David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 59: Charlie Sexton Sextet (Sunday Clothes)

June 24, 2020

I heard an interview on NPR this week with a man who has written a book on the importance of rituals. I have never been a man of rituals. Opening day in baseball season probably provided the closest thing I ever had to a ritual, but when you are a Pittsburgh Pirates' fan, opening days, entire seasons, are things to dread, not anticipate.

This lack of ritual in my own life doesn't mean I am not intrigued by others' rituals (or even by this book). Since almost everyone I have ever known is more religious than I am, I have silently wondered about the power of their rituals. I have participated in Catholic weddings and Catholic funerals, finding I am not alone in the uncertainty of what to do, even when I am surrounded by Catholics. What is it with all of the rigamarole when most of the Catholics I know are pretty lapsed?

I recognize that it may be the company that I keep.

Thus, when the elusive (4 albums between 1985 and 2005, and none since) Charlie Sexton wraps the meaning of religious ritual within the bewitching "Sunday Clothes," I am not only mesmerized, but even a bit jealous. Not that it did him much good (see previous parenthetical). "Sunday Clothes," alone, should have guaranteed him a long-term record deal.

"Sunday Clothes," which Sexton co-wrote with James McMurtry, fellow Texan musician, and son of novelist, Larry McMurtry, recounts the simplicity of religious rituals. "We were singing those hymns over and over again," Sexton croons in the chorus, "Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night." The regularity of music, even if spiritual, resonates with me. I may not have understood the secular songs I listened throughout my childhood, but I know, as Sexton asserts, that they "probably saved my life."

However, it's a leap to go from "All Mixed Up" saving my life to "Nearer My God To Thee," although The Cars' "leave it to me/everything will be alright" may have been outright spiritual for me. Sexton's song makes me long for something deeper. "All Mixed Up" made me long for something deeper, but much more secular again.

Sexton's chorus projects an altar boy in contrast to the verses, which recount how the narrator is lucky to have been saved. The second part of the opening verse casts Sexton's narrator as a potential soul requiring heavenly guidance:

"Came into this crazy world around 1968/

Fathered by a crazy kid with nothing on his plate/

Daddy got in trouble, yeah, Daddy did some time/

So visiting day in the penitentiary is where I learned to cry."

The second set of verses show him on the edge of replicating his daddy's troubles but prevented from them by religious ritual, a little luck, and his grandmother's guiding hand. In telling us so, Sexton produces a near perfect quatrain: "summertime we lived with grandma/where we learned the golden rule/or some southern variation/called vacation bible school." I did one summer at Peterkin, a vacation bible school somewhere around West Virginia. I somehow missed any lasting impact.

Musically, the sextet, more truthfully a foursome with some extra background singers, keeps the song skipping along with mandolin, accordion, and violin. Background vocals slip in and out piercing Sexton's lines with a slight echo effect. While they flesh out the chorus, their angelic vocal qualities emerge more definitively in the verses: "as the preacher takes the pulpit/and the ushers shut the door;" "visiting day in the penitentiary/is where I learned to cry;" "or some southern variation/called vacation bible school;" "I never got in trouble, I guess I got lucky I suppose."

The song is basically two verses followed by chorus, followed by verse, repeated opening verse, and two final reiterations of the chorus. With such a basic structure, the song should be found in a fictional hymnal book in a nondescript pew in some hardscrabble off-the-main road church. In that fantasy, though, the altar boy, during the musical bridge after the second chorus, recreates Sexton's ringing guitar solo. It's a musical onslaught that tears at your soul, before the ornamented instruments drop, leaving basically a bass and drum, as Sexton recounts life with grandma. These are moments of bliss, signs of a loving God.

In the end, he eventually snarls the saving line, "but it probably saved my life." Even I, the eternal skeptic, can't doubt him.

"Sunday Clothes." Under The Wishing Tree. Charlie Sexton. MCA. 1995. Link here (not full CD version).

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Day 60: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers "American Girl."

See full unfinished list here.