The big lake they call Gitchee Gumee
It all began when I was browsing through the atlas one day a few years back, looking for places that seemed interesting and far-removed from the beaten path. Or maybe I was listening to Joe Henry’s song “Sault Ste. Marie” and decided to find out exactly where he was singing about. I think the PBS series “On The Waterways”, a couple episodes of which documented daily life in small towns along the Great Lakes, also figured in there somewhere.
Whatever the case, a couple months ago I found myself on a weeklong journey around the length of Lake Superior, plus a couple other side-jaunts tacked onto the itinerary. Mostly this was a chance to get away from the music-dominated routine of my everyday existence (with the exception of the requisite tape deck in the rental car for those long stretches of open road).
Yet the music still followed, into the heart of the middle of nowhere. A series of stops along the way ultimately served as a refreshing reminder that American music is driven by more than just the industry centers of New York, Los Angeles and Nashville, and has roots that run beyond such obvious locales as Austin, New Orleans and Chicago. Sometimes the things that make the world of music turn are out on the edge of the horizon.
Wednesday, September 15. The hour-and-a-half drive to Madison, Wisconsin, from Milwaukee (where I’d flown in from Seattle the night before) necessitates an early getaway in order to reach WORT-FM by mid-morning. Bill Malone, author of Country Music USA and longtime professor at Tulane University, before moving to Madison three years ago, has invited me to be a guest on a radio show he hosts every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to noon. Though he’s theoretically retired now, Malone is still plenty busy, teaching a class at the University of Wisconsin and working on another book. As I near the Madison Beltline, WORT comes into focus on the radio dial. How else to explain the sounds of Jimmie Rodgers and Gram Parsons drifting out of the car stereo speakers?
Bill and I first met a couple years ago at a Jimmie Rodgers symposium at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. We come from different worlds within the country music spectrum: He knows its formative history about as well as anyone but is interested in how subsequent generations are weaving it into their work, while I’ve started with contemporary artists and am intrigued by tracing the tributaries back to their sources. In between, there’s plenty of common ground upon which we can appreciate each other’s efforts. Oh, and we’re both graduates of the University of Texas; Bill was there shortly after my father, and witnessed Janis Joplin’s first gig at Threadgill’s.
In the afternoon, the road beckons to Escanaba, Michigan. A town of about 10,000 along the shore of Lake Michigan on the Upper Peninsula, it’s not exactly a prime destination for music-related concerns. Except that there’s a fellow here named Bob Rosemurgy who recently reissued a box set of Mickey Newbury’s entire catalog from 1969-81. I’ve gone on about Newbury in these pages before, so there’s no need to tell his story again; the short version is that he’s one of the great singer-songwriters of the 20th century, and might be largely forgotten if not for Rosemurgy’s efforts.
Rosemurgy first heard Newbury’s Frisco Mabel Joy in the early ’70s and was hooked from the start, though he had no idea that 20 years later he’d become a pivotal figure in preserving Newbury’s work. A lawyer by day, Rosemurgy had helped support the now-dormant Winter Harvest label, which issued a couple new discs from Newbury in the mid-’90s. Eventually Rosemurgy talked Newbury into doing the box set; the masters of those ’70s albums had all been lost, so they burned the CDs from virgin-vinyl copies.
Late Wednesday night at a little bar in Escanaba down the street from the classic old House of Ludington hotel, Rosemurgy and I shared stories about Newbury, his late protege Townes Van Zandt, and the crazy world of songwriting and the music industry in general. I told him how I’d driven 1,000 miles earlier this year to see Newbury play at the Kerrville Folk Festival, only to discover that Newbury had become too ill to perform. Suffering from emphysema, he’s hooked up to oxygen almost constantly these days, though it’s still possible for him to play on occasion — including an upcoming gig at the FloraBama bar on the Alabama-Florida border in November, Rosemurgy informed me. Guess I know where I’m headed on my next journey.
Thursday, September 16. The start of the Lake Superior loop leads me Northwest across the Upper Peninsula and back into Wisconsin, then briefly into Minnesota before crossing the border to Canada. Along the way is Duluth, which on the map looks a bit like an outpost to oblivion but in truth it’s a bit more substantial, with a population of about 100,000.
It’s also home to Scott Lunt, who I’d met a couple years ago in Austin at SXSW. We hooked up for lunch on this last-gasp-of-summer afternoon at the Brewhouse pub in the old Fitger Brewery building, where Lunt regularly spins records under the name DJ Starfire. An emergency services technician who spends much of his time in rescue helicopters, Lunt found himself experimenting with low-power broadcasting a couple years ago and ended up running a pirate program called “Random Radio” for several months.
The show was actually too successful — it got enough attention and press that the FCC finally started snooping around and shut down Lunt’s living-room operation, though not before he’d collected enough on-air performances to release a “Random Radio” live CD. Nowadays Lunt plays in a band called Father Hennepin and has become something of a Duluth ambassador to alt-country touring bands (particularly those on the Bloodshot roster). He’s also closely following recent FCC hearings on the subject of low-power radio, the outcome of which may eventually result in a “Random Radio” rebirth.