Big Dreams in the Big Sky

Paradise Valley, by John Mayer.

A modest review of John Mayer’s 2013 album, Paradise Valley.

Anyone who reviews this album without mentioning “Montana” has clearly missed the point.

Dear John, I think that I had to move to Montana to realize what a gifted artist you are. Without the Big Sky, it is all just hot air, isn’t it?

Case in point: I recently read Jon Caramanic’s 2013 review of your album in the NYTimes, entitled  “A Crooner Decides to Speak Through His Music,” in which he spends more time dissecting your love life with Katy Perry and Taylor Swift than actually attending to the interplay of music, mood, and landscape that shaped this album into a polished gemstone of musical craftsmanship, akin to the way that glaciers and melting snows have shaped the Paradise Valley and the surrounding, high elevation plateaus.

John, I didn’t even know that Taylor Swift and you were a thing, back in the day. God’s honest truth, I have never listened to “Dear John.” And while I was smitten by that female vocalist on “Who You Love,” I didn’t bother to check what her name was. I just loved the duet and rocked out to the rhythms and flows and beats. 

For me, if you don’t mention Montana when reviewing this album, you simply are missing the forest by focusing on the shape of individual trees. Jon C. never did, by the way (perhaps an early sign that the Times was, indeed, failing?). It’s all water under the bridge by now, I suppose. I mean, has that dude even been to Paradise Valley? Would he know Pray, Montana if it pressed up against his posterior? Would he have the boldness to do a morning soak at Chico Hot Springs in early January, when ice forms on the metal ladders at the deep end? I have, and you’ll find the pictures on Yelp from my review to prove it. 

And there is a dog on the cover this album, not a girlfriend. Man’s best friend, who looks better in that hat that you do, John. Just sayin’.

When I first listened to this album, I did so because of the Montana connection. Otherwise, I am ashamed to admit, I did buy the whole “crooner” label for you. I put you up there with Michael Bublé, Usher, and Justin Timberlake. And Harry Connick Jr., too, but that’s probably just the media talking. They really loved comparing you with others, didn’t they? Maybe that’s why you decided to act so ferociously different (read: erratic and crazy with self-torpedoing tendencies*) when members of the press came ‘a calling for salacious stories to print. You needed to be yourself. You needed to be unique, like a vintage Luftwaffe IWC with singe marks on the strap from crashing and burning while on a bombing run over Coventry. You just don’t forget something as intense as all of that. Forgive, yes; but forget? Not in this lifetime.

(*) If this isn’t already listed as an actual disorder in the DSM-V, well it should be.

But this album, it isn’t like that, is it? It’s beautiful, but in a hard as nails Montana sort of way. The musical compositions are so tender, but there is a toughness to the lyrics, belied only by the lushness and dulcet tones of the vocals. The guitar bits are so smooth and masterful, as only a skilled, lifelong student of the strings can manage. 

Suddenly, I was listening to you differently, I realized. I was comparing you to respected musicians, not musical celebrities with millions of Twitter followers. I was hearing Mark Knopfler, or Martha Scanlan, or Mandolin Orange in your songs. That’s a subjective list, I grant you; but it’s true. Tell me; was it the “Montana” in ya’ that done it? Did all that time in the Big Sky while you were recovering from your vocal ailments and media missteps change you in positive and enduring ways as an artist? As a man? As a songwriter? I hope so. I hope that the land transformed you, shaped you, bent you to the breaking point and then, like a New Testament miracle, made you stronger, leaner, faster, tougher, and kinder. I swear, I’ve seen it happen.

Have you met Bryce Andrews yet? Or read his cowboy memoir, Badluck Way? You’d love it. It’s set on the Sun Ranch in the Madison River Valley, about 25 miles south of Ennis. Your neck of the woods, so to speak, just two valleys over (I’m ignoring Ted Turner, your next door neighbor, and Tom Brokaw and David Letterman, though). Do you ever make it over to the Bitterroot to hang with Huey, by the way? Or the News? Just wondering. Somehow, I imagine you’d have things to talk about, Big Sky rock bro to rock bro, I’m thinking, with the live concert-related injuries to body and mind to prove it.

Anyway, I’m getting off topic. The point is, John, that this album was the gateway for me into your other music, both before and since. I especially dig Born and Raised. I have listened to “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test” more often than I can count. I go back and forth on it, but I think he drowned in the end, and it was his submarine that washed up on the Japanese shores. Feels better that way, lyrically speaking. He died doing what he loved, even when most people didn’t believe in him, except for his wife and best friends at the bar. Worse ways to end up than that, even for a Libra like yourself (although perhaps with a bit of Scorpio as well, speculates my wife).

John, the next time you are out on that open highway, here’s what I propose. Start in Hamilton, Montana with morning coffee at Big Creek Coffee Roasters on Main Street (tell Randy I said, “Hi”). Take US-93 to Chief Joseph Pass, then head East on Highway 43 to the Big Hole battlefield site, which is now the Nez Perce National Historic Park. Have a bagged lunch and beer* (I recommend something from Kettlehouse in Missoula or Wildwood in Stevensville). Once you’ve reached Wisdom, head south on Highway 278 to the Grasshopper Valley. Turn left and once past Polaris, stay for the night at Elkhorn Hot Springs. Two words, my friend: the grotto. You will thank me later. It’s a very rustic place, the Elkhorn, but I think you’d love it. 

(*) You can of course substitute this with a non-alcoholic beverage of your choice if you’re no longer a drinker of the hard stuff. 

Next morning, head north to Wise River, then drive east to Interstate 15. From there, it’s on to Butte for an early afternoon cocktail at Headframe Spirits (or seltzer water, I suppose), then back on the highway to Livingstone and south on Highway 89 to your home in Paradise Valley. Once you’ve settled in, reward yourself with a nice meal and good bottle of wine at Chico Hot Springs. Their cellar selections are fantastic. You will by then have earned it. That’s the way home, my friend. That’s the way. But you probably know that already, don’t you? 

P.S. John, I’ve been inviting musicians to spend some quality downtime as my guest on the San Mateo coast, based out of a very small but comfortable cottage in the redwoods overlooking Half Moon Bay. To date, the list has included Mark Knopfler, Emmylou Harris, Tracy Chapman, the Indigo Girls, Madonna, Sheryl Crow, and Ani DiFranco. I figure that I should extend the invite to you as well; after all, you’ve more than earned it for all the joy you gave me with your music. So, if you’re ever in the Bay Area and want a hiking partner in the redwoods, or someone to show you the most secluded and pristine parts of the Pacific Coast between San Francisco and Carmel, or where to find the best carnitas tacos (hint: in a Mexican taqueria housed inside a gas station convenience store), or the best craft spirits (hint: in Santa Cruz), or the most interesting beer and wine tastings locally, message me on Yelp. I won’t tell anyone you’re stopping by, except for my wife, of course. She’s not exactly your typical John Mayer fan, but then again: neither am I. I’d like to think that we’re fellow travelers who finally found out after years of existence that you’re one of us, too. Tap ‘er light, friend. Tap ‘er light, indeed.

Paradise Valley, by John Mayer.

Published by Sempervirens117

I am a writer, blogger, and founder of sempervirens117.com, an environmentally conscious Silicon Valley consultancy based in Woodside, California.

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