Blue Guitar Highway
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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Foreword: A Tough Gig, but It Beats Working
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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 indiﬀ erent crowd. In that context, musicians—many as talented or more so than the ones who rule the airwaves—become ...
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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 oﬀ er stories that are gleaned from a life lived in the skull orchards and blood buckets of this fi ne country and occasionally on stages that were raging ...
A Boy and His Guitar
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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 cheer-leaders. On a certain karmic level, they are all equally important, though ...
Buckshot in Short Pants
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At the age of seven, in the idyllic summer of 1962 when I got my fi rst guitar, I was too young to know that the little plywood beauty, with the cowboy and horse stenciled in yellow and red on the front, was really a She looked just like a pretty girl in the guitar store window when I fi rst saw her and she beckoned me to take her home. We started out just ...
Vaseline Machine Gun
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Dudley was from Eveleth, Virginia’s archrival in sports. He wore a head-band over his long hair and across his forehead and mostly wore sun-glasses 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 fi nger and would fl ick the ash into a rolled-up pants cuﬀ . Th ough just a ...
Cry of the Muskrat
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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 par-ticular. He was usually wearing a jacket, plaid fl annel shirt, a beat-up pair of Red Wing boots, and if you walked by close enough, you’d notice the ...
Cats Under the Stars
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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 each other a little better in high school. He was a superb athlete, lettering ...
One More Saturday Night
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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 the riverside, an electronic sugar shack where anything seemed possible. ...
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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 they were there just to help with the chores and cut wood but realized ...
Electric High Heels
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Th ere 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 graﬃ ti scrawled on a barroom wall, or you overhear something somebody says and realize it would be the perfect building block on which to write a song. Th e other is when you are strumming ...
Party to a Crime
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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 I remember when I fi rst moved to town and was hustling like hell to ...
Robots on Death Row
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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 to bed in their upstairs bedroom. Th at night, a mule from Milwaukee ...
Living in a House of Cards
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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?” She wasn’t being forward and seemed genuinely interested in me. She ...
Whistling Past the Graveyard
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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 of songwriters out of Nashville in the mid-’80s, who stomped on the ...
Ferris Wheels on the Farm
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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 record-ing projects and was always lucky enough to bump into friends with a little extra cash in their couch cushions to help move the projects along. ...
City of Angels
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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 infl uenced hundreds of projects over the years, starting with his record-ing of “Alley Oop” in 1960 under the assumed name of the Hollywood Argyles. He was most successful with creating the Runaways, the teen-...
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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 exaggerating a story if it helped sell it. Nothing wrong with that. She was ...
No Money Down
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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 from the proceeds of my Mississippi Farewell show to cover the record-...
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
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To fi nd true love before it even blossoms is a beautiful thing. Like rare magnets that attract without touching, souls connect and intellect catch-es up in its own time. My little brother Johnny was lucky like that.John met Dianne when they were in fi fth grade. Our families were neighbors. Dianne wore her brown hair in a bob, and her bright blue ...
Ghosts of Woody Guthrie
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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 of Plenty, and Woody Guthrie: A Life, and listening to all the Woody ...
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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 oﬀ er 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 and Austin, Texas, two great American music capitals. But Minneapolis ...
White Boys Lost in the Blues
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I was on break at my regular gig at Nye’s Polonaise Room when the bar-tender handed me the phone. Th e 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 was a harmonica player and said, with summer approaching, he had a gig ...
From Russia with Love
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I have met some of my best buddies bellying up to the bar. God may have created Sunday as a day of rest, but he designed Friday and Saturday, the fi fth and sixth days, to stop by the saloon to blow oﬀ a little steam after 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 ...
Key to the Highway
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In June 2001, I was playing at a blues festival at Ironworld, on the bor-der 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 Tony Bennett to Waylon Jennings. Th e most popular yearly event at ...
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Sisu is a Finnish word that simply means stubborn inner strength. Some defi ne it as determination beyond all reason. When confronted with ad-versity, sickness, or a bad roll of the dice, the true Finn summons some-thing within to rise above it. In the valley of the shadow of death, a Finn My father, Elder, instilled sisu in my head before I was even old enough ...
Texas in the Twilight Zone
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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 have great music scenes. Musicians from all over the world come to ...
Slings and Arrows
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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 and a University of Minnesota student whom I had met at Nye’s and was ...
Barbeque and Blues
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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. Th e downside was that they were going to have to start taking taxes out of it, which turned out to be a blessing in dis-...
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Th e summer of 2009 marked thirty years since my fi rst gig in town at the infamous Skyway Lounge that would be followed by fi ve thousand more gigs (and counting) on the highways and byways that led from there. It seemed only fi tting to do an anniversary show. I booked the Parkway Th eater at Forty-eighth and Chicago in Minneapolis, run by ...
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I have always enjoyed playing for any group of people needing a musi-cian 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, it’s all about who you serve. I have played hundreds of benefi ts, fund-...
Stars Over the Prairie
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I formed my fi rst 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 encour-agement from my dad, a businessman and acolyte of writer and self-improvement guru Dale Carnegie, the Deepak Chopra of his time with a ...
Fireworks on the Fourth of July
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It was the Fourth of July on the Iron Range, 2010. Th is 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 of this special part of Minnesota, rust red, white, and blue hearts beating ...
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I was fortunate to grow up in the independent school district of Virginia, Minnesota, from fi rst grade with Mrs. Grace Norsted through my se-nior 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 my shoes, swing a baseball bat, or bait a hook. Like playing the guitar or ...
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...1982 “Louie, Louie” b/w “Blues Ghosts,” 45 rpm, by Cats Under the 1985 P-9 Strike compilation cassette (Metsa contributed “Slow Justice”)1986 “59 Coal Mines” and “Stars Over the Prairie,” 45 rpm, Raven 1987 “Ferris Wheels on the Farm” and “Party to a Crime,” 45 rpm, 1992 Legacy II CD (songwriter compilation), Windham Hill–High ...
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Over the years I have had the great opportunity to appear in concert with Paul Metsa is a legendary musician and songwriter from Minnesota. Born on the Iron Range, he has been based in Minneapolis since 1978. He has received seven Minnesota Music Awards and has played more than fi ve thousand gigs, including forays to Iceland and Siberia. He lives ...
Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2011