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Every Song A Memory

From country music to Swedish power metal, 37 years of horns in the air and dirt on my boots.

By Ashley McGeePublished 11 months ago Updated 11 months ago 18 min read
Top Story - May 2023
The soundtrack to my past and my future. Left to right: Marty Robbins, Loreena McKennitt, Johannes Eckelstrom (Avatar), David Bowie. Sceenshots from various sources. Not my original photography.

If I said my life were not defined by music, I'd be disingenuous to the medium that has shaped the artist you see sitting here at her kitchen table in a cut-off t-shirt, tattooed, watching my pet make her slow and arduous recovery. Music has held me together from my earliest memories, has been a guide to my identity, has been a vent for my outrage, and has been my road home. I don't have a collective discography of cohesion. Every melody has come into my life exactly when I needed it. And this last week I needed it more than ever.

So without much further preamble, the playlist of my life, 37 years of red dirt, rolling Irish hillsides, gunslinger ballads, loves lost and gained, and the rising tide of glory on the battlefields of Wacken.

Country Roads, Take Me Home

I grew up along barbed wire fences. At weekends, we would drive out to Atascosa county to visit either my paternal grandfather or my maternal grandparents.

My father's father lived in a single-wide trailer on a set of railroad tracks. Mesquite trees grew up along side man-made berms separating his property from his neighbor's. On the opposite side of the house was an enclosed space of about a half acre where horses with names like Sheeba, Big Red, and '92 still patrolled the fence line. Across the railroad track roamed so many head of cattle. Black coach whips hid from us in the hay bales. We rode the tractor and drank Coca-Cola from cans in the back of the truck while Grandpa McGee drank something a little stronger.

We rode shotgun out Highway 87 in the middle seat of our father's 1979 Chevrolet pickup truck with the windows down. At stoplights, we could hear the AM radio on KKYX playing talk radio show artist Paul Harvey on Saturday mornings. I remember his voice better than I remember what he read. I distinctly remember he always signed off with, "This is Paul Harvey. Good day."

(not a song per se, but Paul Harvey reading "A Christmas Story: A Man And His Birds")

Country music is still one of the most formative music genres of my early days. Before school started and I began the many years of coming up short in just about everyone's eyes, I remember hot Texas wind and the legendary ladies and gentlemen of Country music. My dad's radio couldn't get the FM bands, so we listened to George Jones, Tammy Wynett, Marty Robbins, Charlie Pride, Jimmy Dean, Johnny Cash, and Johnny Horton on KKYX; and on the radio at the ice house, the late 1980s and early 1990s were in full swing with the newest names in Country music: George Straight, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Tanya Tucker, LeAnne Rhimes, Brooks and Dunne, Vince Gill, and the Judds.

My mother's parents live on an old family plot outside of Poteet called Rossville, so named because of its founding by the Rosses, our immediate predecessors. Beside the Rosses in the family cemetery are the Taberers, the Langstons, and the Myers. My line belongs to the Taberers, who settled the area in the early 20th Century. My great-grandfather, Herbert Taberer, was born in 1901 on that very same acreage. He would marry a lady named Mary Alice and bring his children home there. My grandmother would marry and bring her children home there. Just down the main road, my mother would bring her own children home.

We helped my grandmother grow strawberries in the red sand. We made mud pies in the dirt road leading up to the double-wide trailer. We ate s'mores from the fireplace in the big living room, and took naps on long summer days beside the floor vents. There with my grandmother's sharp eye, fast hand, and easy smile, we knew some very happy years. It is with the bitterness of adulthood that I look back on those times wondering where we all went so wrong.

My mother was a child of the '60s and '70s. There was no country music in her station wagon on the journey back to her childhood home. We listened to rock and roll, the birth music of a generation. We listened to Elvis, The Temptations, Hellen Reddy, Olivia Newton John, The Dooby Brothers, and Cher on KONO 101. I listened to Elvis. I demanded Elvis. Someone get this girl some Elvis! I even got out my mom's eight-track and the eight-track player and listened to him on repeat. Though I don't subscribe much to him these days, I always turn the radio up when I hear him. Some things are too deep to root out.

