Some days, if you’re lucky, are full of music. And my most recent Saturday sure was. I watched two people I adore sing at two different performances 45 miles apart. One packed an old opera house to the rafters, and the other was the first on a bill of young performers before another full house. Both received a lot of love in the form of applause and adulation, which, if you’re lucky, is what performing’s all about, right?
These two people I love have never met, but the smaller of the two knows the taller one’s music. Antsy McClain’s voice coming out of my iPad cheered 7-year-old Annie in a way-too-hot Chinese train station in the summer of 2016 as I accompanied Annie’s adoptive mama Nikki on the trip of a lifetime. Actually, all three of our lifetimes. That trip made Annie, who was born in China, and Nikki, who had worked there many years, a family, and it changed me, the observer/helper, forever, too.
Antsy, a singer/songwriter from Nashville, has been my friend for some years now. He’s got a lovely voice and writes songs for his band, the Trailer Park Troubadours, that range from very funny to downright sweet in a variety of musical genres.
He’s a terrific storyteller and writer, too, who has a number of books of his good essays to his credit. (Bonus: I’m the lucky one who has gotten to edit his latest books, and I smile pretty much the whole time I’m doing so.) I brought some of his music with me to China, and it brightened some challenging days for a little girl… and a big one, too.
On that difficult day in the Changsha train station, as we waited and waited and waited for a delayed train that Nikki feared would never come, Annie got more hot and tired and hungry and, though she couldn’t say so, was just Fed Up with the Whole Damn Thing. And the only way she could express this was to wail. Loudly and for a long time. (For details, you can see my blog post,”Time is a Southbound Train,” under the heading “Bringing Annie Home” about our China trip.) This was unusual because Annie, we had already learned, is, most of the time, one of the most cheerful people you’ll ever meet.
Annie, who has cerebral palsy, cannot walk and at that point had limited speech in Mandarin (which Nikki, thankfully, speaks). She was strapped in her wheelchair, and, because we were new at this, it was a great production to get her into and out of that chair. We wheeled her to the coolest area (which was none too cool) we could find in that un-air conditioned train station where Nikki took Annie out of her chair and laid her on a thin pad on the floor.
Nikki went to search for a cold treat for Annie (thank you, McDonald’s, for the pseudo strawberry-topped “ice cream”), while I saw on the floor with this hollering child. In desperation, I pulled out my iPad, remembering how much Annie had liked listening to some of my music, and I called up an Antsy song. Within 30 seconds, her sobs quieted, and she relaxed on the floor. I sat next to her holding the iPad so, rolled on her side, she could see it, and by the time Nikki returned, Annie was chuckling.
This was perfect, since the song Antsy was singing (“When You’re Laughing,” one of his sweetest compositions) contains the lyrics (click here to see a video of Antsy singing this song):
The world’s a brighter place when you’re laughing
I love to see your face when you smile
A stranger’s just a friend waitin’ to happen
Inside us all there’s a wide-eyed child.
Well, there she was, right there on the floor, that wide-eyed child. And here she was now, a year and a half later, not nearly as skinny, taller, going to school, learning English, rocking a new, snazzy purple wheelchair and very cool pink glasses at her first music recital. Annie was first up on the little stage at the music studio where she goes weekly for music therapy with Miss Robbin at NewSongs Music Factory in Elk Grove. And sitting tall in her chair, the mic positioned in just the right place, Annie joined Miss Robbin in vocalizing “Deck the Halls.” Here’s Annie’s big finish (click here to see the brief video).
Nikki and her friends Matt and Paul sat in the second row, Annie’s grandparents were in the first row in front of the piano, and the place was packed with kids and family members, as well as the music teachers, for an afternoon of music. We all applauded like mad for each child, as if they were making their debuts at Carnegie Hall. Me, I got teary—not only watching Annie—but at seeing kids picking out simple melodies on the piano or the boy with ear protection playing the drum kit to “Brick House” or the young man who dedicated to his father a Vince Guaraldi medley of tunes from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I sat behind a little girl waiting her turn who had her drumsticks in her hands, tips up, ready to go, remembering my own long-ago piano lessons and later percussion lessons that led to happy years in school bands.
But I had to leave before the end of the recital to collect Dick and head to Winters in Yolo County where Antsy and the Troubs had a show that evening at the Opera House. Troubs’ shows are all about, as Antsy sings, the quest in life to enjoy the ride. And he gave us an enjoyable ride with lots of good music and laughs. I got to help (wo)man the merch table before the show and at intermission, which I’ve done many times (I love talking to people about my friend’s music). For the second time that day I got to be part of an audience listening to music that made us all feel a bit lighter—as if we were on a “Field Trip,” perhaps, as Antsy sings. (Click here for a video of Antsy performing this song in Davis in 2015.)
One day I hope to introduce Annie and Antsy. Maybe he’ll have his guitar and sit beside her, strum a bit, and start to sing. Then perhaps she’ll grin—as Antsy sings, “sharin’ the same big grin/we’re kinfolk”—and open her mouth and warble her Annie notes.
And I will applaud and cheer for my two musician friends, both of whom played to packed houses on the same day, singing their hearts out.