Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Mike Gentry
This Christmas, I bought my father a book that I know he'll never read. The confidence in this statement comes from years and years of books as gifts that never get read. This year's book is "The Oxford Project," a journalistic book of photos and short, concise biographies of the residents of tiny Oxford, Iowa. These people (all but six of the 676 residents of the burg) were first encountered in 1984, simply photographed by artist Peter Feldstein and then revisited 20 years later for a time-lapsed assessment of how those 20 years were spent. Along with writer Stephen G. Bloom, the stories of these small town folks are illuminating and almost completely heartbreaking in their color and in the offering of regrets and the wise old things that were learned during a period of time in which age set in. Old Canes's Christopher Crisci, the great songwriter behind the beloved Appleseed Cast, would feast on such a book, devouring the anecdotes and living/dying vicariously through the sentiments - many of which are meant to sound light-hearted, but obviously carry with them some rotten luck and enough sting to supply a million honeybees - and bringing them to life through his lyrics. A guy like Tim Hennes, whose 1984 photograph portrays the hairy-legged, athletic man in a University of Iowa Athletic Department tee-shirt as a young upstart, would fascinate Crisci, as he fascinates me and should fascinate my old man. He represents what gets buried inside a person when they've missed their chance, but they wouldn't take a thing back - all while still harboring some echoing feelings of wonder about what could have been. They've been stuck - not trapped - just stuck and this is a common affliction for the characters in Old Canes songs, a project that Crisci resurrected last year after six years, give or take. Hennes tells his story thusly, "I had the world by the ass in those days. I could work eight hours, party til three in the morning, then be at work by seven. My idea was to work a year, then attend college in Hawaii. That was my plan. Nothing really was tying me down here. So I got a job in construction to save up enough money. On the way home one day, I stopped in at Slim's, and that's where I met Robin. Today we have two girls, ages sixteen and thirteen. I've been on the Oxford City Council for eight years, and now I'm in my second term on the school board. Sometimes I feel like George Bailey, the Jimmy Stewart character in "It's A Wonderful Life." That trip to Hawaii was my ticket out." This guy, like so many of the men that Crisci writes about, are just fine where they are, but they've got endless amounts of pent-up passion chewing at them. His songs represent the great gasps of man. The tales that Crisci engages us with are rollicking back-breakers, tales that feel as if they come from the head of a man with hands and fingers worn down to their nubs in an effort to make ends meet, to bring home the bread, the bacon and the milk, for the family to partake in. It's not sad, just the luck of the draw, of being backed into something of a corner, either in Oxford, Iowa, Lawrence, Kansas, or wherever life gets in the way of some of that ambition.