Project Notes: Turning 61 on Highway 61

Turning 61 on Highway 61

Music, of course, requires no explanation-indeed of all the arts perhaps music is the most universally understood and crosses all cultural barriers. In any event I thought I would, for those interested, share some of my thoughts on the creation of my new song cycle “Turning 61 on Highway 61”.

The term “song cycle” is perhaps where to begin. Although rockers like The Who and The Beatles and others are often credited with “inventing” the “concept album” in fact artists like Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton and many others had in previous years created pieces of work in which all the material was thematically connected.

My theme, as you might guess, is my reflections of turning 61 years of age through the prism of my life in proximity to US Highway 61. I was born in 1955 at the height of the baby boom in Ashland, Wisconsin on the chilly shores of Lake Superior. Highway 2 in which the hospital I was born in was located intersects Highway 61 near Duluth, Minnesota about 100 miles south of where 61 begins just across the border in Thunder Bay, Canada.

I now live in New Orleans approximately a mile from where 61 ends at the intersection of Tulane and Broad streets.

My Dad and his twin brother and my namesake Dick Egner were born in St Louis and my grandparents lived their whole post immigration lives there and are buried in Calvary cemetery. As a kid in the 60’s I have fond memories of visiting St Louis and in recent years I’ve had the opportunity to play music there a few times.

My Mother was born, raised and eventually passed away in Arlington, Tennessee just outside of Memphis. She and my dad are buried there and I have numerous relatives living there to this day. I spent many fine summers in Arlington or “home” as my Mom always called it. Her family were farmers and merchants who ran the local general store which at one time sold things as diverse as automobiles and caskets-it’s now a hipster antique mall and the farms are largely suburban developments.

Although I have spent the bulk of my life and career on the West Coast in the Seattle area, Los Angeles and primarily San Francisco, I’ve always thought of myself as a Southerner. Indeed I moved back to the South in 2013 to relaunch my music career in New Orleans.

When I began conceptualizing my new work I realized I had a wealth of personal experience, anecdotal information and information I’d gleaned from years as a bookaholic history nut, etc.

I think of this as Part One in a trilogy of semi-autobiographical work I hope to record and release over the next few years. I also plan a Miami to Texas Gulf Coast to Austin album reflecting growing up in the civil rights era South, as well as a LA to Seattle album reflecting those years in which I had a music career and then turned to a business career and raising a daughter.

So with that in mind, here’s some of my thoughts on the inspirations and insight into some of the “inside baseball” references I make in many of the tunes.

I think it’s of some import for the sequence of the songs to be heard in the order in which they appear on the album. They metaphorically move downriver so to speak from “Thunder Bay down to New Orleans” as one of the lines in title track mentions.

The title track “Turning 61 on Highway 61” is a reflection on many of the memorable moments for me beginning in my early childhood in Wisconsin. The mention of seeing the Queen is a literal one- we piled into the car and drove up to Thunder Bay to see her motorcade roll by.

Other images refer to the tall skinny kid going to meet the blues heroes I had read about in magazines and in the library. From Otha Turner to Mance Lipscomb to Etta Baker and Furry Lewis those I met were universally gracious and kind to me.

My mention of Charlie Rich is also a literal one. He was playing solo piano in a hotel lobby (this after he was famous-not sure why he was doing it..) and was a fabulous jazz player. He did tell me he got lucky with his number ones and I never forgot his humility and grace.

“I’n Quittin’ Dope Next Month” is a tongue in cheek tune inspired by the many polka bands I saw as a kid. I have a vivid memory of going into the music store in Ashland with Dad and the walls were lined with accordions-no guitars in late 50’s Northern Wisconsin! The fatalism and good nature self poking of fun is in spirit of many of the great polkas that often have silly memes for themes-my friend master accordionist Greg Speck takes a dozy of a solo and we all had a great laugh putting the track together.

      “It’s an 11 Car Winter” springs from a memory of our neighbor Mr Ashbacher telling me the way they measured the ice in Lake Superior during the winter- by how many cars deep the ice was. Apparently in less environmentally conscious days the town stacked wrecks up to 30 and 40 deep in the lake and I suppose estimated the depth based on how many cars were in the ice. A ballad rumination on the effects of loss and surviving in frozen conditions for months on end.

The Northern part of the album ends with ““The Last Time Buddy Crossed 61”.Buddy Holly famously perished in a place wreck in February of 1959. When I read his biography it told of the fateful week before the accident and the events that lead him to rent the plane. He played Duluth, Minnesota at an auditorium on highway 61 and then headed to Green Bay. After passing about a quarter of a mile from where I was sleeping away the cold night at age 4, the bus broke down outside of Ashland and locals our family knew helped rescue them and get the drummer to a hospital where he nearly lost his foot to frostbite.

After several more fiascoes in Green Bay and on the way to Iowa the bus crossed Highway 61, approximately in the Quad Cities area. So indeed “he never could have imagined his days were nearly done, the last time Buddy crossed 61”. In further irony a family friend of my gal Trisha was born in Mason City-her grandfather owned the farm land the plane wrecked and turned Buddy’s wallet in to the Iowa police.