My paternal grandfather died when I was 13. It was the first death I had experienced in which there was no good reason for someone to have left us so suddenly. He had been sick, but never told anyone. By the time my mother and father got him to the hospital, he was rushed to surgery for a tracheotomy. He was down to 20% lung capacity. Faced with living on oxygen after surviving colon cancer, he chose to stand beside his wife, Victoria, at the throne of their maker. He died on the operating table, and had a DNR on file with the hospital and the chaplain. In just three short days, the head of our family was gone. I sat in our living room, staring at my hands. I couldn't shake this song for weeks.

I still cry when I hear it, and I think of him, the strength in his gnarled hands and squint of his eye against the sun, the shuffle of his boots in the dust. I thought he shuffled his feet because his boots didn't fit. I thought his face was red from the heat. His face was flushed from drink; he shuffled his boots because he was unsteady on his feet. He lived hard, he worked hard, and he went out having lived his entire life pulling himself up by his bootstraps. He was 73. I wore a brown pleated skirt to his rosary.

My cousins sang "Amaging Grace" at his wake. You'll never know the depth of that song without having heard them sing it a capella. But consider this version by Hayley Westenra a worthy substitute. Her versions of the classics of Ireland and Scotland take me back to a home long removed from us.

The King

No, it's not Elvis. There is another king who lifted my soul in adolescence and changed my life forever. He was--and is--the king.

Or more appropriately, a Star Man.

I battled everyone around me as gender nonconforming for most of my childhood. I identify as a heterosexual female, but as a child--and into adulthood--I prefer to think of myself as gender nonbinary in appearance. I thought the separation of the genders about everything--even what we were allowed to play with--was asinine. I refused to play sports because I couldn't play with boys my age. I refused to grow my hair. I hated dresses. I hated dainty shoes. It was not until several decades passed that I began to understand my issues started and ended with body dysmorphia and sensory issues. I was a very small child, even smaller than my twin (for reasons I explain here). A lot of the clothes she fit into easily fell on me like a sack. Shoes she fit into easily slipped off my heels or cramped my very interesting and unusual feet. We would stand in the shoe racks at KMart, me crying that I hated everything, my mother, not understanding, begging to know why I was making everything so hard, why I couldn't be more like my sister.

I'll tell you why.

It was easier to wear boys clothes. They fit better on my narrow frame. It was easier to wear boys shoes. They were round and accommodated my feet. And who cared what I dressed like anyway? I was comfortable and happy. One might be able to make the argument that I might have been trans--and my grandparents thought I was gay. But for all the fights over my clothes and short hair, my mother knew me. She knew I liked boys. She knew I was hurt by their comments that I was a she-male. I just wanted to be among them, one of them in society. I did not actually want to be male. I was never pre-occupied with having the wrong body; just an ugly one. I struggle with this as an adult, but it was more difficult when I was a kid, when I very often did not get to make my own decisions.

When I was 14, I revisited the film Labyrinth. I was fascinated with the beauty of the man strutting the goblin throne room in high heeled boots. His masculinity was obvious. His power was sexual. My mother called him gay, a weirdo. To me, he was amazing.

Jareth instantly gave me strength, and David Bowie gave me the power to come to grips with my identity and accept myself. David Bowie is how I'm able to feel comfortable in makeup (sensory issues aside) and a dress, or a suit jacket and slacks. I was informed by many things growing up, but David Bowie made me who I am.

I owe everything to his music. The man of a thousand faces helped me to see the value of my own.

