, added such a sense of place to the delicious, evocative album.

I remember when Brian Wilson added his barking dogs, Banana and Louie, on the tender final track of his album “Pet Sounds,” recorded in Hollywood. This was even closer to home.

But I just had to know, were those cricket sounds mixed in from Pittsboro, layered in from Graham or taped over from the Lower East Side? Or were they just grabbed from the Orange County woods? I dialed the Merge Records info line; songwriter and guitarist M.C. Taylor responded, “They sure were. We just stuck the mic out the window.”

Scott Hirsch, band mate and co-producer, added, “I literally just opened the door after a night of recording and let the tape roll with one of the microphones!”

Those loud, proclaiming, confident field crickets that accompanied Michael and Scott have moved on, but I still hear their kin and seek them out every day. You just can’t find a better Piedmont soundtrack.

Valentine: johnvalentine732@gmail.com