Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Tuesday Tune: “Town Underground” by Christy Hays

As anyone who has pranked around with interstate mileage signs will tell you, Butte, Montana is frequently the butt of jokes. Sometimes it deserves to have the “e” removed, and sometimes it doesn’t. When traveling on the interstate between Bozeman and Missoula, it’s easy to bypass this city, but those who pull off the nearest exit will find a place worth a linger...if only long enough to drive past the large mansions built by mining tycoons, eat a greasy pork chop sandwich, or stare into the emerald depths of a toxic lake. Once a glorious metropolis and now mired in depression, Butte can be a puzzle and a befuddlement and a reminder that things don’t always turn out the way we’d hoped.

Butte is a boomtown gone bust when the last of its copper mines ceased production decades ago. Now, a little more than 30,000 scrappy souls still stubbornly cling to the memories of its glory days, back when it was the largest city between Chicago and San Francisco around the turn of the 20th century. Though it’s fallen onto economic hard times and many of the once-grand buildings in its historic district are empty brick shells painted with pigeon droppings, there are some people here who refuse to let it die. They steadfastly paint rouge on the cheeks of the corpse every day. I don’t blame them, for I, too, want to believe Butte will someday rise from its coffin and dance an Irish jig in the streets again—maybe not in the same way it did back when Charlie Chaplin performed live matinees in the theaters uptown and Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis on a dirt runway south of town, but perhaps there’s a chance a re-animated Butte could boogie in the 21st century with renewed vigor.

I’ve lived here for eleven years—the longest my feet have ever been planted in one place—and I’m still trying to figure this city out. Psychologically and physically, it’s a mess of contradictions (and, yes, I’m braced for a wave of hate mail from those who can only see the rouge and not the dead cheek). I swing both ways on the love-hate scale nearly every day.

No one has captured the yin-yang of Butte in as compact and poetic a manner as singer-songwriter Christy Hays and that’s why I’m briefly reanimating Tuesday Tune (my own corpse of a blog feature) today in honor of her song “Town Underground.”

Hays is a newcomer who divides her time between Austin, Texas and Butte, where she purchased the family home of the late Edwin C. Dobb, a Butte native who went on to write for National Geographic and Harper’s Magazine before his untimely death this past summer. Hays is in the midst of turning the old miner’s cottage into an artist residency (visit her Instagram account here) and though I can’t speak authoritatively about the afterlife, I’m pretty sure Ed Dobb is smiling at the thought. For starters, his spirit hovers like mist over the lyrics of “Town Underground” (more on that in a minute).

Dobb’s tour de force of creative non-fiction was “Pennies From Hell,” a clear-eyed portrait of Butte published in Harper’s in 1996. Dobb opened that essay with the sad-but-true story of the snow geese that landed on the city’s toxic lake, the Berkeley Pit, which is full to the brim with deadly mining waste a half-dozen blocks north of my house:
Rust-colored, reeking of sulfur, and surrounded by corroded earthen terraces so sterile they appear incandescent in strong light, the 600-acre lake that rests within the man-made cavity known as the Berkeley Pit looks nothing like a refuge, though it must have seemed like one to the ill-starred flock of snow geese that stopped there while passing through southwestern Montana last November. It is uncertain how many birds eventually rose from that bitter pool and flew over the rooftops of Butte, the town that borders and embraces this former strip mine, continuing their winter migration from Arctic Canada to California, but at least 342 of them did not. That is the number of carcasses Pit monitors found drifting in the lake and washed ashore in the weeks following the flock’s stopover.
I have often stood (safely) on the rim of the Berkeley Pit and marveled at how it glows when the right slant of light falls on its terraced slopes. I can see why it was a magnet pulling the geese to its surface. It is gorgeous and it is gross. It was the source Butte’s economic life for decades, and it was the pool of death for hundreds of birds.

Christy Hays, channeling the spirit of Ed Dobb (as well as that of another “Ed from Butte,” poet Ed Lahey) bottles all of Butte’s ironies in her lyrics to “Town Underground” when she sings:

There’s a town that I found
It’s empty and proud,
It’s filthy, it’s grand, and it’s boring.

When I first heard her sing those words, I was driving down the snow-cluttered streets of Butte, past the pawn shops and the pot shops, tucked ass-to-elbow among the casinos and banks. An elk head peered over a pickup truck’s tailgate, tongue lolling as it winked at me with dead eyes. Just ahead, the orange terraces of the Berkeley Pit shone in all their terrible beauty.

Hays’ voice (which reminds me of Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin in their finest, gentlest moments) continued to pour through my speakers as she reached the chorus and I turned into my driveway:

Maybe I’m wrong to love it so much,
It’s bound to disappoint me like love does

All I can say in response is “Yes, yes, yes.”

I have only love, and no disappointment, when it comes to “Town Underground” (the rest of her 2018 album, River Swimmer, is just as great). Christy Hays has written a pitch-perfect love/hate/tolerate letter to this crazy mixed-up town and I will be pressing repeat on her song as often as I can for as long as I live here, still breathing and still above-ground.

Visit her website to learn more about her music.

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