Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Marideth Sisco: She Seems Like an Old Friend

Sometimes you find someone—a writer, or a musician, say—whose voice resonates in your spirit like a perfectly tuned guitar. I’ve gradually been realizing that 2018 needs to go down in my personal history as the year I made the acquaintance of such a person. Y’all, I’d like to introduce you to Marideth Sisco (in case you haven’t heard of her yet).

She’s built an admirable career for herself, one that I’m frankly jealous of. She’s a celebrated folk musician (who, good grief, has gained international fame for her contribution to the soundtrack to the critically acclaimed, award-winning film Winter’s Bone). She’s an accomplished journalist, writing the kind of pieces we all wish we could write—they’re like letters from a home you didn’t realize you’d wandered away from. She used to write a regular column in the West Plains Daily Quill on Ozark gardening (now collected into a book). Now, she’s been doing monthly radio essays in a series called “These Ozarks Hills” on Springfield, Missouri’s NPR station KSMU.

There are five books she’s written, and I counted six music CDs and two spoken-word CDs available on her website’s shopping page. (Look, I’m betting she’s been involved in a lot more recordings than what’s available through her website.) Her band is called Blackberry Winter, named for that occasional rude April or May cold snap that nips away the blossoms of blackberry canes (it’s springtime’s analogue to the better-known Indian summer of autumn).

Yep, and she’s also a blogger.

Where has she been all my life? And how did I finally learn about her? Funny you should ask, because now I have to make a plug for something else: the Big Muddy Folk Festival, which occurs each April in Boonville. We’ve been attending for several years, now, and enjoying the hell out of it each time. Every year, perched in my lovely balcony seat, soaking up beautiful live music, I think of all the friends and family I wish could be with me to enjoy it, too. You simply must check it out. Or, think about it this way: I’m personally not an avid folk music fan, but this is great, live entertainment, by accomplished musicians from all over the world.

Then, at the end of July, I got to drive an hour to Sedalia and hear her and Linda Stoffel perform at the Daum Museum of Contemporary Art. I had to go alone, because Sue had broken her ankle the week before and didn’t feel like doing any excursions at that point. (But after twenty-five years together, Sue really does “get” me, and she encouraged me to go.) This was my second exposure to what is, for me, basically an addictive substance.

But I first saw Marideth Sisco and her “Accomplices” playing at the Big Muddy in April 2018, and I was immediately intrigued. Here was this rather unassuming, slightly older woman, nothing flashy about her at all, calmly reading her prose, poems, and song lyrics off a digital tablet, surrounded by the members of her equally laid-back, extremely talented band, singing songs that were deceptively simple (you know the kind: when you breathe deeply and really listen, you discover the depth of emotion hiding in places like the held notes, and in the negative spaces between words and phrases).

I bought some of her CDs the next day, and I’ve been listening to them ever since. One of them, in particular, is like nectar to my soul. It’s almost uncanny, how much I love it. I’ve had a hard time figuring out why I’m drawn to it, but I think, after about a bazillion listens, I’ve finally figured it out.

The CD I’m talking about is her four-disc set of “These Ozarks Hills” readings. They’re little essays on her reflections of life in the Ozarks, and each CD focuses on a different season. Recurring themes include gardening, weather, nature, folklore, personal history, personal insights, her family and childhood memories, enduring values, and—only sometimes—politics, the economy, and current events, and those usually on the way to making a point about enduring Ozark values of tolerance, compassion, charity, thrift, and self-reliance.

These essays, like her musical delivery, are deceptively homespun. She speaks in her authentic Ozark dialect (some people have called this accent a “drawl”), after a little acoustic-guitar intro based on “Ozark Mountains,” a song on the Blackberry Winter CD Still Standing.

But boy, oh boy, her prose is tight. She’s a master writer, and she knows exactly what she’s doing. She has impeccable taste when it comes to her flights of fancy—she never gets full of herself; she “murders her darlings”—and she maintains a good sense of humor. She takes herself lightly. She stays on topic (I can never do that), and she crafts arresting beginnings and satisfying conclusions. (I’m an editor, and I really, I mean really, appreciate and admire such things.)

She’d probably read this and think, “Well, of course! I practice my art, and I’ve had plenty of time to get good at it. No big deal.”

Maybe this is part of why I’ve been enjoying her work: her voice is so natural, it almost seems like an extension of my own brain. And that’s the job of a writer, isn’t it: to speak inside your head in a voice authentic and natural enough that it almost sounds like your own self talking. And it expands who you are.

And here’s another confession: I’ve been listening to her spoken essays at night, when I have trouble falling asleep. This is not to say that I find them boring—far from it. My attention remains rapt, like a little kid listening to a favorite bedtime story. Sleep overtakes me because I’m simply exhausted and finally relaxed.

I find her voice soothing, familiar. It’s something about her accent, I think, that activates memories buried deep inside me, of the way a lot of people used to talk in central Missouri when I was a kid. Indeed, the region where you’re likely to hear an authentic Ozark accent seems to be contracting . . . and I hadn’t even realized it—until now.

As I write this, it occurs to me that my readers might not care about the different forms of southern or midwestern dialects, or where the two intersect, and all that. But to me, it’s of vital interest, and I realize I cherish this link to a part of my history, my heritage. I cling to it like a security blanket.

For the past few months, I’ve had the “Autumn” CD in my bedside player, and one of my favorites of her essays is on it. And there’s an aspect that makes it especially personal for me.

For a decade, now, I’ve been the behind-the-scenes compiler, editor, and poster of MDC’s annual Fall Color Reports. It’s a fun gig, a celebration of my favorite season. It also has given me an intimate knowledge of the patterns and nuances of autumn’s progress across Missouri, plus I’ve gotten to know several top-notch foresters from around the state. But . . . I’m actually losing that part of my job after this year, so this year’s surprising flash of amazingly bright fall color has been excruciatingly bittersweet. It’s gorgeous, but it fills me with grief.

But Marideth Sisco’s description of our glorious Ozark woods thrills me with its artistry. I share a bit of it with you here, but I encourage you to check out the whole thing, on her blog, or better yet, on the CD four-pack.

Sometimes I think autumn in the Missouri Ozarks is one of the most well-kept secrets left, and certainly the most little known anywhere. Granted, the scenery will not glow so incandescently as the blazing fire from acres of sugar maples, the major draw of New England autumns. Here, the colors of the Ozarks hills blend into more of a wonderfully colored tweed, with highlights that include the burnt orange of the Sassafras, the vermillion of the gum tree, the bright gold of the hickory, the butter yellow of Catalpa and the blood red of the sumac, all on a field of the caramel and cafe au lait of the oak forest. And underneath, the feathery goldenrod, the bittersweet berries and little clumps of fringed lavender where the fall asters grow.

I think the version on the CD is even better honed, but you get the idea. You can pretty much taste the fall color here.

And that’s the final “ping” that makes me enthusiastic about finding Marideth Sisco: It turns out that, although I never set out to become one, I’m a writer, too. (Hey, everyone, look at me! I have a blog!) Marideth Sisco’s kind of like the Opulent Opossum . . . only she’s waaaaaay better. Simply put, she’s what I aspire to be.

She’s doing it folks; she’s the real thing, and this here dilettante is simply awestruck. It’s worth doing: Celebrate Missouri’s glories; savor our Ozarks.

Check out Marideth Sisco.

Photos in this post were taken by me at various times and places in central Missouri this fall.