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Blue Guitar Highway

Paul Metsa

Publication Year: 2011

This is a musician’s tale: the story of a boy growing up on the Iron Range, playing his guitar at family gatherings, coming of age in the psychedelic seventies, and honing his craft as a pro in Minneapolis, ground zero of American popular music in the mid-eighties. “There is a drop of blood behind every note I play and every word I write,” Paul Metsa says. And it’s easy to believe, as he conducts us on a musical journey across time and country, navigating switchbacks, detours, dead ends, and providing us the occasional glimpse of the promised land on the blue guitar highway.

His account captures the thrill of the Twin Cities when acts like the Replacements, Husker Dü, and Prince were remaking pop music. It takes us right onto the stages he shared with stars like Billy Bragg, Pete Seeger, and Bruce Springsteen. And it gives us a close-up, dizzying view of the roller-coaster ride that is the professional musician’s life, played out against the polarizing politics and intimate history of the past few decades of American culture. Written with a songwriter’s sense of detail and ear for poetry, Paul Metsa’s book conveys all the sweet absurdity, dry humor, and passion for the language of music that has made his story sing.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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pp. 1-9


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pp. ix-x

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Foreword: A Tough Gig, but It Beats Working

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pp. xi-xvi

Underneath the music business we see on television, at the Grammy’s, on the radio, and in the big arenas, there is a vast long tail of two-bit gigs, recordings that never left the garage, and a thousand nights of songs hurled against an indifferent crowd. In that context, musicians—many...

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Guitar Fools

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pp. 1-18

Th is is a musician’s tale, probably best told from the rail at the end of the bar while the band is still playing and before last call. As a seeker and survivor, observer and participant, chronicler and historian, I offer stories that are gleaned from a life lived in the skull orchards and blood...

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A Boy and His Guitar

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pp. 2-5

I have played thousands of gigs, on hundreds of stages, from four empty beer cases in the corner of a saloon with a hanging light bulb to Texas Stadium engulfed in a hundred thousand watts of light and sound, where the encore included forty performers and the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders...

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Buckshot in Short Pants

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pp. 6-16

She looked just like a pretty girl in the guitar store window when I first saw her and she beckoned me to take her home. We started out just holding hands. Over the next forty-five years she blossomed, turning season after season, in ever-changing wardrobes, each more randy and...

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Vaseline Machine Gun

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pp. 17-20

Dudley was from Eveleth, Virginia’s archrival in sports. He wore a headband over his long hair and across his forehead and mostly wore sunglasses day or night. He drove an old black hearse, a conveyance for his absurdist style. He always held his cigarettes between his third and fourth...

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Cry of the Muskrat

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pp. 21-23

He was the new kid in town in the summer of 1973. I’d see him walking his little tan dog several times a week down the main drag. He had long hair, a ruddy complexion, and walked like he was going no place in particular. He was usually wearing a jacket, plaid flannel shirt, a beat-up pair...

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Cats Under the Stars

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pp. 24-41

I knew John Pasternacki since I moved to Horace Mann Grade School in the third grade. John was a year older than I. In Virginia to this day, people are referred to as Southsiders or Northsiders, depending on what side of town you live on. Johnny and I were Southsiders. We got to know...

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One More Saturday Night

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pp. 42-50

Jerry Garcia, lead guitar player for the Grateful Dead, was as good as America got on a Saturday night. On his best night, he went where no man had gone before. Beyond Main Street, beyond church, beyond the ballpark, bedroom, or boardroom, Jupiter and back and yet still down by...

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Franklin Avenue

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pp. 51-58

My grandpa was my best buddy. He’d take me to the cabin when I was just a kid to get it ready for summer when the family stayed there, or in the fall when it was time to shut it down. It was our private time. Occasionally, he’d bring along one of his old barroom buddies. I thought...

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Electric High Heels

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pp. 59-70

There are two great moments for a songwriter. One is when the idea or inspiration for a song drops from the heavens; you happen to run into a piece of poetic graffiti scrawled on a barroom wall, or you overhear something somebody says and realize it would be the perfect building...

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Party to a Crime

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pp. 71-78

My friend Billy Alcorn used to say, “Hang around the barbershop long enough and you are bound to get a clip.” What he meant was, dabble in illegal substances long enough, and they will eventually bite you in the ass so hard you will be seven ways from Sunday before you realize what...

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Robots on Death Row

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pp. 79-84

I took a month off of doing cocaine and was doing whatever gigs were left. In a moment of boredom I called Tony the Hat and said I’d stop by. It was a mild evening, but I picked up a quarter-gram for the hell of it, stuck it into my jeans pocket, and after a couple of whiskey Cokes went...

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Living in a House of Cards

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pp. 85-91

I met my girlfriend in 1984 at the Union Bar. I was standing by the ticket taker on a break when she came up wearing a gorgeous red wool jacket and her brown hair cut in an angle right above her shoulders. She looked absolutely beautiful. She asked, “When are you going to take me out?”...

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Whistling Past the Graveyard

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pp. 92-100

Bucky Baxter was one of the original members of Steve Earle’s band, the Dukes, a white-lightning-fueled band of renegades that backed Earle for several years and threw down live performance like escaped prisoners, bloodhounds on their trail. Steve was one of the best of the new brand...

