Reading Kris Gowen’s book One Nation Under Song was like taking the journey with her… Caution: reading this book may cause uncontrollable singing. It happened to me.Amazon Review Read the Full Review
At a Glance
- One Nation Under Song
- My Karaoke Journey Through Grief, Joy, and America
About the Book
Kris Gowen had a successful career, a wonderful partner, a strong circle of friends … and then tragedy struck. Faced with the death of her best friend, she turned to something that brought her joy: karaoke. With a half-formed plan and a need to sing, she took off on a 17,774-mile karaoke road trip through America, singing in bars, American Legions, and Eagles Lodges, experiencing the country with people who sometimes had nothing more in common than a love of cheesy 80s tunes. Along the way, she reconnected with old friends, made new ones—and healed. Each time Kris took the microphone, she shed a little more grief, stepping into a world where everyone was accepted simply for singing a song they loved.
This book was an education from start to finish…not only about karaoke culture, but about our American culture and state of affairs from one end of the country to the other and back again. Kris attended to her adventure with the keen eye of a researcher, and brought her various stops to life with the skill of an experienced writer. It was great fun, serious and thought-provoking without being dry. I highly recommend this book to anyone with a sense of adventure!Amazon Review Read the Full Review
Chapter 1 Change
I don’t remember when I first articulated my goal of singing karaoke in all fifty states, but by the time my partner of nine years and I had split up, this goal was all I had. The dog that had become the only thing holding us together had died two weeks before. That furry, bear-nosed, 110-pound loyal companion and consoler of eleven years died in my arms. At the vet, without any fuss, Brody allowed the needle to push into a body too tired to fight the bone cancer anymore. I stroked his velvet ears and whispered songs of gratitude for our time together, until his eyes closed and there was nothing to do but walk home with an empty collar and hollow heart.
My human relationship had been a struggle for the three years preceding, never quite recovering from accusations of infidelity. Perhaps I did cheat, but not in the physical sense. My relationship with Seth changed from a professional one into one with an emotional intimacy I never had with my partner. And when my partner discovered the time and soul I had shared with Seth, nothing could convince him there hadn’t been more. He left me on a Super Bowl Sunday; neither of us bothered to watch the game that year.
Seth had said it was soccer that gave him the most joy. So I wasn’t the only academic who saw my career and passions as separate entities, despite being groomed to believe that my work would be the thing that defined me (one of the things that grad school teaches you is that you are nothing outside of your research accomplishments). The result: We both had set aside happiness in order to do what was expected of us. While we both knew there was something fundamentally wrong with this, neither of us knew what to do about it.
That Super Bowl Sunday, I went to sleep alone, believing there had to be a different way. I was by myself for the first time in what felt like a thousand forevers. I had faced the truth by screaming for him to get out, my grief still raw and spent, and he complied by driving off in his pickup truck without a word, sleeping in a place that was no longer my concern. I stared at the wall, and breathed in the solitude. There was no one left to care about or care for. The only one left in my life was me. Without rules to follow or a dog to walk, I was forced to figure out what was next. I had to ask myself what I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it, and what the hell mattered anyway.
I was lucky. I had a counselor who was a perfect fit for my combination of stubborn resistance to change and my desperation to be happy. She challenged me through every step of my process—my excuses, my failure to see life patterns that were obvious from the outside. From our sessions, a pivotal question arose: “What goals do you have?” The only one I could think of was singing karaoke in all fifty states. I had no idea what I wanted in a relationship, where I wanted to live, or what I wanted to do with my career. The only thing that brought me the joy I was so desperately seeking was the idea of singing in all fifty states. As to why, I never had an answer. The idea’s origins weren’t linear, like a math equation; there was no starting point that logically led to a next step and then a next until an answer could be filled in (be sure to show your work!). Life goals are much more complicated than that, and I was still in the process of understanding mine.
Of course, I loved to sing, but that was only a small part of karaoke’s allure. When I revealed my sole desire to my counselor, I had only sung in nine states. But in those nine I’d had the privilege of witnessing people in their communities. I had seen an old red-headed lady named Ginger crooning 1940s tunes as a former naval officer served as the karaoke host in Maryland, and stuffy men in grey business suits letting loose thanks to beers and microphones in Missouri. It wasn’t just the idea of singing across the country that excited me; it was the chance to see little slices of America as I visited each state that made me smile. For while karaoke has a common script no matter where you are, each place and night offers something new for everyone—an element of the unexpected. When a person is called to the stage, you never know what they are going to sing or how well they are going to sing it. I’ve seen “Love on the Rocks”—that slow, stately Neil Diamond tune—performed by a young African American man wearing a “Kiss me, I’m Irish” t-shirt; a frumpy middle-aged white woman in pajama pants rap a mean Coolio; and a heavyset, unshaven guy belt out Tori Amos’s “Cornflake Girl” in perfect falsetto. Karaoke has taught me you can’t judge a person by their looks. Each of us has the power to surprise the world.
Emboldened by my disclosure in my counselor’s office, I began sharing my life goal with others. People—especially those I worked with—were none too impressed with the general goal and the relatively small number of states I had already sung in, but that didn’t matter. In my heart, I knew my goal was one of the few things I cared about, and that I was going to do it, slowly, steadily, when life offered chances. Some work travel and a soul-searching road trip over the next two years got that number up to fourteen, plus the District of Columbia. Then my new partner and I took a weekend road trip to Montana to inch the total up to fifteen.
I had met Dave online. He was born to travel, and it was that aspect of his online profile that drew me to him. I wanted to know more about visiting the world, and his life stories thrilled me. Over a beer on the back patio of a local pub, I listened to him describe close encounters with bush fires during his motorcycle trip around New Zealand and Australia, and his experiences teaching English in South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Here was a man—a cute one, with bushy eyebrows, thick dark hair, and a kind face—who not only had traveled, but was about to go off again. Perfect. When I had first looked at his profile, I saw him as someone who could teach me about traveling overseas, and maybe provide some much-needed sexual release. Then, after a few months we would both go off and experience our separate corners of the world. But things don’t always work out as planned. After our first date, I wasn’t smitten, exactly. But I was drawn to his odd combination of bravery and clumsy shyness. I wanted to know more about him, his oversized leather gear, and his undersized motorcycle.
I got that chance. One date became two—our second time together at a run-down restaurant known for its taxidermy displays, where we talked for a long time about seeing the world. We admired the stuffed bears, cougars, and rhinos with tropical drinks in hand, and I couldn’t get enough of this setting or this companion; everything seemed so natural, despite all the oddities. Months later, Dave and I took that trip to Montana, driving 547 miles one way on a Saturday through high desert snow, just so I could sing a song in a bowling alley—only to turn around on Sunday to get home in time for work.
Our relationship blossomed, and I grew to love not only him, but his family—especially his mom, Milly Rose. Milly Rose always smiled, and had a soft spot for anything sugary; I think that her consumption of See’s Chocolate was what made her so sweet on the inside. Over the years, Milly Rose would email me to let her know how things were going with her, and never failed to ask about my well-being. She signed each correspondence with “Love.”
Over the years, traveling became a way of life for Dave and me. We lived in South Korea, where he returned to teach English and I continued my research. Then we got ESL certifications in Vietnam, and that allowed us to live in Oman for a year. Expat living stalled my karaoke quest, so after Montana, my fifteen-state total held steady for a couple of years, temporarily losing its dominance in my mind and heart.
Then my best friend died, and my half-hearted conversation piece of a goal was suddenly a driving need.