Intro by Men’s Health deputy editor, Matt Marion
I’m a huge music fan, but that’s not why Maria asked me to write this introduction to her Back Porch interview with Michael Perry. See, I’m also the deputy editor at Men’s Health, and Michael—just “Mike” to me—is one of my writers. From his first essay on the incomparable agony of kidney stones to a more recent feature on why medical schools need more corpses, Mike has consistently enlivened the pages of Men’s Health with his dry wit and eye for life-improving information. But apparently he wasn’t content to just be a great magazine writer. Nope. In the years that I’ve known Mike, he’s also become a successful book author and—damn him!—a fine singer/songwriter.
How to describe Mike’s style? Listening again to his first album Headwinded, I was reminded of everyone from Willie Nelson to John Prine. (And if you want a more contemporary reference, there’s also a whiff of Josh Ritter.) But while you might hear influence, you won’t hear imitation. As with his magazine writing, Mike’s music is uniquely his own. And in both cases, he makes it look easy. Take this verse:
Time long gone and love long spent
Souls washed out and hearts caved in
Happy ever after left this town
Running down a road without a turnaround
“Sally & Jack”
It’s rare that an editor will say this, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
I hope you enjoy Maria’s chat with Mike, and when you’re done, head over to his band page and give a listen to the man and his band, the Long Beds.
What was your favorite comfort food growing up?
Not oatmeal, that’s for sure. We had a large, fluctuating family: I have five siblings and my parents took in scores of foster children over the years. Dad was a logger and milked 18 cows. Money was scarce. I like to say Mom never went shopping until she had a fistful of coupons the size of a bad Uno hand. But one of the main ways she saved money was by purchasing oatmeal in 25-pound bags. Once, in New York City, someone took me to breakfast in a rather high-tone joint and urged me to try the steel-cut oatmeal. She said steel-cut like somehow that improved things. I said no thanks, I’m havin’ waffles!
But my favorite comfort food was popcorn. Every Sunday night, Mom sliced up cheese and apples, made a batch of Kool-Aid, and then popped a gigantic bowl of popcorn. And on “Popcorn Sunday,” as we called it, we were allowed to bring a book to the table and read while we ate. To this day, popcorn reminds me of those wonderful childhood Sundays, the whole far-flung family gathered around the table, deep into the pages, one hand holding the book flat, the other fishing around for the corn.
What is it now?
Perhaps because we rarely had these things when I was a child, I have an addictive hankering for the very worst of processed sugar-bomb sorts of concoctions. But I don’t think you can really call something a comfort food if you feel like a knee-walking loser two minutes after you eat it. And so my very favorite comfort food of all—the one I’m missing even as I talk to you from this motel room away from home right now—is my wife’s lentil dal. To walk into our farmhouse on a cold, wet, autumn day and smell that mix of onion, garlic, cumin, curry…it makes me wanna lie down and shake my leg like a dog. My wife’s cooking is a constant restorative against my road-dog eating habits.
What’s your must-have food when on the road?
Beans. Long story. But it has to do with the power of soluble fiber. And I’m not talking about the wink-wink funny stuff. I’m talking about their ability to generally calibrate the body in respect to things like cholesterol. My wife got me on the bean program a while back. I rolled my eyes at first. Now I am a believer, and rarely hit the road without packing bean cans. Glamorous, no?
What’s your viewpoint on organic food?
Well, being against organic food is like being against kittens. And my father’s farm is certified organic. But I think you have to be careful about labels, as they are easily misused. That’s not exactly a news flash. I assign greater priority to knowing where my food came from. We raise our own pigs and chickens, and we feed them nonorganic goodies including expired bakery goods, but I also know they’ve been out on grass every day of their lives, pecking and snouting in the dirt. Happy medium, I guess. We do buy a fair amount of organic produce from our local food co-op and other sources.
Do you do anything in your life organically?
Pretty much the whole deal has been organic. I never planned anything. I always joked that I have gotten through life based on what I learned from cleaning calf pens on my Dad’s farm: Just keep shoveling, and pretty soon you’ll have a pile so big someone has to notice. You can extend that distinctly organic metaphor to my work as far as you like, right down to the quality of the product…. But I went from Wisconsin farm kid to Wyoming ranch hand to registered nurse to wannabe writer to a guy who survives mostly by writing and also some performing and singing and a teensy bit of farming, so I guess I’d say that’s organic in a one-thing-leads-to-another sense. I still haven’t gotten around to writing a list of goals or a mission statement. Maybe that would smooth things out some.
Who was your biggest musical influence growing up?
Actually, hymns, for sure. I’m a bumbling agnostic with traces of amateur existentialism, but I was raised in an obscure fundamentalist Christian sect. And even though I no longer believe as I did, I still stick up for those folks, because by and large they were quiet, humble, and sincere. The sect was very austere. No churches. We met in our houses. The hymns were nearly always a cappella, and often sung at dirge pace. But there was a purity to the voices, a heartfelt, yearning tone that I have never forgotten. When I hear someone like Iris Dement singing the hymns of yore, it just tears me beautifully down. So I’m glad I grew up in that church with those hymns.
Who is it now?
Steve Earle changed my life. Never met him, never expect to, don’t need to. But his progression of albums, from Guitar Town, to Exit 0, right through to Transcendental Blues, coincided perfectly with my confused, unplanned journey from working as a farmhand and nurse into the world of poetry and writing. In short, Steve Earle taught me you could try for art while standing on the ground in your boots.
If you could write a theme song for any revolution or movement, what would it be?
I’m not qualified. As a longtime volunteer firefighter, I was always better at getting on the hose with two or three others than I was at directing the charge. If somehow, someday, something I’ve sung or written helps someone hold their ground—or find common ground—in the face of storms that come from either direction, well then I’ll be grateful for that.
Where’s your favorite place to play music?
Anywhere they’ll have me, but lately we’ve been playing a lot of historic Wisconsin opera houses—some restored, some just hanging on—and it’s spooky-cool to sit quiet in the backstage basement or stand there on the boards mid-song and consider the lively ghosts gone before you.
As you travel and tour, what’s one insight about humanity that you’ve gained from your adventures?
We’re all walking contradictions, and much progress could be made if we’d just say so.