“It set me on a course where I felt I didn’t orbit around anything anymore”: North Carolina’s Jason Kutchma talks about his new album Blue Highways.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Great road records take us with them, conjuring not just the places they go, but the headspace those places evoke. And the very best road records take us on the inner journey that led the author to pack their bags in the first place. Like hitchhikers, we ride shotgun as the musician undergoes whatever personal changes road trips engender that make them such transformative — and familiar — American rites of passage.
Enter JKutchma & The Five Fifths’ Blue Highways, a 40-minute collection of nine folk ballads and country rock-tinged songs stitched into a single suite like a days-long cross-country trip. Kutchma has partnered the LP with both a handsome book of the same title and a 40-minute long film culled from Rick Prelinger’s open-source film archives; it’s an immersive experience, though the music is more than capable of standing on its own.
Known initially for his work with the anthemic Carolinas’ punk act, Red Collar, Kutchma conceived his third solo effort as an examination of the lure of the road trip, as well as a chronicle of his own ongoing evolution from iconic punk rocker to fully fleshed-out songwriter. Inspired by William Least Heat Moon’s 1982 travel memoir, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, and other Americana signposts like John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie and Robert Frank’s seminal photo book, The Americans, Kutchma’s LP successfully — and at times brilliantly — taps into that uniquely American sacrament of self-discovery-by-odometer.
The “blue highways” of Least Heat Moon’s title are the rural roads notated on maps by blue lines, but that’s just one element of the equation. Kutchma quotes Least Heat Moon in an epigraph for his own book, citing blue highways as “those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk — times neither day or night — (when) the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it’s that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.”
Those blue highways, and that dusk-to-dawn conceit, colored nearly every aspect of Kutchma’s project, from its subject matter to the actual recording. The latter took place on April 14, 2014, over a 12-hour stretch in an old rundown Durham textile mill; minus some percussion and vocal overdubs, Blue Highways emerged in its entirety out of that night. If there was any question about Kutchma’s commitment to the integrity of his vision, the answer is right there in the 40-minute single track — an anachronism that flies in the face of any digital sense.
“I remember getting the tracks and wondering what it sounded like as all one thing, and artistically it made sense — if this album is supposed to be about dusk to dawn, and about some type of change that I’m going through, then I can’t stop it,” Kutchma says. “You can’t really pick the best parts — this has to be one full thing. And this whole album is like some inner change for me.”
That change was significant and, judging from Kutchma’s tone discussing it, not without trauma. At its core, Kutchma says, was that he’d come to rely on his persona from Red Collar — the hard-rocking, gold-boots-and-spurs-stomping anthem-singing frontman — to the point that he found himself going through the motions on stage. Blue Highways doesn’t reject that past, he says, it only acknowledges it for what it is and was — a transition to somewhere new.
“I’m really, really grateful that it came out of me and I really needed that to come out of me,” Kutchma says of his Red Collar self, but asks, “Is that what your natural inclination is? To start pounding the stage every single time? That seems a little weird — to me it seemed contrived. And I wanted this journey of Blue Highways to be, ‘you can’t rely on that anymore, for this album, anyway. You have to strip that away, you need to find your voice, and you need to be in the moment of your performance.’”
The moment of truth for Kutchma came during a show when he was “so disconnected” from the music that he “wanted to vomit.” Yet a friend later told him that he’d seen that show and thought he sounded great — a sign to Kutchma that something was seriously, maybe irrevocably wrong. He decided that he wouldn’t play again —“ever,” he says, if need be — until he had something he felt inspired by again.
“I slept-walk through that fucking show and the audience didn’t know — but I did,” he says. “It just wasn’t worth it to play another show.”
That harsh realization set off a year of soul-searching. In October of 2013, Kutchma had entered the studio for his third solo effort, following 2012’s Pastoral, which was accompanied by a book, and 2013’s Sundown, USA, a chronicle of middle class-demise through three distinct recorded versions. Kutchma was recording with the Sundown, USA version of The Five Fifths, which included members of Maple Stave and Spider Bags, two of the region’s harder rocking outfits. The sessions didn’t go well, though, and Kutchma scrapped them.
“It was just real obvious to me that the tone wasn’t what I wanted from it — it just wasn’t happening,” Kutchma says. “Not necessarily their fault, it was my vision for this thing, and what I wanted. It took some time of me stepping away from it and rethinking my approach to it.”
Ironically, Kutchma turned to a couple of Red Collar vets — including drummer Jon Truesdale and occasional keyboardist Andrew Blass — to tame things down and find the mood Blue Highways songs required. Following three weeks of rehearsals with new bandmembers and new instrumentation, Kutchma and eight others filed into the 200,000-square-foot abandoned mill, set up in a circle with producer Nick Petersen’s mobile recording equipment, and banged out Blue Highways through the night. Recording ended when the sun came up, and after an hour of sleep at home, Kutchma hopped on a train for a series of solo shows in the Northeast. It seemed, he says, the perfect punctuation to the recording session.
