Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly series showcasing an album, single, music video or performance of a bygone era and its personal and/or cultural significance.
My mom once married a man who almost killed her. She was hanging on by a thread. I was 12 years old at the time. Up to that point, I had been used to an extent of verbal and physical abuse ⎯⎯ but my life came crashing down that Thanksgiving Day in 1998. She had been battered for years, much to my ignorance or just plain naivety. The one and only time I witnessed an attack came a few months prior. His glowering figure is burnt on my brain, as he lay on top of her choking her. I screamed out. He stopped. That was the first and last time I saw Satan in the flesh.
When it became clear mom couldn’t leave him ⎯⎯ she was in constant fear of retaliation not only upon her but my grandmother, brother and me ⎯⎯ I saw her less and less. Frank was an unruly spirit that seemed to take joy in her pain, and it boiled to a fevered pitch on that blustery fall day. I’ll never be able to forget it.
I remember the exact moment I heard she had been beaten to an inch of her life, left with her jaw shattered. I was perched eagerly on my grandmother’s (I called her Nanny then) hunter green sofa watching Titanic for the hundredth time, and Jack’s death was splashed across the TV screen. Nanny didn’t have a landline yet, so she had to go to our neighbor Rosie’s to take and make phone calls. That’s when the bombshell dropped. My mom had been admitted to a local Beckley hospital for her injuries, which included plenty of purple and blue bruises, makeshift branding like the kind cattle get. Tears were streaming down my Nanny’s face; my heart sank, even if I didn’t exactly comprehend what had happened.
My mom entered a high-security women’s shelter, with snarled, towering barbed-wire fences surrounding the perimeters. Her jaw was wired shut, and she spent that holiday season drinking and eating through a tube. I went to visit her once; her face was both tired and relieved that her torment was over, even if she had to pay such a heavy price. Several months later, she was released and began to rediscover her independence. Dixie Chicks‘ hit single “Goodbye Earl” then became essential to her healing: a woman just like her reclaiming her sense of dignity, freedom and strength to forge a better life for herself. “Well, it wasn’t two weeks after she got married that Wanda started gettin’ abused / She’d put on dark glasses or long sleeved blouses or make-up to cover a bruise,” singers and players Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire unfurl in the first verse ⎯⎯ coincidentally, my mom shared how often she did this (and things began to click into place for my still-growing young mind). “Well, she finally got the nerve to file for divorce, and she let the law take it from there / But Earl walked right through that restraining order and put her in intensive care,” the trio recount in tragic detail.
Mom once told me how devilish Frank was in court. He was bi-polar and had since stopped taking his meds, which explains his erratic behavior over the years. The judge barely even listened to what my mom had to say, and Frank spent a whopping 22 days in prison for domestic violence charges. It was disheartening, but considering a system built against abuse victims, it’s not all too surprising. A few months removed, when I came home from planting flowers with my local 4-H chapter, Frank came to visit me: a wild-haird loose cannon peeped through the front door. A scared little boy cowered in the shadows, his life flashing before his eyes. He popped up in my neighborhood a few more times in the coming weeks before he faded into memory.
In 2004, Frank was in an altercation with his then-girlfriend at a cookout in North Carolina. He pulled a knife and stabbed her several times in the chest. She died at the hospital soon after, and he was charged with second-degree murder. He is not rotting in prison. He is finally paying for his crimes, but another woman had to pay for it in blood.
[Moral of the story: the law sucks. I always wonder how her life could have been spared had the police and the judge done their fucking jobs.]
“Goodbye Earl” (written by Dennis Linde), which employs dark humor to tell a harrowing, timely message, is lifted from their 1999 studio record, Fly. The album, also containing such standards as “Hole in My Head,” “Cold Day in July,” “Without You” and “Sin Wagon,” is certified diamond for shipments/sales of more than 10 million copies. It features other hits like “Cowboy Take Me Away,” “Ready to Run,” “If I Fall You’re Going Down with Me,” “Heartbreak Town,” and “Some Days You Gotta Dance.” The following year, it walked away with Best Country Album at the 42nd annual Grammy Awards, as well as Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for “Ready to Run.” Thanks to songwriting contributions from Matraca Berg, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Darrell Scott, Patty Griffin, Richard Leigh, Marcus Hummon, the record is often cited as one of their best, second to 2002’s Home, and one of the most influential albums of the past 30 years.
The music video’s (above) cheeky overtones, thanks to director Evan Bernard (Beastie Boys, Green Day), who also played Wanda’s divorce attorney Ezekiel Kincaid, come to life onscreen. The sequence follows the gripping narrative quite loyally and also stars some other impressive talent: Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue) as Earl, Jane Krakowski (30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) as Wanda and Lauren Holly (Picket Fences, Dumb and Dumber) as Mary Ann, among others. The clip went on to snag Video of the Year honors at the CMA Awards and the ACM Awards in 2000.
Entertainment Weekly described the song as a variation of Thelma & Louise. “They’re giving the lie to corporate hypocrisy all across the land. I’ll bet that stores such as Wal-Mart, which routinely scrub their shelves clean of violent-fantasied rap, won’t try to ban un-warning-stickered white musicians this popular,” journalist Ken Tucker wrote. Country music has a long history of portraying murder, for varying reasons, from Johnny Cash (“Folsom Prison Blues”) and Reba (“The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”) to Martina McBride (“Independence Day”) and Carrie Underwood (“Two Black Cadillacs”).
The song has continued to be a vehicle to crucial conversations surrounding domestic violence and what we can do better. The question of “why doesn’t she just leave him?” is misguided and uninformed, at best. “The thing that I did not know that was so revealing to me was that anywhere between 50% and 75% of domestic violence homicides happen at the point of separation or after [the victim] has already left [her abuser],” Cynthia Hill, who directed the 2014 HBO documentary Private Violence, told The Guardian. When we rethink abusers and their behavior and redirect blame to them (and not the victims), we can save lives. And music can help.
“Goodbye Earl” certainly saved my mom’s life, that’s for sure.
Spin “Goodbye Earl” below: