When my wife Emily and I were preparing for the birth of our first child in 2010, I had two jobs: install the shiny new car seat in the beat-up old car, and make a playlist of mellow music to listen to in the delivery room.
I blew it on the car seat. My dad ended up installing it in the hospital parking lot while Emily was in labor. Because my dad is the best dad anyone could hope for. (Happy Father's Day, Dad.)
On the other hand, I did find time to get the playlist done. I spent hours meticulously piecing together the perfect blend of Eluvium and Elliott Smith and Simon & Garfunkel and whatever else I thought would gently welcome my firstborn into the world, seep through her soft baby skull and irreversibly doom her to a life as a hopeless music nerd.
The fact that we never actually listened to that playlist in the hospital should not obscure the point here: Music has always been among the highest priorities in my life; right behind the humans I love. Listening to and learning about new music is an obsession for me, even as I near 40 — Lou Reed's age when he released his excellent ode to settling down, The Blue Mask, in 1982.
That obsession burns as hot today as it did just over six years ago, before my daughter was born, followed by my son in 2012. It's just that life sometimes gets in the way now. My money goes to cutesy pajamas and Shopkins (look 'em up) more so than records these days. No longer can I stay up all night listening to music, because I'm too exhausted from chasing a 6- and a 3-year-old. I don't see as many concerts as I used to. I'd rather be home... chasing a 6- and a 3-year-old.
The cool thing, though, is this: Music finds a way. I still love and consume plenty of it. But I find that opportunities to profoundly appreciate a piece of music, and how it can intertwine with our lives, come along more often than ever before, thanks largely to my kids.
It started early. I can still close my eyes and see my daughter, just a few months old, mustering up all her baby-strength to open her mouth and mimic the gorgeous wordless coda of Band of Horses' "Neighbor," my go-to tune for calming her at the time. I'll probably never again be able to listen to John Coltrane's Giant Steps without imagining tiptoeing away from a crib.
And I'll never forget the first time I heard my daughter singing a song — one of my songs, not, like, one of Dora's songs — from the back of the minivan. It was David Mayfield's "Breath of Love," and listening to her tiny voice replicate its lullaby melody put a lump in my throat faster than you can say "They're growing up too fast."
Her brother has joined her now, and together they've fallen in love with power pop (The New Pornographers' "War On the East Coast") and quiet folk (Joan Shelley's "Subtle Love") and the cheeky Swedish metal band Ghost. Like the rest of the planet, they love dancing to Taylor Swift in the living room; the only way I could pry them away from "Shake It Off" was with a strategically purchased copy of Carly Rae Jepsen's brilliant 2015 album E•MO•TION.
To be clear, I am not telling you all this to prove how cool my kids are. Truly. I've sung my fair share of kids' songs, from the unimpeachable "You Are My Sunshine" to the dreadful "Baby Beluga." I spent a year completely enveloped in the songs of Frozen, just like every other parent in the country. And I fully expect my children to veer away from their dad's taste eventually, perhaps never to return.
If that's the case, that's OK. Because my hope is that by filling their lives with lots of different sounds now, I'm setting them up for a lifetime of loving and appreciating music, no matter what style they prefer.
But if they ever want to give some of Dad's old records a spin, I'll be there waiting, ready to geek out with them for as long as they'll have me. ♦
Five songs that encapsulate the triumphs and tribulations of fatherhood:
• Drive-By Truckers, "Outfit" (2003): Released while he was in the Drive-By Truckers, "Outfit" may be the best song Jason Isbell has ever written, and that's saying something. Lyrically vivid and efficient, the song details advice from a father who desperately wants his son to make better decisions and live a fuller life.
• Sturgill Simpson, "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)" (2016): The much-anticipated recent album from fast-rising roots-rock star Sturgill Simpson is a song cycle for his newborn son. "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)" is the most direct song, with Simpson apologizing to his boy for going on the road as string arrangements and horn sections swell around him.
• Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper, "I'm Living with a Three-Foot Anti-Christ" (1986): There are tons of tender songs about fathers and kids, but this hilarious tune from the king of silly psychobilly music might capture the exhausting chaos of parenthood better than any of 'em. "He wakes up at 6 am / Says my body is a jungle gym," Nixon sings against a sparse guitar riff.
• Gold-Bears, "Fathers and Daughters" (2014): If Nixon captures the chaos of parenthood, this track from the Atlanta quintet's underrated 2014 album Dalliance is a reverb-drenched brain-dump of uncertainty. And to be clear, that uncertainty — while intense in the early years of fatherhood — never really fades.
•Harry Chapin, "Cat's in the Cradle" (1974): Yes, you've heard it a million times. But no list about paternal relationships would be complete without this wistful tune about a lifetime of missed connections between a father and son. Give this a good listen and see if it doesn't make you feel like you ought to be calling and visiting your old man more often. (BEN SALMON)