As part of a series called “Remembering Jason Molina,” I’m collecting stories about Jason and his impact on songwriters, musicians, and music writers. These are all individual tributes, on how Jason has affected their music, their perception of music, or just anecdotes on meeting him or seeing him live. Each story is posted to promote the new album Farewell Transmission: The Music of Jason Molina, which not only celebrates Jason’s music, but will also help the Molina family and MusiCares with its proceeds.
Today is the second anniversary of Jason’s death, and I couldn’t think of a more beautiful tribute than the one provided by Andrew Bryant. For those not familiar with Andrew, you may know him as the second half of the popular duo Water Liars, whose cover of “Just Be Simple” has become a staple at their live shows as well as a standout track on Farewell Transmission. Andrew also has an excellent new album out called This Is The Life. You should check it out … but, for now, let’s remember the music of Jason Molina.
I was living in a house trailer in my home state of Mississippi in the summer of 2003, the year Songs: Ohia – The Magnolia Electric Company was released. I remember the air conditioning unit was freezing up on me and it was about 100 degrees during the day. I worked all day at a rooftruss manufacturing factory and every night I drank beer and smoked cigarettes until I fell asleep, usually laying in the floor with my head on the air duct, trying not to die. I was in a bad place that year. I had dropped out of school. I had a shit job. My girlfriend was gone. The air conditioning was on the fritz. It was hard times.
One of those summer nights, I was sitting at my computer and read something about this song called Hold On Magnolia. The title grabbed me. My home state of Mississippi’s official nickname is ‘The Magnolia State’. Maybe that’s what did it. Maybe not. I couldn’t really say. But I do remember hearing about that song before ever hearing the name Songs: Ohia or Jason Molina. This was the era of Myspace and Napster so I went hunting. I read about the record. I read about Songs: Ohia. I read about Jason. I found a pirate download of his new album and set it to download and went back to drinking beer and fell asleep. I know it took all night to download because it always did back then. This was before the days of hispeed wifi. I had a dial up connection and an old ass computeronly slightly faster than the postal service for acquiring new music. But that was my portal to a broader world in those days. And it was through that portal I found something to live for.
Music, for me, is something to live for in itself. I believe it to be the highest form of art. Put together in the right way, music helps me to transcend this often meaningless existence that the earth has thrust me into. For seven minutes and fiftyone seconds, Hold On Magnolia continues to baptize me with meaning and emotion every time I listen to it. Fully renewed I can face the next hour, the next night, the next day. The first time I heard that song I wept. Something in me was released. Something was begun and began again and it keeps repeating. And for that reason I can’t imagine existing all this time on this planet without the songs of Jason Molina. His songs put a bandaid on my cutup soul. And for that I will never forsake his work.
To create an immortal existence is what I believe most humans long for. This is what religion has been trying to do for centuries, but religion has failed us and left many like me in a state of existential crisis. We have asked ourselves Why am I here? What am I? Is this all there is? And I believe this is what drives us who create art: to endlessly seek transcendence above this often meaningless journey called life, to create something that will never die. And it is for these reasons that Jason Molina will never die. Nor will I.
During that same summer, in the year 2003, I began my own process of transcendence. In that house trailer in Mississippi I began to write my own songs and record them on my computer. Shortly after I began to play shows under my own name, whenever and wherever I could. And I’ve continued to do it for the last twelve years, and I have made a life that I now find both meaningful and enjoyable, one that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
On Sunday August 15, 2004, Hurricane Charley was headed up the East Coast from Florida causing 10 fatalities and over 14 billion dollars in damage on its path. The Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez successfully defeated a recall vote with 58% support. Sixteen hundred Palestinians in Israeli jails began a hunger strike to protest against their prison conditions. A bomb blast killed 18 people at a parade in Dhemaji, Assam during India’s Independence Day celebrations. The Chicago White Sox defeated the Red Sox in Boston 54. And I drove two hours north to Memphis, TN to open for Magnolia Electric Co. at the Hitone on Poplar Avenue. But only one of these events has made a lasting impact on my life.
There is no grand story tell of that night really, so I won’t try. I drove up in my dark blue 1998 Mazda Protege. Did a line check. Ordered a beer and talked to Jason Groth about music and touring. I looked over my shoulder, wondering where Jason Molina was, hoping to meet him, but he was only a ghost that night. I played my set to a handful of twenty people or so, packed up my shit, then settled at the bar to watch MEC play. I would have to be at work at 7am so I was probably anxious about driving home, trying not to drink too much.
Before they took the stage, I turned and saw that Jason was standing next to me at the bar, holding a Red Stripe. He was wearing a red flannel shirt and I remember thinking he was shorter than I had imagined. I nodded at him and he returned the nod. We said nothing, and then he took the stage with the rest of his band.
I was mesmerized by their performance. The songs that I had spent the last year immersing myself in were coming to life before my eyes. And there were new songs too. I was taken out of this world and I was born into a new one. And it was a world I wanted to be in.
In the 12 years since that night, Jason Molina has grown in my mind from a small, awkward midwesterner into a giant, confident genius. I have consistently played his records more than any other artist or band I’ve come to love since. They keep me company at home. They keep me sane when I’m on the road. His songs have become a collection of torches on my journey across the long dark blues of life. Phrases like “Hammer down, heaven bound” and “Just be simple” have become personal mantras for me. I have harmonized the lines “I ain’t lookin for that easy way out/ This whole life has been about/ trying trying trying/ To be simple again” with my one of my best friends, Justin KinkelSchuster, on hundreds of stages, and I have felt something deep lifting me up every time. Sure, the heartbreak of Jason’s death has suffered my soul as much as the next, but I am resurrected every time I put on his music. I am pulled back from the long dark blues everytime I hear his angelic voice vibrating in my ear like a ghost. Hammer down, my brothers. Hammer down, my sisters. Hammer down.
— Andrew Bryant, February 26, 2015
Purchase Farewell Transmission: The Music of Jason Molina: Amazon; iTunes
Jason Molina: Website; Secretly Canadian; Graveface Records
Magnolia Electric Co.: Website; Secretly Canadian; Facebook
Andrew Bryant: Website; Facebook; Twitter
Water Liars: Website; Facebook; Twitter