Well, my 3rd single from my ‘Back to the Crossroads’ music project has been released — on all streaming platforms (as the terminology goes). I like to simply say ‘in the stream.’ Like a floating leaf or a newborn trout. Or a message in a bottle, hoping to reach someone up the shore.
‘Hello, Highway’ is a meaningful song to me. While most of the LP is organ-driven blues rock, this simple ballad tells the story of why I’m doing this music revival and how it came to be. I wrote it in on Highway 61 in the Mississippi Delta, a few months ago, on my way to Memphis to play some music. The song just happened as I drove, seeing ghosts from those days when I was pursuing a dream and trying to stay alive. On balance, it was a warm feeling in the soul.
It’s interesting to me that this particular song is getting more attention than the first two, despite the feel-good rock vibe of those jammers. I’ve been receiving emails about certain lyric lines and that’s been rewarding. Several curious folks wanted to know what ‘Dutchman in the pouring rain,’ alludes to. Some suggested that it must be the name of a certain train. Others, who know my backstory, assume that I’m referencing my teenage wanderings with a young guy from Holland named Humphrey Van der Sluis.
Humphrey and I met on a southbound Greyhound when I was a runaway with a broken nose. After a group of African-American passengers aided me (one of them, a 300 pound man who preached gospel from Bridgeport, CT to South Carolina) set my nose for me, I needed something for the pain. Anything. I gravitated toward another lone rider on the bus: a Dutchman wearing wooden shoes and rolling a blunt. After taking a hard draw on the cigarette — in lieu of pain killers — it turned out to be strong, dry tobacco and I went into a coughing fit.
Humphrey and I would get off in Daytona Beach, Florida and become travel companions. We would also find ourselves on the run (a story for another day) — from Florida to New Orleans. So that’s who the Dutchman in the pouring rain, on the west bank of Lake Ponchartrain is.
Another question that reached me is “does your voice break on the line ‘when I look back I don’t feel no pain’?” Yes. The lyric was written with a kind of irony, because we tend to remember hard times with a barrel-aged wisdom. But when I sang the line in the studio, that irony caught in my gut right as I went for a Jimmie Rogers blue yodel bend; conjuring the feeling hit me in an unexpected way. We chose to keep it because it was a real moment and it lands as counterpoint to the lyric. Like his dad before him, my record producer Cody Dickinson is all about authenticity.
Once again, the crazy-talented Cody of the North Mississippi All-Stars and Hill Country Revue plays multiple instruments, and I’m blessed to have Memphis diva Sharisse Norman singing with me again. But there’s something else about this song that hits home for me.
I wanted Sonny Terry-style harmonica on the track because that’s what I was playing on that highway when I was 17. I was going to do it myself despite my having grown rusty on the harp. I did, after all, learn some stuff directly from the great blind harmonica player (he was a big influence on the research for my movie ‘Crossroads’ and then he would ultimately end up doing the harmonica tracks for the film).
But then I remembered a guy back in Vermont who has a remarkable history. Mark LaVoie, like so many of us 70’s white boys, had become obsessed with the sound of the blues harmonica. After he went to see Sonny Terry perform in Plattsburgh, NY, in 1974, he would meet him and eventually become his personal driver; like ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ but only with a race reversal and lots of harmonica music. Mark would become Sonny’s confidante, friend, and protege. All those hours on the highway, seated behind the wheel, getting one-on-one tutorials with the greatest of all time. Seriously, how cool is that?
Building on Sonny Terry’s Piedmont blues style and shaping his own, Mark would go on to become one of the most distinguished harmonica players in the world, listed as a Hohner Harmonica Endorsee. He even invented his own LaVoie Vermont maple wood harmonica (no pun intended — it sounds sweet) and the LaVoie titanium, both of which have brought him international acclaim.
“I know our harmonica guy,” I said in the Mississippi recording session. So we decided to wait till I returned back east, to get Mark into a Johnson, Vermont studio (special thanks to Josh Clinger) to lay down a country blues track. I confess to getting chills when I hear that sound braided into the song — it captures the journey, the distant train, the hollow feeling of being hungry, but at it’s core: hope. And it sounds like Sonny Terry. But as Sonny himself once said, “Mark has his own style.”
Indeed, he does, and he’s one heck of a fun gentleman. If you get a chance, catch his solo show. Lots of stories, songs, and genuine whoopin’ and hollerin’ in tribute to Sonny and his legacy.
Hope you enjoy “Hello, Highway.” Thank you for listening. Hope you might find it in the stream: