The Shadow of a Song
When the reporter started calling, I was scrubbing potatoes and gazing out at the long slats of indigo the maples had cast onto the snow. Her first call to the home phone had shown up as “unknown number,” so I let it go. Less than a minute later, my cell phone buzzed on the countertop behind me.
“Hi, this is Kirsten from Inside Edition. I’m hoping you can help me—I’ve called your dad several times, but I haven’t been able to get through.” I knew that “several” was an understatement. According to my mother, it was more like twenty. “We just want to do a quick segment on him,” she purred. “Maybe you could persuade him …”
I let out a derisive breath and explained that my father is an eighty-year-old man who does what he wants. “He’s tired of giving interviews by now. Frankly, I don’t think he wants to talk to you.”
Immediately I regretted my tone; Kirsten was a pest, but I’d been a reporter long enough to know how defeating these calls could be. I softened my delivery. “Besides, I don’t even live near him. You’re calling me in Michigan.”
“Yes,” said Kirsten. “I know.”
Almost fifty years ago, my father, Sonny Curtis, wrote and performed “Love is All Around,” the iconic theme song to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He still makes music, and he and my mother still live in the rural Tennessee town where they raised me, in a modest white clapboard house on a winding road that snakes past ramshackle trailers and verdant pastureland to rest at a century-old gristmill. Theirs is a quiet life forty minutes from the hustle of Nashville’s Music Row, their home’s tranquility broken only by the hourly toll of a grandfather clock, or the occasional barking fit from a neighbor’s dog.
But all that changed in the January days following Mary Tyler Moore’s death in 2017. Reporters like Kirsten circled, ringing my parents’ phone every few minutes. My father seemed to be everywhere that week: 20/20, Page Six, The L.A. Times, and CBS’s hour-long prime time tribute to Moore, titled Mary Tyler Moore: Love is All Around. He gave so many interviews, he grew wary people might think he was using Moore’s death as an opportunity, as he told the reporter from the L.A. Times. On the phone to me, he was more direct: “This has gotten totally out of hand.”
No kidding, I thought, winding my minivan around my icy driveway shortly after talking to Kirsten. At a long red light on the way to pick up my kids from school, I lingered on her voice. She sounded to be in her mid-twenties, the same age I’d been when I worked as a newspaper reporter in Boston. A TV reporter who knows Mary Tyler Moore through YouTube clips. How ironic, I thought bitterly. I wondered what the future had in store for Kirsten, if she wanted children, and if so, what she would forsake for them. Would she eventually follow in my well-trodden path, feel like a squatter in her own closet each morning as she flipped through pencil skirts and button-down blouses she had no use for, the vestments of her old identity? No, Kirsten seemed driven, resourceful—how had she gotten my cell phone number anyway? I bet she would balance her ambitions better than I had.
I turned into the parking lot of my daughters’ school, my father’s lyrics echoing in my head. You can have the town, why don’t you take it? I once carried those words around with me like a charm, but now they felt like a sharp rock in my pocket, one that would nick my palm if I worried it too much. I was used to living with the song, sometimes under its shadow, but at that moment I felt I hadn’t lived up to it—fitting, I supposed, for neither had my father.
While the world was remembering Mary that week, I was conjuring a different woman, the one I associate with my first lucid memory of “Love is All Around.” It was the late seventies, and my parents and I had driven down to Texas to visit my grandparents at their five-room stucco breadbox of a house, located in a rural cotton farming community outside Lubbock. My father had a concert to play during the visit, and he and my mother left me with my grandparents for an evening. There would be post-show cocktails with his childhood musician friends over old rock ‘n’ roll stories; it would be a long night for my parents. But I was only three, so my night was drawing to a close.
My grandma Violet wore a faded yellow muumuu adorned with blue cornflowers—my handful of memories of her all involve a muumuu—as she scrubbed the dinner plates in the narrow galley kitchen where she spent the better part of her days. She laid down her dishrag and walked into the living room just as my grandfather turned on the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, flooding the room with my father’s dulcet voice, as rich and smooth as warm molasses.
“Who can turn the world on with her smile?”
I toddled around in my pajamas while my grandma pointed at the screen with delight. “Who’s that?” she asked.
“Daddy!” I squealed.
“Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?”
