|Author: Daniel, Bert
|Lessons from the Road
Bluegrass music is full of songs about the open road. These songs are among my personal favorites. They reflect the fact that we Americans are a very mobile people. We travel for many reasons and our songs mirror those reasons. We are fortunate that we have a spectacularly beautiful country in which to travel. I’ve always loved a good road trip. When I finished college, I spent the summer traveling the west for the first time ever. We covered fourteen thousand miles in an old car and saw as much as we could of the unfamiliar country between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific. The trip made such an impression on me that I later decided to settle in California rather than my native Carolina piedmont region.
Bluegrass road songs fall into a number of categories. I can think of a number of instrumentals that have road in the title. Some of these may also have words about the road, but if so I’m unaware of it: Paddy on the Turnpike, Road to California, Road to Boston, Road to Lisdonvarna, Muddy Roads, Lee Highway Blues, Old Plank Road.
Many songs simply mention the road for its own sake, more or less. The Bluegrass Cardinals sing about a worker who builds roads in Lee Berry Rye. Flatt & Scruggs sing about heading “Down the Road” to see a sweetheart. And when the Gibson Brothers sing about the road it is positively joyful:
It’s the perfect life Man it don’t get old On the open road
Some songs, like Doc Watson’s Call of the Road are about an inner need to ramble. In the case of the traveler in Gotta Travel On, there’s the added prod of the long arm of the law close behind. But there are cautions that the road is a lonesome place: Highway of Heartache, I’m Rollin On, Hitch-Hiker’s Blues.
The open road for a travelling bluegrass band can be a very tiresome and lonely place. Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys travelled extensively back and forth from Nashville to entertain fans at festivals across the country. These musicians endured a brutal travel schedule, driving from town to town in their jalopy. Many of Bill Monroe’s classic songs reflect life on the road. Bluegrass Special is an instrumental but it was also the name of the band’s road vehicle. Who can forget these lines?
We pull out from Nashville right on time The Bluegrass Special heads down the line
Heavy traffic ahead, heavy traffic ahead We got to ramble, ramble Heavy traffic ahead
Modern groups may travel in a more comfortable bus or RV, but their songs still reflect the stresses of keeping a road concert schedule. Never Grow Up Boy, (by Del McCoury and Harley Allen) is a great song:
I ain’t seen 18 in a long time I ain’t seen my baby for a while But I’ll be home by Monday morning After I drive 200 miles
Long haul truckers also know what it’s like to be on the road a lot: Eighteen Wheels, Widowmaker, White Freightliner are examples.
The road home is usually a pleasant prospect: Eight More Miles to Louisville, Ridge Road Gravel, Travelling the Highway Home, but sometimes not.
In I’m On My Way to the Old Home the traveler approaches the old home only to find that there’s no light in the window
That shined long ago where I lived
We may leave home because of a failed relationship or other problem: Travellin’ This Lonesome Road, Rocky Road Blues. A number of good stories concern road travel: Bringing Mary Home, No School Bus in Heaven, Wreck on the Highway. Sometimes the road is merely a neighborhood reference point: Shacktown Road, Jubilee Road.
The road is often used metaphorically. Union Station compares the road to a lover (The Road is a Lover). And Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky? I guess so if my sweetheart and I only get “one last kiss before we part”. Quite a few gospel songs use the road as metaphor. I love to hear Bill Monroe’s quartet harmonize with
The old cross road now is waiting
Which one are you going to take?
One leads down to destruction The other to the pearly gate
Other examples include It’s a Lonesome Road, and I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap. In fact my favorite road songs use road travel as a metaphor for traveling life’s challenging road. The road can teach us many lessons. I can tell you from personal experience about a profound lesson the road has taught me. Years after I learned my lesson, I read a very good description of the same phenomenon in a book called the Magic Mountain by the author Thomas Mann. I wish I had the talent to express the concept in a bluegrass song. But read on.
Fourteen years ago I spent a year of my life on the road. I was between jobs and I had some money saved up, so I indulged my dreams and took off on a bicycle tour of America. I carried everything I needed, (tent, sleeping bag, stove, etc.) in luggage which attached to racks on my bicycle frame. I even carried a notebook computer so that I could keep a journal and e mail friends and family along the way. In less than a year I logged over 17,000 miles and visited every one of the fifty states in one grand loop, flying only to Alaska and Hawaii.
What a year it was! I remember few of the current news events of that year, because I was so out of touch. But for those few events that I did catch during my journey, I have no trouble dating them to 1994-1995. It was a year with no World Series. O.J. was arrested. People were watching Forrest Gump (and asking me about it when they heard about my own unusual trip).
The memories that really stand out from that year are memories of the trip itself. For every day in the calendar, from January 1 to December 31, I can tell you exactly what I was doing on that day during the year of my journey. I can tell you where I stayed, where I rode to and where I rode from. Everything. The only days I have trouble with are days when I stayed in the same place, like when I killed a few winter weeks with my relatives in South Carolina, flying to Hawaii in the interim.
So that brings me to the great lesson I learned. Of course I remember exactly where I was when I discovered the lesson. I was approaching the town of Van Horn, Texas on October 31. The road between Sierra Blanca and Van Horn is a featureless desert and when I ride alone in such places I think about all sorts of things, just to pass the time. One is grateful to see anything new out there. It gives you something to think about so you can occupy your mind. Checkpoints like road crossings, county lines or state lines are big deals. They give you the tangible encouragement of demonstrable progress.
So when I spotted the sign saying I was passing from the Mountain time zone into the Central time zone, let me tell you it was the highlight of my day. I started to muse about when I had last been in the Central time zone during my long journey. Before I could calculate a clear reference point, my mind performed an intuitive “guesstimation function”. It told me intuitively that this time difference must be very large indeed.
After that very brief intuitive moment, the rational calculating brain took over. It performed a very different function and I soon determined that since I had been in South Dakota when I last left the Central time zone, and that was in mid-June, the time difference must be four and a half months. I was stunned. How can this possibly be? The two time references were so vastly different that I couldn’t comprehend how experience and calculation gave such incredibly different results. It was a feeling I had never encountered before. The fact that I could be so far off on one scale troubled me. I had to have an answer.
I started to think about how this discordance could possibly occur. It had to have something to do with the novel circumstances of my unusual trip. I thought about it for a while and I realized eventually that during all of the days of my then seven month long journey, every single day was different. I was headed from one new place to another new place. I faced brand new challenges of where to buy food, where to camp, h
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