Lovingly, My "Black" Period

Do you remember where you were and what you were doing the moment you discovered who you were born to be? You might think it was the first time I heard David Bowie's, "Rebel, Rebel" or "Changes", but David Bowie helped me discover my love for myself. My music education began with the early introduction to rock and roll, predating heavy metal by thirty years. I was reborn under Marilyn Manson's mismatched eyes. And the moment I knew I was meant to carry the torch of battle, with horns held high, was the afternoon I stood in front of my mother's six-disk CD player with booming surround sound and lit up the soundtrack to The Matrix, which was taking the world by storm.

I stood transfixed, power rippling through every nerve. I was Narsil reforged. I was the Eternal Champion Elric astride the dragon mounts of his ancestors. I was imbued with the raw nerve and audacity to do whatever I wanted to do. And that year I really threw myself into my writing. My discovery of Metal, Nu-Metal to be exact, defined my high school years. My love of Nu-Metal is a matter of public record. The real discoveries were made as I dabbled in the elder mysteries. I rode the bus to school with Black Sabbath in my CD player.

My education in horror film really kicked off. I delighted in the Hellraiser franchise. Paired with the band Nightwish, I penned the first draft of "All That Remains Of The Distant Pious" when I was 17.

I had only just begun to dabble in writing Fantasy, but I was in pleasant company. I moved to haunting waltzes as my exploration of European metal broadened to include Blind Guardian, Iced Earth, Falconer, and some of their harder predecessors like Marduk and Bathory.

What I came to lovingly refer to my "Black" period was a time of prolific writing, reading, and oddly enough, a new love of musical theater. Since musical theater is just Metal Lite, I remembered that I had always loved showtunes. Around the time of all this intensity in audial stimulation, I discovered The Phantom Of The Opera.

Like David Bowie and Jareth, Michael Crawford's Le Phantom--who so loathed his own face--reminded me that I was worthy of love and compassion. This came at a time when it was desperately needed. I was mercilessly bullied in high school, even by those in whose circles I was invited to run. I was being goaded into competition with my twin and between my classmates of the same caste as me. I was pretty, but not pretty enough; I was goth, but not goth enough. I was not cool even by the standards of outcasts. I loved a boy with tall hair and a trench coat who didn't know I existed. Yes, Le Phantom and I were good company. I needed a friend, and my friends were Le Fantom, Dracula, Alan Quartermain, Jekyll and Hyde (incidentally, League Of Extraordinary Gentleman was exceedingly popular at this time).

And yet I was not out of touch with my roots. I still had the ladies and gentlemen of country music in the CD player on heavy rotation.

My Black period lasted a good way through college, finally giving way to something a little less...shall we say...affected? Dramatic? I had to work my way through college and the longer I was working, the less time I had to be a rebel on the battlefield. I finished learning how to drive in the parking lot at the University of Texas at San Antonio. I only had a cassette player in my Mercury Tracer, and I only had one cassette. It was all I needed.

A New Life

I married my high school sweet heart March 19, 2010.

Our honeymoon was in Brighton, England. We landed March 20th early in the morning, grabbed pot of tea at London Gatwick, hopped a bus for Brighton, and settled into our flat-to-let on Gloucester street. We hit the streets immediately, filling up bags of clothes with the latest fashion. We picked out Skinhead jackets (not what you're thinking) at a punk shop with Lilly Allen on the television. It was the first time I'd ever heard of her.

During my short marriage to my ex-husband, I became enamored of Final Fantasy VII and began plotting an FFVII tattoo sleeve. I loved everything FFVII, and I finished every single FFVII spinoff, including Crisis Core and Dirge of Cerberus. I walked down the aisle to Aerith's theme. I discovered Gackt on the soundtrack to Dirge of Cerberus.

I met Rachel Kolar of True Blue Tattoo in Austin, Texas. We started the tattoo in the fall of 2010. We moved ourselves to Austin the spring of 2011. I knew she was perfect for the job. "Joe The Lion" was playing as she packed color into my inner forearm.