“Where’s his voice coming from? Is he in the bedroom?” she asked. I peeked my head into the adjacent room where she and my grandfather slept, glimpsed the threadbare block quilt and the Margaret Keane knockoff of two hollow-eyed waifs that hung above their bed. No Daddy.
“Well, it’s you girl, and you should know it …”
I came back into the living room and shook my head, then pointed to the TV.
“With each glance and every little movement, you show it …”
“Is he stuck in the TV?” Grandma asked in mock horror.
I threw my head back and laughed, and so did my grandparents. I knew she was pulling my leg, that my daddy recorded music for work. He’d taken me inside a recording studio before, its endless rows of candy-colored buttons irresistible to my curious fingers. Even at three, hearing his voice on TV no longer held the power of surprise for me.
But what about my grandmother? What ran through this simple farm wife’s mind as she listened to her son usher in a show about a single career woman? She’d quit school at seventeen to marry my grandfather on a Thursday morning and, as my father tells it, was back in the cotton field pulling bolls before mid-afternoon. It was October of 1926, the year the dirt really started to kick up, a year as dry as the heart of a haystack. A month later as they celebrated their first Thanksgiving as a married couple, a black duster blotted out the sky so opaquely, the chickens went to roost in the middle of the afternoon, mistaking day for night. My grandparents feared it was a bad omen, and they were right. It was the beginning of the Dust Bowl.
What could the second wave of feminism have meant to my grandma Violet, this mother of six by the age of thirty who had survived at the fickle mercy of disaster? She died when I was seven, so I’ll never know. I’d like to believe she saw the show as a good omen, a whirling spoke in the wheel of progress. But my hunch is that she saw it as an amusement, a frivolity, a trifle about a woman born with the fortune to choose her own fate.
The story of how my father came to write the song in 1970 is something of a legend in Hollywood theme song history, frequently recounted and easily Googled. The abridged version is this: He learned of the opportunity in the morning from a good friend who worked at the talent agency that managed Mary Tyler Moore, was handed a vague show synopsis around lunchtime (girl gets jilted, moves to Minneapolis and takes a job in a newsroom, rents an apartment she has a hard time affording), wrote the song in under two hours, and played it that very afternoon for the show’s executive producer James L. Brooks, who fell in love with it on the spot.
When reporters ask my father what inspired the lyrics to “Love is All Around,” he repeats the same answer, that he just keyed into that synopsis, tried to get a bead on this newly independent young woman. “It came to me pretty quickly,” he told a reporter from the L.A. Times, before quoting the first season’s opening. “‘How will you make it on your own? This world is awfully big. Girl, this time you’re all alone.’”
In her book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong describes Brooks’s reaction to hearing the song. “Could it be this easy? How did a Texas farm boy understand their show about a modern Midwestern woman when they still couldn’t seem to complete their script?” she writes.
How indeed? My father was writing about an experience he knew intimately. My grandparents’ fifth child, he was born at the tail end of the Dust Bowl in a dugout, an underground shelter rooted into the prairie with dirt walls and floors, everything made of earth except for a corrugated tin roof that spun rhythm out of raindrops. From an early age he’d taken refuge in music, both as entertainment and as an avenue to gain attention from his weary parents. He’s told me how his life changed when his aunt taught him to play “Little Brown Jug” on the guitar when he was four, before his fingers could stretch all the way across the neck. Later, he wrote his first song as a pre-teenager from the perch of his father’s tractor—a way to escape those unending rows of cotton clouds before him, if only in his mind.
As a young man, his success had not come easily. He’d struggled to make it in the music business after graduating high school—hitching rides home from shows, sleeping on friends’ couches, suffering rejection after rejection. “You better go back to Texas, boy,” Wesley Rose, the powerful head of Nashville’s Acuff-Rose Music, had told him in his early twenties. “You don’t have what it takes to make it here.” But Rose was wrong. My father became a successful songwriter and musician. At age twenty-two, he wrote what later became his most famous copyright, “I Fought the Law.” He did, in fact, make it after all. Perhaps he drew less from that vague show synopsis and more from his own life.
Still, James L. Brooks knew that “Love is All Around” would speak to working women, and it did. Gloria Steinem once told my father how much the song meant to her, as did Moore, who gave him a framed copy of the song’s sheet music that hangs in his office. At the bottom she wrote, “Dear Sonny, a good part of who I am comes from your poetry.” She titled her 1996 autobiography After All, a reference to the song’s hook, “You’re going to make it after all.”
