"What's your comfort music?"
That's the question my friend Brent Stoker asked me as we sat chatting over coffee on my recent trip to my hometown, Nashville. It seemed appropriate to talk about music in Music City. Brent is a talented musician and artist from a family of talented musicians and artists. Periodically he plays with another talented musician, Les Kerr. Kerr has written a song called "Comfort Music." You've probably already guessed that the idea behind the song is that just as some foods give us comfort, so too does music.
So what's my comfort music? I rattled off some artists in answer to Brent's question; Billy Joel, Elton John, Steely Dan, etc. I hemmed and hawed most inarticulately about liking so many kinds of music, so many genres and sounds, it makes it hard for me to choose what is my comfort music and what isn't. All this is true. I like a lot of music. But what makes it comfort? Brent's question has stuck with me. I've been trying to answer it every day since I came back to Shawnee. What is my comfort music?
Maybe the best way to find the answer is to think about why we label something as "comfort." Comfort food is often associated with simplicity. Dishes like homemade mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, meatloaf, and chicken pot pie are designated as comfort foods. These foods are hearty and warm. They conjure images of families gathering around the table, unconcerned with calories or fat content; unburdened with the fear of preservatives, or if something is organic or gluten free. Those foods are fine. Sure, they're comfortable. But it seems to me that the comfort comes not from the food necessarily but from the memories and the emotions that food evokes. So while I like mashed potatoes just fine, they're not my comfort food. Instead it's caramel apples. I knew that it was officially autumn when my mother would come home with freshly picked apples and a bag of Kraft caramels and popsicle sticks. Toffee squares -- a gooey, chocolate bar with a brown sugar crust -- is a comfort food, not because they're so good (they are), but because they're one of the first things I learned to bake with my mom.
So, what's my comfort music? Maybe it's Joy to the World by Three Dog Night because even though I wasn't very old, I sang "Jeremiah was a bullfrog" with gusto. Same goes for Blood, Sweat and Tears' Spinning Wheel. "What goes up must come down." Every year when Spring would overtake Middle Tennessee -- and Spring was/is glorious in Middle Tennessee -- a local news team would film a montage of people enjoying the weather. They would show families in Centennial Park and teenagers playing frisbee at Percy Warner Park, and the soundtrack would be The Beatles, Here Comes the Sun. That's comfort to me.
Hearing Billie Jean or Beat It by Michael Jackson puts me back in my friend Heather's car, driving around after school, singing and dancing in our seats. James Taylor's You've Got a Friend wasn't just one of my sister and brothers' favorite songs; it was the song that cemented my friendship with Jeannie when we tried singing it together at the end of our freshmen year in high school. Hearing Billie Holiday sing Stormy Weather gives voice to my every heartache, and Aretha Franklin singing Respect reminds me that I always found the courage to get back up. Comfort.
Pop isn't the only comfort music I know. The opening notes of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik bring back my days playing cello in the school orchestra, and the thrill that ran through me the first time I really heard how all the instruments worked together to make this incredible sound. Children of the Heavenly Father is an okay hymn musically, and definitely not my favorite theologically. But, good or bad, when I hear it I get my gramma back. She's sitting at our piano playing through the hymnals that always resided there, singing and encouraging me to sing along. It's all comfort.
Comfort music like comfort food helps me remember -- moments, emotions, places, people. Thanks for asking me this question, Brent. All this remembering has been a comfort.