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Ferris Wheels on the Farm

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pp. 101-107

I have probably given away more records than I have sold: to the press, to bartenders to square up a tab, and to interesting people I’d meet in my travels. I would save what money I could from gigs for the recording projects and was always lucky enough to bump into friends with a...

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City of Angels

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pp. 108-117

I met Kim Fowley at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival in 1993. Fowley was a Zelig-type character, based in Los Angeles, who’d influenced hundreds of projects over the years, starting with his recording of “Alley Oop” in 1960 under the assumed name of the Hollywood...

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Mississippi Farewell

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pp. 118-125

All artists are mama’s boys, or daddy’s girls. My mother often told me that as a little boy I’d run around the house saying, “Mommy, I got all this music in my head and I don’t know what to do.” Like her father, Ernest Paul, my namesake, Mom could spin a good yarn and was never shy of...

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No Money Down

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pp. 126-139

It was the worst summer of my life. I was emotionally destroyed by my mother’s death and felt like my soul had disappeared with hers, and in a way it had, gone up in ashes and smoke to wherever souls go. I had barely enough money to cover rent and groceries as I had spent a large chunk...

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Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

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pp. 140-145

John met Dianne when they were in fifth grade. Our families were neighbors. Dianne wore her brown hair in a bob, and her bright blue eyes danced beneath dark brows and long lashes. By her early twenties Dianne’s naturally curly hair was shoulder length, framing her face that...

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Ghosts of Woody Guthrie

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pp. 146-153

When Nora Guthrie called in May 1996 and invited me to perform at the Tribute to Woody Guthrie at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, I was honored, thrilled, and jazzed like a beatnik on stolen Benzedrine. I spent the summer rereading Bound for Glory, Pastures...

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Martini Gulch

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pp. 154-169

I got back to Minneapolis in the spring of 1996. I had done my time in New York having experienced as much as that town had to offer and, thanks to the generosity of friends, more than my limited means would have allowed. Over the years I had daydreamed about living in Nashville...

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White Boys Lost in the Blues

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pp. 170-177

I was on break at my regular gig at Nye’s Polonaise Room when the bartender handed me the phone. The bar was packed with the usual regulars making the usual noise that always got progressively louder as the clock moved toward last call. It was a fellow by the name of Bob Wilson. He...

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From Russia with Love

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pp. 178-185

I met Eric at Eli’s Bar in the early ’90s. My friend Fast Eddie and his girlfriend Laurie bought the place a few years earlier. Eddie was my buddy from the McCready’s Bar gang of the mid-1980s that included writer David Carr and comedian Tom Arnold. Eddie bartended at McCready’s...

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Key to the Highway

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pp. 186-192

In June 2001, I was playing at a blues festival at Ironworld, on the border of Chisholm and Hibbing, that included a library of artifacts and old newspapers where one could research the history of the Iron Range, and an amphitheater that featured musical events and everyone from...

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pp. 193-206

Sisu is a Finnish word that simply means stubborn inner strength. Some define it as determination beyond all reason. When confronted with adversity, sickness, or a bad roll of the dice, the true Finn summons something within to rise above it. In the valley of the shadow of death, a Finn...

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Texas in the Twilight Zone

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pp. 207-210

In 2007, I was down in Austin, Texas, one of my favorite cities in the country, attending the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival. I have attended this festival several times since 1986. Austin is a lot like Minneapolis–St. Paul: a river town, state capital, and liberal. Both towns...

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Slings and Arrows

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pp. 211-225

On a chilly afternoon in April 2001, Tony “Tilt” Rubin sat next to me on a plane bound for New York City. I was scheduled to play two gigs out there, one at the Mercury Lounge on the Lower East Side and the other at the Stone Pony, in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Tony was a Duluth native...

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Barbeque and Blues

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pp. 226-233

In the fall of 2005 I had a meeting with the general manager at Famous Dave’s. I had been working there since 2001. He told me that I would just be receiving one check instead of two. I was getting one check to play and one to book the club. The downside was that they were going to have...

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pp. 234-240

The summer of 2009 marked thirty years since my first gig in town at the infamous Skyway Lounge that would be followed by five thousand more gigs (and counting) on the highways and byways that led from there. It seemed only fitting to do an anniversary show. I booked the...

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Slow Justice

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pp. 241-248

I have always enjoyed playing for any group of people needing a musician to help aid, advance, or artistically support their cause. While in the beginning it was not a bad way to get my name around as well as meet like-minded people, in the end, no matter what your walk of life,...

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Stars Over the Prairie

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pp. 249-254

I formed my first band, the Positive Reaction, when I was twelve years old. While the name of the band seemed to roll off the tongue, it may have also come subliminally from the whispers of wisdom and encouragement from my dad, a businessman and acolyte of writer and self-improvement...

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Fireworks on the Fourth of July

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pp. 255-263

It was the Fourth of July on the Iron Range, 2010. This most American of holidays is celebrated on the Range like a second New Year’s Eve. Starting at sun up and going deep into the evening, it is fueled by some sort of psychic/spiritual nitroglycerin that runs through the working-class veins...

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pp. 265-267

I was fortunate to grow up in the independent school district of Virginia, Minnesota, from first grade with Mrs. Grace Norsted through my senior English class with Tom Moeller, who imbued in me a love of the English language. Writing seemed to come as naturally as learning to tie...


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pp. 268-285

Concert Appearances, Authors, Images

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pp. 269-288

E-ISBN-13: 9780816678747
E-ISBN-10: 081667874X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816676422

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2011