The song continues to resonate today, at least with a female friend of mine who is too young to have watched the show during its initial run. “God, that song,” she messaged me after Moore’s death. “It’s the song I sing in my head when I go into negotiations at work.”
For me the song is more complicated and nostalgic, though I have no memories of my father singing it to me on his knee when I was a girl. He did write a song for me once, a coming-of-age ballad called “It’s Not Easy Being Fifteen,” but “Love is All Around” was always for Mary Richards. I was a toddler when The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended, but in the early nineties, Nick at Nite syndicated “Marythons,” which gave me a chance to watch it with my father occasionally. Of course he was biased, but he loved everything about the show, especially the character of Lou Grant, Richards’s cantankerous boss. I was a sullen teenager by then and found the show dated, my image of a modern career woman having been carved indelibly by Murphy Brown, who strode big-shouldered into the office each day prepared to take zero flack from the men around her. Compared to Brown, Richards came across as loopy, toothless, safe.
Later, I would learn that Richards paved the way for Brown and others of her kind, in part because she was the first notable female TV character to choose work over family life (the series memorably ended with her giving a stirring speech declaring her co-workers her family), as well as the first female character openly on birth control. The show suggested Richards’s career was made possible by her decision not to have children, making her career trajectory inversely proportional to my own.
And so “Love is All Around” stirs in me a messy tangle of emotions and ideals regarding work and success. In this way, I’m not alone. As I watched a teary-eyed Oprah on the CBS special invoke my father’s lyrics to explain how the show instilled in her the belief that “I own my life. I’m in control. I’m going to make it after all,” I considered how unlikely it would be to see Larry King or Bill Gates give an equally emotive interview about believing in themselves. To put a point on it, women relate to “Love is All Around” because it’s a song about success for those who have been told they cannot succeed. The song doesn’t say “You’re going to make it, baby”; it says, “You’re going to make it after all,” the implication being “after all you’ve overcome.” This was a pep talk women yearned for in the seventies, when offices were rife with sexism.
While our culture still has far to go, today’s generation needs fewer reassurances. When I explain to my own three daughters that their grandfather once wrote a song for a show that inspired women to believe they could succeed at work, I’m greeted with blank stares. “What’s the difference between an architect and an engineer?” my eight-year-old middle child asked the other day, plotting her future career. The idea that women would need encouragement entering the workforce is a concept as foreign and irrelevant to her as Mary Richards’s manual typewriter would be to Kirsten.
This past April, I sat in a dark auditorium at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, watching my father perform a songwriter-in-the-round concert with fellow hometown boys Lloyd Maines and Joe Ely. Aside from his recent two-year cancer battle, my father has never taken a break from performing, not since he picked and sang the Appalachian bluegrass song “Good Ol’ Mountain Dew” for a school assembly at age nine. He still lights up a stage, though his voice has been weakened by a surgery that removed a tumor around his esophagus, close to his vocal chords. Worse, chemotherapy affected his hearing and limited his ability to detect if he’s singing off-key, which gnaws deeply at him. Thanks to a lifetime of daily practicing sessions, however, his guitar playing remains fantastic, as it did that night.
My parents and I had arrived early to the auditorium, a vast, institutional college lecture hall that smelled of musty brass instruments and pencil dust. My mother and I wished my father good luck and he headed backstage with his guitar, leaving us alone in the auditorium. At this point, the two of us normally grab a drink at the bar to kill time, but we were at a school, not a concert venue, so we sat under the florescent glare reading our programs, bored. Soon the doors opened and audience members flooded in, many of them wizened older Texans I recognized as family and friends who’d known my father, and his father, for over half a century. They knew more than the words to the songs they were about to hear; they knew the route to the 640 acres where my great-grandfather planted cotton and grain sorghum, and to the joints where my father used to pick as a teenager. The land is out of cultivation now, blanketed by sun-bleached sagebrush and lovegrass, and the joints are mostly leveled gravel lots, but in the weathered faces surrounding me, I thought I saw the flicker of those old ghosts.
