It’s not unusual for an album that doesn’t sell a lot to spawn a song that lives on long after the rest of the record is forgotten. That’s the case with “Gulf Coast Highway,” from Nanci Griffith’s Little Love Affairs. While the 1988 album did so-so sales-wise, “Gulf Coast Highway” went on to become one of Griffith’s best-loved numbers, and has also been performed and/or recorded by other prominent artists, like Emmylou Harris in duets with Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson, and the song’s co-writer, keyboardist James Hooker.
Written by Griffith, her then-bandleader Hooker (Steve Winwood, Amazing Rhythm Aces), and singer-songwriter Danny Flowers (Eric Clapton, Robben Ford), the recording is a duet with Mac McAnally, who went on to become one of Nashville’s most respected writers and musicians. The song is the story of an everyday couple who sing of keeping a home and growing old through life’s challenges on Highway 90 in Texas. The question is so often asked of songwriters, “Which came first, the music or the words?” While the lines are often blurred, the answer in this case is that the music came first, as recalled by Hooker via e-mail from somewhere overseas, where he now resides 30 years after he came up with the music for “Gulf Coast Highway.”
“Thirty Years! A bit foggy now,” Hooker said. “I put it down in my house in [the Nashville suburb of] Antioch. I do remember having the whole thing recorded before I played it for Nanci on the bus one night, very late, driving the Penn Turnpike in a driving snowstorm. She jumped up before it finished, ran to her stateroom and grabbed paper and pen and commenced scribbleizations. The lyrics weren’t finished that night – those came a week or so after that run, when Nanci came over to the house to nail it down. She brought Danny with her and Danny brought ‘She walked through springtime.’ The rest of the lyric is pure Nanci.”
The song is often noted for its lines about the state flower of Texas, the bluebonnet, which doesn’t grow in many other places: This is the only place on earth bluebonnets grow and Then she will fly away to Heaven come some sweet bluebonnet spring. In 1997 Griffith re-recorded it as a duet with Darius Rucker, who was still fronting Hootie and the Blowfish, for her Blue Roses from the Moons album. There’s also a bootleg version of the song online by Bruce Springsteen that was recorded during a sound check.
Hooker is both surprised and grateful that so many people have an interest in the song. “I had no idea that song would still be buying cigarettes and beer 30 years later,” he said. “I see it all over YouTube, and yes, I punch ‘play’ quite often. I get a good bit of email from fans still, telling me ‘Thanks for this song’ and ‘It has meant so much to me in my life.’ Things like that mean a lot to me. My doing a duet of this song, live with Emmylou, is a high point, but none can compare to The Nanster.”