All Grown Up

Age is really just a state of mind.

Editor’s Note: The life and career of Memphis musician and songwriter Amy LaVere parallels the life of Memphis magazine. Both are 35 years old, and both have had experiences that are, well, unique. As we celebrate our 35th anniversary, we asked Amy what it’s been like to reach that milestone in her world.

I’m no kid anymore. I listen to all styles of music from all of time. I have records, cassettes, CDs, and MP3s and I have what you need to play them on. I can cook, and I mean really cook. I often choose red wine because it’s “good for me” even though I prefer a nice peaty whiskey, and I’m always somewhere between quit and quitting smoking . . . again. I’ve traveled a lot. I enjoy the company of people of all ages. I swear in front of teenagers sometimes because I forget I’m not one of them. I’m not married and I have no children, but my house plants are thriving and my dog Charlie will be 11 next month. Does any of this tell you how old I am?

Well, I’m 35, and I dig it.

For a good while I was at odds with who I thought I was supposed to be. Nothing seemed to fit me just right. This included my “age number.” It wasn’t an identity crisis. I just knew that my style, voice, or vocabulary never really fit my age or the place I was living.
That started early. At 7 my family moved from a Texas/Louisiana border town to just north of Detroit. My Southern accent was “cute” so it got thicker every day. The weirder I was made to feel by my new Northern schoolmates, the weirder I got too. This gave me some false “specialness.” If you can’t join ’em, just embrace being a curiosity. It would become my coping mechanism for attracting new friends over the next nine years of being shuffled around.

When we moved to Canada I invented my own language altogether. If I pretended to be from a faraway country it would help them understand why I was dressed funny and didn’t know how to play marbles. More years of moving around and I got good at adopting the accents and tricks of any new town. I grew up fast. I gained perspective you can’t get living in one town your whole life. A maturity gap came between me and my peers. They were still little kids; I was Amelia Earhart, adventurer and explorer.

Sometime when I was about 10 my dad joked that he would have “rather had coondogs than girls,” and this began a phase of my life — being a tomboy. It was my version of being Daddy’s Girl. I enjoyed stacking wood, clearing brush, cleaning guns, watching Westerns, building stuff. I was an adorable, eyelash-batting redneck. I started drinking coffee. My Southern accent came back.

Meanwhile, my older sister Brandy was becoming a teenage girl. She was sneaking on makeup at school, hemming her skirts shorter, brooding in her room, and slamming doors. Then she got braces. I thought she was beautiful in them; it meant she was officially not a kid anymore. God, I wanted braces! But I was cursed with perfect teeth! So I used my old standby and just went strange. I briefly had a mohawk. I joined a band.

This band started out as teenagers sneaking smokes, writing songs, and playing crappy music gear in a basement. But we got really good. We played gigs all over Detroit for a couple of years, but our gear never got much better. Eventually a couple of my bandmates moved onto silly things like marriage and kids, so we broke up.

At 20, alone and on my own, I moved to Nashville and got a job answering phones at a music management office. I bought my first pair of high heels for that job. For the first time in my life I was seeing the value and power of being a woman in a skirt and heels. I got a late start, but I was learning to flirt and swish and brood, mastering the mysterious behavior of the girls I’d seen back in high school. I admit — I abused it for a couple of years.

I fell in love with another musician. We eloped and got married at the corner of Chet Atkins and Music Row. We later moved to Memphis, and I adopted this city as my “home” since I had never really known one.

Then I turned 25. Life was over. I wasn’t in my early 20s anymore. My friends got married and had kids, but I wasn’t ready for that. My band was working a lot but we were nowhere. I had failed. If I had been cast in the horror movie Children of the Corn it would be my time to die. I was over the hill by any sane person’s ideal, and I would be dead soon. That’s what I thought, anyway.

Things went dark for a while. I drank, I wrote, I got divorced. I focused on writing and performing. I worked myself to death, but it was really escapism for me. It was the only thing that still gave me some feeling. I didn’t notice that things were actually beginning for me — not ending.

One morning not long ago, I realized I had finally absorbed enough inane pop-culture trivia to finish a New York Times crossword puzzle! I celebrated this milestone by vacuuming my house. A few days later I was packing my suitcase, headed to a festival in Norway. Before I left, I called an old friend, just to catch up. She told me funny stories about her kids, and I blathered on about going overseas.

Foreign press releases keep saying that I am 25, but here in the states, I am 35. I don’t mind. At 35, I am more happy than sad, more challenged than troubled and grateful. I’m grateful for every wild new year. Sex, drugs (yoga, Oil of Olay), and rock-and-roll have kept me young. I am finally beautiful (but still brooding and slamming doors). I’m excited to someday have gray hair like Emmy Lou Harris, and I want a family band like Willie Nelson. I want to learn Norwegian and have a place to ride a pony. Man, it’s a big long life. There’s still so much left to do. 

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