As 2011 moved into 2012, I was desperately trying to find a job. The life of a housewife wasn't cutting it for me. I spent significant time with my best friend's wife, my other best friend, but other than that, I was mostly alone. I took up babysitting to pay bills and to pass the time. I took up drawing, and of course, I wrote more. I was kept good company with my Sarah Brightman Pandora station. I could cite the good lady here, but what really inspired me in those years--and the years after my divorce--was the sounds of Loreena McKennitt, a Canadian folk singer and song-writer who put beautiful poetry to her own musical arrangement. Her songs are moving. I would sit at Starbucks and draw gestures of birds with her music in my earbuds.


As summer bled into the fall of 2012, I was unhappy, lonely, bored, and broke. My apartment was a good-sized prison. I was depressed, sleeping most of the day. I got up early on gym days. I was running three or four miles a day, but ate very little. I dropped down to 91 pounds. I was sick all the time, and my partner did little to support me in my depression. In fact, I don't think he knew anything was wrong. Having been belittled for feeling sick or down, after his repeated attempts to hide, throw away, or talk me out of my birth control, I knew I could tell him very little. Doctors warned me of the danger I was in. I didn't believe them. He commented that I "may be losing weight", but that was all. He watched me waste away, encouraging my new found dedication to fitness as a healthy way to pass the time. Meanwhile, his diet descended into madness and he began to put on weight without any thought to his own physical health. While I fell into an eating disorder, he swung the other way. He did fence three times a week--which I wasn't able to be involved in (yaaay so fun, I fenced competitively for five years), but that didn't seem to matter. I became self-conscious of both of our appearances.

I finally secured a part-time position at the business he worked for. He demanded I give him my checks because "we had bills". In my excitement to finally be working, what he said tempered expectations.

"Don't think that just because you have a job now that you suddenly have options."

Eventually, I met someone. It was bound to happen.

He was older than me. He had black hair, and tattoos he'd given himself. He was friends with Ian McLagen. He worked the produce section at HEB. He was a parent. He was moody and distant. I loved him immediately. A song crept into my mind the first time I laid eyes on him, and I knew without a doubt that I would spend the rest of my life with him.

I'm not at all proud of how my marriage ended. Though I physically broke no vow, I checked out of the relationship well before my ex was ready to admit defeat. We went to counseling, which affirmed my belief that I wanted out. Though I was functionally cheating on him, I hardly considered myself married anyway. My ex was--and remains--angrier than he had any right to be considering how I was treated.

Anarchy In Slow Motion

No matter how hard things are in my life now, I'd rather be poor with my black-haired wild rover than still be married to my ex. My current partner is the love of my life. We are raising a wonderful boy, his son from a previous relationship. My partner wears his hardship and hard-lived life on his sleeve. He would not want me to tell you all that it's no punk rock or indie favorite that I have had in my head for the ten years we've been together. He hates country music. But I have dust on my boots, and if we ever do get married or say our vows, this is always the song I've wanted us to dance to.

Gainful Employment

In 2018 I got hired on with my current employer. Even part time and with such tedious work, it was the best job I had ever held. I won the company costume contest the first time round as Cardinal Copia from my absolute favorite band of all time.

Almost "A Real Parent"

*trigger warning: misscarriage*

In May of 2022, I got pregnant for the first time, ever. In fact I was pregnant at my little sister's baby shower and didn't even know. I conversed with friends and family about my experience with babies, only being reminded once that I wasn't really a mother (I guess my stepson is chopped liver) and one day I would know the joy of carrying a baby of my own. I had no idea until the next day that those ladies were about to be very wrong.

That is, until my eight week confirmation. My sister went with me, as my partner was working, and I insisted it was a routine exam and I would show him the pictures. Light-hearted and excited, we went into the exam room. The nurse placed the scanner on my abdomen.

She searched, and she searched. She restarted the machine.

My sister says she got very nervous when they switched to the trans ultrasound. I had no idea what that meant. I saw my little peanut up on the screen, its little egg sack all nice and cozy.

Except I was eight weeks. There was not supposed to be a yolk sack.

