Doug Levitt Details the Songs and People Who Inspired his Latest Album, ‘Edge of Everywhere’

‘Edge of Everywhere’ – A Greyhound DiaryWritten by Doug Levitt

Videos by American Songwriter

Maybe it’s the hypnotic rumble of the bus wheels beneath. Or sitting side-by-side as in a bar or a confessional. Maybe it’s knowing we’ll almost certainly never see the person next to us again.  But we share our stories more often as we travel next to strangers.  This I’ve learned over the 120,000 miles I’ve traveled by Greyhound, writing songs about fellow bus riders. Our stories are where we meet, they are the crossroads of human experience. But more importantly, we share our stories to know we’re not alone.

Inspired by projects that drew a fuller portrait of America, I set out with an initial six-week Greyhound pass, a Gibson J-100, and a copy of Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory. Over 12 years now, I have traveled by bus, along the way performing in venues ranging from prisons, VAs and shelters to Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and the Woody Guthrie Center.  If it’s a center, sign me up. 

Through distorting speakers back on the bus I hear: “No mace, no pepper spray, no inappropriate behavior, no intoxication of any kind.” She is part-bus driver, part-prison guard. There’s the old Navy vet comparing battle cries with two newly minted Marines; the guy with the black-and-white Scarface bomber jacket with the words “power” and “money” on the sleeves and Al Pacino on the back; the woman in front telling her neighbor, “And then my daughter said, ‘If I have to save every nickel I make, I’m gonna rent you a car.’”

There’s a certain majesty through the window as the sun fades, and all around, thoughts lap against one another like cresting waves of expectation and remembrance, of looking back while sitting forward.

Greyhound serves 10 times the number of destinations in America as the largest airline.  This is not the nation of online spats and stats. This is the one that connects one-stoplight towns and blighted on one side/gilded on the other metropolises, through transfers at three in the morning half-asleep. Pairings of humanity you’d never see anywhere else but this bus and this land at this time, sharing smoke breaks by the roadside truck stops, or up and down the aisle at all hours. A rolling congregation of souls.

Songs from my bus journeys are on a new album called Edge of Everywhere. Produced by Trina Shoemaker (Brandi Carlile, Sheryl Crow), the album is a testament to this rolling congregation of souls.              

“Run It All Back” is Hector’s story.  A trucker, Hector was across the aisle reading a book called Debt. He now does agricultural trucking, the “bottom of the trucking ladder,” but It’s what he can still do. He felt a pain in his liver. “Too much hard living,” he said. What he meant was that living got harder. I got off the bus with him in El Centro, California, where he was picking up a haul of farm equipment.  I told him I had written a song about a long-haul trucker he said he wanted to hear. 

We were sitting on a shuttered Main Street under a marquee, and I was picking the guitar when he started to open up about what he had earlier called “the incident.” One morning when his boy was 11 years old, and they were living in Oakland, he left his son watching TV with his mom while he went out to pick up something. When he came back, police cars were outside, and a neighbor said, “Something happened to your son.” There had been a carjacking, and one car was chasing another, shooting.

“My son went to the window,” Hector told me, “and was shot, right here, in the middle of his forehead. I held him in my arms, I said, ‘Son stay with me, stay with me.’ I blamed myself. Why were we in that neighborhood? Why wasn’t I there? I should have been there. I would have protected him.”

Can we get a fair hearing on our own behalf? Can there be justice for the soul? A justice within? We are each, after all, investigators, witnesses, accomplices, and even judges.

I said I’d been dealing with my own version of the same thing. Here, with Hector, I finally told someone about the night before my father died by suicide when I was 16. On that day, with someone I just met (someone who would become a dear friend), I resolved to try to forgive myself, just as I knew Hector deserved peace.  We learn from each other how to forgive ourselves.  “Now play me that song,” he said, his eyes on the setting sun.

“40 West” is a song about Susie who was picking up a rig to drive it back to the Gulf Coast. In her early 60s, Susie told me how she initially had joined the Air Force because it was the only one of the armed forces that would allow a woman to be an MP, military police. “I joined the Air Force to see the world,” it turns out she said, “I got about an hour away.”  But she then had a son and her son, she said, “Needed me more than the Air Force needed me.” Her boy’s grown now, and she is driving trucks on 40 West, reflecting on her life. “She’s driving / all night / can’t get no rest / on 40 West.”

“Turning Myself In” is the story of a guy named Eduard I met at three in the morning in the Amarillo, Texas, station. He was on his way to turn himself into federal prison after being on the run for violating parole by smoking weed.  His first stint in jail was for graffiti, but in jail, a guy offered him tens of thousands to carry drugs. He got caught and after serving his time, violated parole, and fled to Wisconsin, finding work he loved on a cow farm, only to realize, with his devout Christian wife, that he needed to show his daughters how to own up to one’s mistakes, so was turning himself in. 

How, in a time of transition, do we confront loss while also trying to re-imagine a future rooted in new foundations? How do we reconcile our dreams with actualities? How do we come to a greater sense of self in the process?  These are the themes coursing through Edge of Everywhere.

Back on board, as the bus comes to life, there’s a rumble-turn-break-churn-wheezing draw of air into the engine which gurgles the fuel, lurching from gear to gear like an out-of-shape gymnast reaching up on the uneven bars, the whistle of the wind as the windows rattle alongside plastic fittings, a symphony of plastic, glass and a jagged human spirit in an interlude known more broadly as life.

Levitt’s album, Edge of Everywhere is available now.

Photo by Patrick Fraser/Courtesy of Missing Piece Group

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