Finally the room dimmed, the ceiling exploded with white pinpricks of light, and the three performers walked onstage. Beside me, my father’s most loyal groupie hooted loudly. Then a hush fell over the crowd and the air seemed to pulse with the breath of the high plains. It was the place where all concerts become holy, but this one felt especially so to me, the room suffused with a bone-deep familiarity, a common language of space and time, and a shared and visceral need to pierce the silence of the empty prairie with song.
Midway through the show, my father began strumming the six repeating, cascading notes that begin “Love is All Around.” The song requires no introduction. People clapped and whistled even before he opened his mouth to sing—especially women, or so it sounded to my ears.
Yet even without its feminist cachet, it really is a lovely song. I’ve always been proud that my father wrote it, though it’s far from perfect. Like my own history with it, the song has a darkness, a shadow side that few people know about: the second verse. “You are most likely to succeed,” it begins, before going completely off the rails with, “You have the looks and charm, and girl, you know, that’s all you need/All the men around adore you/That sexy look will do wonders for you.”
My father knows my mother and I dislike that verse. After Moore died, it reared its dated head again in a phone conversation with him. Asked about it, as usual, he shrugged it off, said sexism wasn’t on his mind while writing the song. “I don’t think I’m a sexist,” he added bemusedly.
I assured him I don’t think he is either, but that’s not the whole truth. My father is a gentleman—an old-fashioned word, but a fitting one. He is hardly the same kind of sexist as the current President of the United States, but rather the kind of man who will perform an impromptu quick-step to open a door for a woman, or notice when a woman has dressed up and praise her appearance, cordial relics of days gone by. And though he raised me, his only child, to believe I could grow up to be anything I wanted, including the President of the United States, he also wrote a verse suggesting that women need nothing more than raw sex appeal to succeed in life. There exists in him a nugget of chauvinism that is undeniable, generational, and yes, understandable, though not wholly excusable.
And so I gave him an out, and asked him if he’d write the same verse again today. “Yeah, I think I would,” he replied airily. “I still think it’s clever.” I let out a long sigh, but I didn’t push the issue as I would have a decade or two ago. My dad is getting older, and so am I. Our time together has become laden with meaning, precious.
But as I sat in that Lubbock auditorium a few months after our conversation, something strange happened. I watched my father do what I’d never seen him do before, not in the countless times I’ve seen him perform “Love is All Around.” He played the two different versions of the first verse that had appeared on the show. He skipped the second.
Growing up in the shadow of a famous song is a curious thing. It’s a part of me when it suits me, but a part I don’t pay much attention to, like a knuckle, when it doesn’t. It suited me when I was young, but after I had children, I began holding it at arm’s length. “The child goes through the full-time mother like a dye through water,” wrote Rachel Cusk. “There is no part of her that remains uncolored.” Motherhood tinted everything for me, even this seemingly benign theme song that helped put me through college. If I hear it on the wrong day it invokes all that could have been, had I just believed with each glance and every little movement that I could make it after all, had I invested less energy in my mothering life and more in my career. Or the song reminds me that even if my father drops the second verse, he did indeed write—and defend—a line that undermines some of my deepest values, ones I struggle to instill in my own daughters amidst a hyper-sexualized culture of Kardashians.
But if I hear the song on the right day, it lifts me out of my domestic minutia, and makes me applaud my father’s willingness to revise. Good art can do that, help us reconcile our messy, “imperfectly mingled spirit,” as Thoreau put it. The man with sexist tendencies who raised a feminist daughter. The feminist who quit her job and became a full-time mother. We’re not dualistic creatures defined by our instincts; after all, Mary Richards was just a character on TV. The real Mary Tyler Moore was a divorcée, a flawed mother, a recovering alcoholic, and a raging Hollywood success.
A few years ago, an acquaintance sent me a link to a print she’d found online, a folk artist’s rendering of a hand tossing a beret in the air below the caption, “You’re going to make it after all.” It was a crude picture, one my six-year-old might have scrawled, but to me it looked like a scruffy patch of earth on which I could stake my flag. So what if the hand was cartoonish, its fingers all the same length? As my oldest daughter had said when she was 10, “Sometimes mistakes make the best art.”
And so I bought one for my father, who was coming off a grueling year of cancer treatments. Then, because I’d begun to write again after my youngest daughter started school, I thought of Mary Richards, and I bought one for myself. Later, I framed it and hung it over my desk. The last time I visited my father, I saw that he had done the same.