Rookie of the Year

Cheap Wine

This column is reprinted from Unwinnable Monthly #106. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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A tongue-in-cheek but also painfully earnest look at pop culture and anything else that deserves to be ridiculed while at the same time regarded with the utmost respect. It is written by Matt Marrone and emailed to Stu Horvath, who adds any typos or factual errors that might appear within.

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I never meant to do anything wrong, or do any harm, or frame that kid, who wasn’t so bright and drunk all the time. Anyway, they killed him – not me. I’ve got a business to run. I’ve got property here. He had nothing.

I’ve seen six summers at the Newport Folk Festival now. None have been quite the same, though I love our little traditions. Driving up with family and friends. Stopping at Ma’s in Middletown for a breakfast sandwich. Speed walking through the opening gates to drop the blankets close to the Fort Stage. Stalking Bob Boilen. Scallop chowder at The Mooring. Lobster rolls. The thrill of a surprise cameo. A musical discovery. A rainy day, an impossibly hot day, and a perfect one – not necessarily in that order.

There’s a songwriter from Duluth, Minnesota, called Charlie Parr. He played the Harbor Stage on Sunday from 3:40 to 4:35. I’ll never forget it.

He wrote that song, “Cheap Wine.” A liquor store owner grumbles about the old ladies who come in to buy their fill of swill. He loathes these ladies and hates his shop, wishes he could buy a boat and sail away, and still he turns the lights on before daybreak and stays open past curfew some nights so he doesn’t have to go home. Some of the other tunes are barnburners, Parr on steel guitar or acoustic, Mikkel Beckmen on the washboard – their “washing machine” as they call it – playing North Country-infused blues, boot-stomping numbers full of humor and death.

Anyway, they killed him – not me. I’ve got a business to run. I’ve got property here. He had nothing.

Something else is going on now, though. Amid the refrains about peddling booze, those lines about the dead kid linger in the humid afternoon air. The tent above us and the plastic chairs underneath melt away. The hootenanny revival becomes a gothic short story. A minute or two before, we’re clapping and tapping. A minute or two later, the same. The old ladies keep swinging through the door to buy the cheap wine, and the miserable sonofabitch still bitches, but now: tragedy. Murder. Injustice.

It’s never mentioned again. The heart of the story is no more than a passing reference, a mystery left unsolved. The song ends like this:

I open the store an hour before daybreak and I put all the labels facing out. I’m so tired of all these labels. Why don’t they just say it: cheap wine, cheap wine?

All these old ladies come in here and buy cheap wine. Ain’t no better than all these bums come in here and buy cheap wine. Leanin’ against the counter on a gloomy day. Snow falling, clear the sidewalk and the entryway.

We leave the tent after Charlie Parr’s set to hear more music, then drive home for hours through a series of road construction nightmares, drop off our traveling companions, get back and fall dead asleep. But the next morning, I‘m still in that tent. I’ll be circling it the rest of the year. And then, I hope, the sidewalks and entryways will be cleared again, and a seventh summer arrives.

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Matt Marrone is a senior MLB editor at ESPN.com. He has been Unwinnable’s reigning Rookie of the Year since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @thebigm.

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