After finishing my college degree, three women friends and I decided to "go west." We stuffed into a struggling station wagon with a tent, one duffel bag each, and about 30 cassette tapes. When asked the purpose of this sojourn, I usually responded with a smirk, "Oh, you know, all the easy stuff: Going west to simplify, to find the meaning of life, who I really am, and what God might have in store for me." Even then, I didn't assume that any road trip would supply me with the wisdom of the ages. But now, two years later, as I still spin with questions of identity, direction, vocation, and purpose, I am baffled by the longevity of this journey.
In the context of this bewilderment, I listen to Carrie Newcomer's 1998 release, My True Name, a country-folk-bluesy treatise on searching for identity, abandoning old definitions and names, throwing oneself into the uncertainty of God's Spirit, and accepting the complexity of the now. Newcomer's advice to my searching soul: "You can only offer up your heart and ask that you be led." Yes, Newcomer's musical exploration comes as both the comforting blessing of a struggle shared as well as a daunting omen promising the continuation of a circuitous and arduous path toward inner peace.
Newcomer does not beat around the bush. Answers are not discovered easily, and certainty cannot be assumed. In "When One Door Closes," a gospel-like, tambourine-accompanied song that urges the listener to sing along, Newcomer insists, "It's not gettin' easier, so I'm not going to pretend/That I know this story from its beginning to its end." She continues, "When you finally think you've got it down, it isn't so."
Darkness along the route is a given. "The Razor's Edge," described by Newcomer as a song about "walking the edge of darkness and coming back to tell the story," speaks of personal uncertainty ("I'm pretty strong, but I've never been that tough"), as well as the obscurity of our surroundings ("no door is ever quite the same").
The abyss is never the concluding cadence, however. "The Razor's Edge" insists that, despite the darkness, "something still is calling us back again." The uncertainty Newcomer allows to sneak into her songs is powerfully balanced with a contagious dose of hope channeled through a soothingly rich, full-throated alto. While challenging her listeners to let go of the need to know, to define, and to name, Newcomer sings of an understanding of the heart that faces the questions much more clearly than our myopic volition. "If I could turn down the noise of my own will and choice/I could feel the truth of my life in a clear voice/I will bow down my head to the wisdom of my heart/Cool my heels and hold on to the best parts." By quieting the "noise," we are opened to the mystery that surrounds us. Described in "The Moon Over Tucson," it is a mystery requiring, in our incomprehension of it all, that "we just breathe in deep and close our eyes."
The title track alone is reason to buy Newcomer's fifth album. Accompanied only by a soft piano, the singer/songwriter's beautiful voice and stirring lyrics are accentuated as she offers a litany of misnomers that have, past and present, identified her. In the midst of these, Newcomer speaks of the one who "saw to my center, past every imposter/And [who] whispered My True Name." And by the last verse, while throwing to the wind all of the labels, the artist herself both speaks and whispers this new gift, her true name.
I have no doubt that Newcomer is a woman called by the Spirit to sing to us. "Most writers I know didn't choose to write," she explains, "but write because they were always called to. It's as if we are born restless, carrying something that can't let us go and won't let us stop." Somehow, I think she says it better to music. (Go figure.) In "Close Your Eyes," Newcomer reveals her own wonderthe mystery of her purpose, her direction, her identity: "So how I got this job I'll never know/but when it calls you can't refuse to go/So most of us just do the best we can/And in this stumbling world just try to stand."
The last track, "The Length of My Arms," is a pearl. "I've always had long arms, my sleeves never fit," she sings, "And my mother would worry about my dangling wrists and/I never grew too tall, but it did me no harm/To never grow into the length of my arms." An apt closing tune, this song is about accepting our uniqueness and seeing our peculiarities as a blessing: "We finally cherish what we got from the start." When imagining this, I am lost in mysterious goosebumps and goofy smiles. It gives me such joy to picture her long, dangling, "really quite lovely" arms wrapped around a guitar.
In the midst of the themes of "letting go" and acceptance, My True Name features a proactive and maturing artist, a musician who is both whispering and speaking her true name, clearer and stronger with each album she shares with us. And the most glorious truth about it all is that while Newcomer is searching and naming, she carries us gently along with her "ridiculously long" arms, inviting us into the ultimate journey, the circuitous route that leads to the discovery of the One who seeks our center and whispers our true name.
My True Name. Carrie Newcomer. Rounder Records, 1998.