River Songs is an acoustic album that I recorded in a cabin near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. The music was inspired by three cross-country road trips down and up Highway 61, tracing the Big River from Minnesota to New Orleans and back. The lyrics were written in highway rest areas, motel rooms, and state parks along my route with one exception.
Many years ago and long before I made these marathon river drives, I wrote the song “Paper Town” about Cloquet, Minnesota, the town I grew up in and (by the end of high school) wanted very badly to leave. Now I swear I’ve left that place dozens of times and it keeps happening. That cycle is probably what this EP is about, among other concerns, but the action takes place mostly along the banks of the Mississippi River. So it’s called River Songs.
Down the Big River - originally published in the Duluth News Tribune, 8.29.14
"Up The Big River" Road journal - June 2015
Monday, June 22 - I’ve been in New Orleans for 36 hours now but I haven’t talked to many Americans. My friends here are international travelers staying with me in a hostel one block off the St. Charles Street trolley line. I’ve been trading itineraries with British, German, and Swiss 20-somethings and am surprised to learn that The Crescent City remains a point-of-entry for so many visitors to the U.S. Of course I love the idea of starting my road trip here in the dank, old, curious basement of America. For my foreign friends though, I can’t help thinking that New Orleans is a misleading initiation to the culture. Extremes thrive here. The food is louder, the jazz is hotter, the cockroaches more visible. The French Quarter is known for its flickering gas-lit charm and for the most notorious party district in America. In Faubourg Marigny, veteran scenesters play impeccable Dixieland jazz to a bar full of rowdy Australian frat boys. Everywhere, residential blocks are gap-toothed with empty lots but the city remains an architectural wonder. I grew up in a small town in the upper Midwest that is still loosely organized around a big paper mill. Culturally speaking, New Orleans is about the same distance from Cloquet, Minnesota as the Philippines.
Tuesday, June 23 - The grandeur of the Mississippi is undeniable from this height. It’s straight and wide, dwarfing downtown Hannibal. It dazzles and throws off light in every direction like blue tinfoil crumpled and unrolled again on a long green tablecloth. In Louisiana, the Mississippi River is nicknamed the Big Muddy, but from the bluffs surrounding Twain’s hometown, the water couldn’t be brighter. It’s confusing that this wide blue lake of a river will eventually switch back and forth across delta cotton fields slender, lazy, and brown.
But this is steamboat Mississippi, log raft Mississippi, maybe Spirit of America Mississippi. If the boy Sam Clemons stood right about here 175 years ago, I can hardly blame him for angling to hop the next steamboat out of town. Hannibal is charming. Meanwhile, this blue ribbon unrolls all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, all the way to the Great North Woods! How could a hungry kid hang around for long? From here, Twain’s hometown looks like a decorated landing dock, a place for steam boaters to refuel on the way to somewhere else. After my climb, I do exactly that.
Wednesday, June 24 - Finally, the charming river towns are starting to look familiar. Winona, Lake City, Red Wing and Hastings Minnesota rise into small clusters of storefronts and melt back into farmland in succession. Traffic multiplies as I meet the Twin Cities’ suburban exodus head on, and soon the sober brown St. Paul skyline breaks my horizon. Minnesota’s capitol is a crescent city too, and the Mississippi River wraps historic Lowertown in the same way it cradles the French Quarter 1,000 miles south. What a difference three days make. No brass bands try to blockade traffic here and the city streets are too wide for that anyway. No plastic beads dangle from the telephone lines and no drifters crowd Rice Park at night, filling the air with smoke and scratchy guitar licks. In New Orleans, the bars and cafes close when the drinkers go home, around sunrise on most weekends. In St. Paul, people mostly go home at 5:00 p.m. on any day, and the downtown streets are quiet by the time I pull through.
As I leave St. Paul I also leave the Big River. If I had the time and flexibility, I would trace the Mississippi to Lake Itasca tonight, but the Subaru and I belong to a different watershed. This is more of an errand than a vacation anyway, so I end the day’s drive with no water in sight, breaking straight and fast across Minnesota’s central farmland. The Great River Road is no longer an option, so I accept the efficiency of Interstate-35. I’m wired and weary at once now, and this concession to convenience will speed me to Cloquet before midnight. This is fine.
Monday, September 7 - When people ask, “what have you been up to this summer?” it still feels somehow forced to say “I drove across America.” Did I? That phrase is confusing, suggesting overnights in the Rocky Mountains and long stretches open desert. Yes, I crossed the United States from end to end, but I did it all on central time. I crossed no mountain ranges. I exited 8 states and paid no tolls. I did not drive coast-to-coast. But even in my unusual way, I think that I saw America. Starting from one of the oldest cities on the continent, I charged up through the Civil War, up through the steam age, up through the frontier bonanza and somehow landed back in the sepia Midwest. “In three days.” “In three days?” Yes. It was living history, and it was a long time coming.
For seven years now, I’ve been writing melancholy songs about feeling down and leaving town. In his seminal treatise on the subject, Woody Guthrie named this act hitting the sad old lonesome go. I’ve made a habit of singing about it, whereas others have made careers. The Mississippi River has long been at the center of my ongoing escape narrative, but I wonder how that will change. Now that I have sailed away, in a Boeing 737, down to New Orleans, can I still perform “Paper Town” as if nothing has changed? I literally went down to the crossroads and ended up back at home. But I think something will come of it. In addition to these raw field notes, my cross-country drive inspired some lyrics that could become new songs. I have access to a cabin near the headwaters this weekend and my studio microphone is in the trunk.
So, edging back onto the road, I leave the windows down. The sun is burning low above the woods, directly in my line-of-sight. West. In my driver’s side mirror, the Mississippi River still ripples away from the North Country with a quiet nonchalance, but now I have some idea of where that water is headed. Big things are in store downstream. I’ve never been to Lake Itasca though, so I continue up the Big River toward the source.