And no wonder. The narratives in Blue Highways slip in and out of transforming scenarios — for every passing landscape glimpsed from a windshield or bus window there’s an interior shift to accompany it. Some of them express the sense of optimism that all road trips evoke, as when Kutchma sings over the brushed-snare shuffling beat, slide guitar and bells of “Bus Station in Montana” (inspired by the Frank photo in The Americans), “I feel right at home on the Great Divide/For maybe the first time of my life/That County Road’s a country wide/Split down the middle by a dotted white line/That I’ve signed and signed with a silent pen/I’ll never stop just begin again.” Others reflect Kutchma’s personal trials, as on “Far Rockaway,” when, accompanied only by a finger-picked acoustic, he sings, “Write the same old songs over and over again/Same path in forest, same tree fallen/When it fell did it make a sound?/I can’t tell but they all do now.”
The music manages to be both intimate and wide-screen, capturing perfectly the duality of travel, the notion that when the exterior world expands, so does your interior world. The songs are aided significantly in that sense by Kaitlin Grady’s cello adding rich bottom end or mournful shades, piano from Blass and Kutchma, and Matt Oliverio’s tasteful guitar fills. These themes may have been worked over so many times they’re practically ciphers, but Kutchma brings a fresh enough — and honest enough — take to them that what sounds clichéd in the hands of lesser musicians and songwriters sounds fresh and essential here. Whether Kutchma’s singing about a ne’er-do-well outrunning trouble in Mobile (“Come On By”) or an aging server at the highway diner (“June the Waitress”), the stories ring true throughout.
“I wanted the feel of the album to be the blue of dusk and dawn,” Kutchma says. “I needed that in my vocals, I needed that in everything. It had to be that blue.”
Nowhere is that blue tapped into more than on the suite’s final cut, “Neighbors,” which reads as the most autobiographical song. Sung over plangent piano chords and with tremendous emotion and soul, Kutchma delivers the line “All of my neighbors know who I am/Cause I’m the one screaming at midnight/’I think I can’” with so much conviction the song reads like a confessional. To add to the sense of late-night desperation, Kutchma ends the song mid-verse with an abruptness so jarring that it initially seems unintentional. Not so, he says —that’s just the witching hour, the time to get gone.
“I really wanted a ‘yank’ of the rug that says, ‘you gotta leave; now’s the time to go,’” Kutchma says. “The other reason is, if you ever do watch that 30 minutes of the day turning into night or the night turning into day, there’s a moment where you’re watching it happen and you realize suddenly, ‘it’s dark. It’s night.’ Or, ‘holy shit, it’s day.’ It’s a snap — it is a real occurrence. There’s no doubt that something has changed, and that you watched it happen.”
As for Blue Highways’ multi-media partners, Kutchma hopes they provide different vantages on the topic. Kutchma wanted to solicit old home movies from friends to accompany the LP’s 39:39 run-time, but two friends separately suggested the home-movie archives of Prelinger, which includes silent public domain footage from the mid-20s through the 70s. Prelinger had also directed 2013’s No More Road Trips?, a cross-country trip stitched together through different home movies to celebrate the increasingly rare phenomenon of Americans driving from one side of the country to the other. (Prelinger had left the soundtrack blank on purpose, hoping to provide different ones with each showing of the film.)
The book, much like the one that accompanied Pastoral in 2012, mixes essays, epigraphs, lyrics and photos for yet another take on the musical experience of Blue Highways.
“The thing about the film,” Kutchma says, is that “because it’s mixed with visual imagery, the interpretation doesn’t necessarily change — it becomes a very concrete interpretation, but the interpretation deepens. What I’m trying say with this album, some of the message deepens with the film — and I think the book ends up being a nice bridge between a person’s way of interpreting it and my way of interpreting it.”
In the end, though, all these roadways and various interpretations point to the same place, an inner journey toward truth. And for Kutchma, the blue highways all come back to the place where his music and art comes from to describe whether that place is one of honesty or not.
“This Blue Highways album set me on a course where I felt I didn’t orbit around anything anymore, there’s no center to revolve around, there’s just me,” he says. “And this process has been about trying to build up my own planet so that I have my own sense of gravity — that I have my own grounding — rather than some other thing. It’s been healthy in the end, but it’s been a real journey.”
And one best undertaken in the blue of twilight or dusk.
Photos: Beth Kutchma, Ash Crowe, Nick Peterson