The temperature of the room plummeted. The nurse informed me there was no heart beat. My sister nearly fell out of her chair. She said it was the confirmation of her worst fear. Having three of her own, she said she knew something wasn't right the moment the scan started. According to the ultrasound, the little thing never got past six weeks. No sooner had I conceived, it was over.

We've tried numerous times and are still hopeful for a second chance. In the meantime, The Hu featuring Lzzy Hale of Halestorm sing the validation of my experience raising babies and stepkids.

Here And Now

We've had some ups and down these last few years, but perhaps one of the greatest things in my life is the love and companionship of my friends, my family, my partner, my stepson, and my pets. As I struggled last week to maintain composure in the face of possibly losing one of my little cats, music gave me solace and comforted my churning heart. I wasn't ready to let go yet, and fortunately neither was she.

Thanks for coming along for the ride. It's not over yet, so leave me some song suggestions in the comments: things that touched your heart at the exact place and moment in time of an event, a feeling, a revelation, or songs that give fuel to the warrior within.

"This is Paul Harvey. Good day."

Thanks for reading the soundtrack to my life. I hope it gave you some new Spotify library suggestions.

We're still raising money for Leigha's medical expenses, and everything helps. Give a read to any of my stories, drop me a tip, a heart, or a subscription here on Vocal.

You can read all about Leigha and her sibling's stories here. There's a gofundme fundraiser at the end if you're interested in what happened and where we are now.

pop cultureplaylistmetallistbands90s music80s music70s music60s music

About the Creator

Ashley McGee

Austin, TX | GrimDark, Fantasy, Horror, Western, and nonfiction | Amazon affiliate and Vocal Ambassador | Tips and hearts appreciated! | Want to see more from me? Consider dropping me a pledge! | RIP Jason David Frank!

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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Comments (18)

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  • Ashley McGee (Author)11 months ago

    I added a section! I'm not surprised I forgot to add it. I try very hard not to think too hard about it.

  • C.R. Hughes11 months ago

    I loved reading this! I especially can relate to the issues you had with wearing more feminine clothes. Growing up, I was the same way (and still even a little bit now). I've never really listened to David Bowie much, but I can see how he would have such an impact on you embracing your self expression.

  • Sandra Tena Cole11 months ago

    As I've said before, I relate so much to your story! Thank you for sharing your playlist! David Bowie in particular is important to me for pretty much the same reasons as you! ❣️x

  • AGB11 months ago

    Wow! This was very good! I love the music you added! Most of them were new to me. Very well picked. Congrats on your TS! :)

  • Good Article

  • Abby Kay Mendonca11 months ago

    A LOT of these are songs I heard my parents listen to 💓. and I listen to them too. Congrats on the TS

  • Chloe Gilholy11 months ago

    Great to see Nightwish and Bowie here.

  • Gal Mux11 months ago

    Wow. Very well done. I might not know the music but I felt the story.

  • Komal11 months ago

    Congrats on Top story! this was really good!

  • Heather Lunsford11 months ago

    Thank you for sharing your musical journey. I think we all have one. I think mine started with the first time I heard Blondie. It was the late 70s I was the youngest of 4 kids and I had never chosen to listen to anything on the radio before. When I heard them I knew I didn't actually like the choices my siblings forced on me.

  • Caroline Jane11 months ago

    This is excellent!! Congratulations on the top story. This has to be a contender for the challenge win!

  • BEING_WISE11 months ago

    Beautifully Written ! thanks for your hard work

  • Esmoore Shurpit11 months ago

    Pleasantly surprised to see a Gackt song! Was a great read.

  • Dana Stewart11 months ago

    Congratulations on your Top Story. Fantastic playlist (with several new to me artists) with excellent well written commentary. Good luck in the challenge!

  • Misty Rae11 months ago

    Congratulations on your top story. That was quite the musical journey. 😁

  • Congratulations on your excellent Top Story

  • This was an incredible journey you took us on

  • Cathy holmes11 months ago

    This is wonderfully written, and a great entry for the challenge. Good luck.

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