Dottie Rambo, 1934-2008
Dottie Rambo was killed last night when her bus
was caught in a tornado in Oklahoma crashed near Mt. Vernon, Missouri. The details are very sketchy (from her schedule it looks like she was traveling from Granite City, Illinois, outside of St. Louis, to Texas, a trip that would have taken her through the path of last night’s storms. Later: the Missouri Highway patrol report doesn’t indicate if weather was a factor in the crash). There may have been other deaths among the people traveling with her, and pretty clearly there are some critical injuries. But whatever the particulars, it’s a devastating loss of a great American songwriter only compounded by the harrowing way she had to die.
Update: Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been thinking about this all afternoon. The last time I saw her perform was at NQC a few years back. She was with Gerald Crabb and they were talking about songwriting for a while and then they sang for a while. This from my NQC report at the time:
Rambo is a funny, generous woman with an easygoing stage manner won from a lifetime of performing and writing. And she’s an astute student of the creative temperament and mind, remarking insightfully about the cycle of ebb and flow of spiritual influx that can take over a writer’s life if he or she is totally immersed in the work of creation. Rambo and Gerald Crabb sang “Tears,” and it didn’t really matter that the song was way too high for everyone (as Rambo wasted no time in saying and repeating often). It was great to watch and listen to Rambo take complete and utter control of the stage while she was on it … holding the audience captive to her wit and wisdom and self-deprecating charm (“I’m up here in my teeny-bop outfit, my jeans and spangles … I’ll never be old ya know”). And at the end of “Tears,” I laughed out loud to hear her call the ending (“Take it to the 4, boys,” she told the band). What a delight.
Indeed. I’ve heard many songwriters I know – successful, renown people whose songs, to most ears, might not sound anything like Rambo’s style – say often and loudly that Dottie Rambo was the reason they wanted to be a songwriter. In fact, Rambo could easily be credited with inventing the art of the country gospel song and was an important pioneer of the Christian anthem as well.
She wrote songs with immediately relatable tunes: Just start singing anything you can remember of “Tears Will Never Stain” or “Behold the Lamb” or “I Will Glory in the Cross” and see if you don’t go immediately to the emotional place the song is headed. And she effectively trademarked accessible, yet also richly imagined and deeply thought out, gospel music imagery – perhaps most memorably, “Sheltered in the Arms of God.”
“So let the storms rage high, the dark clouds rise, they don’t worry me …” The song probably will, for many good reasons, feature prominently in memorials and tributes and eulogies to Rambo throughout the coming days and weeks.
But for myself today, I’ve kept coming back to “If That Isn’t Love.” The song’s chorus famously celebrates love’s durability, of course. But when I think about how Dottie Rambo’s life ended on a starless night somewhere by the side of the road, perhaps not alone, but certainly required, as we all are, to meet death by ourselves, I reflexively feel the pull of the chorus’s plaintive melodic strain, a refrain that I’ve always felt to be at least partly a lament for the reversals of fortune and other passages of suffering – any event or stimulus, really, that throws us back on absolutes, and when or if those fail, to the unimpeachable truth of the heart’s experience and the soul’s knowledge:
If that isn’t love,
The ocean is dry;
There’s no stars in the sky,
And the sparrow can’t fly!
If that isn’t love,
Then Heaven’s a myth;
There’s no feeling like this
If that isn’t love.
The consolations of Christian love matter most for her, she seems to say here, because they survive, even if we don’t. At least that’s what I hear in this song as I listen to it today through the filter of its author’s death.
I have no idea what Rambo was thinking when she wrote this song, but it bespeaks the enduring force of her art and the power of her imagination as a songwriter that she created songs that people are instinctively drawn to, that we reach for at certain important or momentous times in our lives. How beautiful, bittersweet, sad, and for us as her survivors, how blessedly fortunate, that she leaves as her legacy a king’s ransom worth of songs that will be a deeply felt consolation to those mourning her loss.Email this Post