The record moves on to St Louis and “St Louis Trolley’s” is indeed about the restoration of the trolley system some 50 years after it was demolished. As a child one of my earliest St Louis memories was riding on the trolley with my Uncle Will-then about 88 years old. He started shining shoes on the trolley’s at age 5 and literally spent his whole life working on them-over 70 as a driver. When they did the last run he drove the trolley and shortly thereafter passed away,

The “inside baseball” is here is literally about baseball in this case. My Dad grew up poor in the depression and was born the same year as Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola. They lived on “dago hill” and dad recalls a lot of rock fights between the ethnic groups-Italians, Irish, Germans and so forth…I did see Stan Musial play in 1963 in his last season at old Sportsman’s Park.

Weirdly enough the first dead body I ever saw was Joe Garagiola’s mother. She and my Grandfather died the same day and their funerals were both handled by the Kutis Funeral home. While Dad was making arrangements I wandered around and peered into a room and saw an open casket. I didn’t see anyone around so I walked up to the casket and a tiny shriveled woman was inside! After a few seconds of stunned wonder at seeing someone dead a hand hit my shoulder-it was Joe who thanked for me for paying respects. At the time he had just retired and had yet to begin his work on the Today show, etc. I knew him from his work not only as a catcher but also as the announcer for Wrestling at the Chase on local St Louis TV.

“I Love Inez” I include it in St Louis section as it features the great Dickie Landry on alto playing on a pretty ballad-something my alto sax playing Dad loved to do as well. A simple love song anchored beautifully by David Broullitte who worked extra hard to make the main motif resonate. No song cycle without a love song!

“Break Out the Party Hats” And we’re moving down the Mississippi! A song about travel, change , family and the joy of reuniting. Another of the fun songs, this one is has a “Ray Price” shuffle and was a fun song for me to sneak in some mandolin playing-my recording debut on the instrument I took up 5 years ago or so.

“I Love Country Soul” As this song makes obvious I love country soul! Much name dropping of my heroes here as I’m proud to extol the virtues of this great Southern sound-much of it emanating from Memphis nearby my family home of Arlington. Simple sentiments and a soulful solo from Rod Hodges-himself a great country soul man.

     “Sputnik Monroe” The tale of pro wrestler Roscoe Brumbaugh whose ring name was inspired by a comment of an angry fan who called him (late 50’s) Sputnik-the most insulting name possible at the time. A career long “heel” I first saw him on TV in 60’s in Memphis and got to meet him when he rented a home from my Uncle in Arlington in the summer of 1966 or so. He was inadvertent civil rights pioneer via his insistence that his black fans be allowed to sit anywhere they wanted instead of being segregated in the balcony, To build “heat” (i.e. sell tickets) he often did the outrageous and the most incendiary stunt he pulled was kissing his black tag team partner Norvell Austin on the lips in a TV interview-10,000 outraged fans showed up to boo him! He fought his last match ironically in the town I went to HS and Jr College, Texas City, Texas at age 72! I stayed in touch with him via email up until his death and am honored to help keep his memory alive.

     “Telling Me” We’re now closing in on New Orleans with this swamp pop ballad. I’ve been fortunate to spend a fair amount of time in Cajun country and the album was recorded in Breaux Bridge in the heart of Acadiana. The Lafayette legend Dickie Landry is featured on this tune that i wrote with him and his late colleague David Egan in mind.

“Gulf Coast Blues Party” Another shout out to the legends who have and continue to insprie me. It’s the fashion of the great bands I saw when I lived in Texas City and would go to Galveston and see bands playing on the beach. Dickie, Rod and I have a ball over the rollicking groove created by Ryan Donohue and Andy Lade. Fun!

“New to New New Orleans” A fun romp featuring the great Dickie Landry.Gentrification is a big issue here and I poke some fun at those who somehow imagine this great city is going to change it’s basic nature. And I suppose my point such as it is is that everyone including multi-generational folks who have lived here their entire lives-like the rest of us they are new to the new New Orleans!

“I Fail” The concluding number is poking fun at an ill fated trip I made to New Orleans in 1973 and under the influence of LSD found and subsequently lost the secret of life! I’ll never forget thinking I was in the middle of the swamps until the sun came up and I realized my “campsite” was a front yard in suburban Kenner outside of New Orleans. Special kudos to Rod Hodges and Mark Bingham who came up with such creative sounds on the solo sections. Ooops!  I fail I fail I fail!

I’d like to thank the great musicians who played with me on the record. I especially got a kick out of our demographics, From Andy in his 20’s to Dickie Landry at 77 we had someone from about 4 or 5 generations and the mix was inspired.

Also hard to find words to heap enough praise on co-producer, mixer, engineer Mark Bingham in whose studio we tracked and mixed the record.  He is a truly inspired genius and it’s an amazing treat to watch him work-we had a tight timeline and he was able to get great sounds right away and mixed at the speed of light.

I’d also ;like to thank my late parents for their encouragement and inspiration, my late Uncle Dick who told me all great art exhibits unity and variety, Miss Trisha Dragovanfor her love ,support and belief in my talent and my daughter Zoelle who inspires me every day.

Hope you enjoy my autobiographical journey through the heart of American music. Who knew 61 would feel so good?