The Highway 
(Jody Stecher) 

Out on the road as a touring musician you come to notice patterns,  and you also develop preferences. My preference is for a hotel room where the windows will open. It’s not just that I don’t like to sleep with air conditioning. The room is a refuge but it can also be isolating. The open window lets in some of the world. I was sitting by the open window of such a room in rural Massachusetts looking at a curvy, bumpy, winding two lane highway that ran behind the motel,  and it looked just like a black snake with yellow stripes down its back. A song about the highway and its perils started forming in my mind. I thought “now, what’s the opposite of a highway? I know! It’s a low way”.  I thought that the song was going to be a moral fable about behavior and its consequences, but the song had other plans for me. It wanted to be a tragi-comic account of The Road and its impact on me and those I have known. 

Now one of the patterns I’ve noticed is that when you’ve got a sound crew waiting for you at a certain hour, a certain distance away from where you wake up, the most direct and reliable way to fulfill that obligation is to take the main road. But it’s the back roads that have the scenery, the history, the people, the wonders and signs. And here you are, a long way from home, and you don’t know when you’ll visit this part of the world again. So the urge to explore and get the feel of the place you are visiting is strong. But if your vehicle breaks down in Khadjekava, 30 miles from any Automotive Anything, there you are. The scenery’s fabulous but the audience is lined up, not to eat the Kabul Grinder, but to hear the band,  and there being no cell phone service out on Blue Mountain, the presenter has no idea where the band is. All he knows is they’re not there. 

Everything in “The Highway” is true. The first verse is about a 1965 “field recording” trip with my CCNY college teacher Henrietta Yurchenco. We were down in Mexico recording the pirecuas and abajenos and Purepecha songs of the “Tarascan” people. The American Philosophical Society gave her a grant. The state of Michoacan gave us a jeep and a driver. Henrietta was amazingly good at wangling stuff like that. We were on our way to a remote village where some good composers, singers, and musicians were said to live. There was a good road that would get us within a few miles of this place. But we’d been told there was also a direct way about 10 miles down a dirt track that went through a forest. Jeeps are made for dirt roads. Let’s go!  The first few miles were fine. Then we came to the river. There was no bridge. We could see that the road continued on the other side and the river was not deep. There were a few tribal women  carrying loads of firewood on their backs who were wading across, and the water at its deepest barely came to their knees. So we chanced it and drove down the bank, through the water, and up the other bank and back on the road. All seemed well but soon the road became several and the trees became more numerous, and at last the little roads were nothing but spaces between trees and we were just lost in the woods with no way to turn around. We were “way off the highway and gone”. That was my first lesson in weighing the charming path against the reliable one. 

The musician in the second verse is a composite of the Road Warriors I have known. “Jake” is just a convenient rhyme for “snake”.  It’s always the same story. A musician adapts so well to the ways of The Road that being back home becomes very hard. Every one of these guys I’ve known has been a gigantic talent with an inner turbulence that keeps them restless, and although it may seem that the difficulties they’ve suffered are the result of choices they’ve made, from another perspective they are helpless snake food, sacrifices to the Road god. I salute them here from the perspective of one who understands but is not one of them. I do ok on the road, but home, family, and my own bed suits me best. 

The third verse is about the death of my friend Judy LeKashman on a sharp hairpin turn on California Highway 1 between Albion and Little River. This was about 1972 I guess. Now the road has been improved, but back then, logging trucks would tumble down the hillside with alarming regularity. I know the details of Judy’s death because a hitchhiker who was in the passenger seat survived the fall and told the story. Her body, still alive, was sent to the hospital in Ukiah, and the report listed just about every organ as irreparably damaged. And then it said “Heart intact”. Well, that just about undid us, all her friends. 

The fourth verse is about the little roads that pass through the Pygmy Forest east of Caspar, (‘the friendly ghost town”) California where I lived for much of the 1980s. The county won’t maintain these roads and when local residents would lay gravel, all it would take was a couple of heavy rainfalls and it would all disappear as there’s a whole lot of nuttin’ below the surface of that land. This verse is dedicated to longtime local residents Peter Barg and Frannie Leopold. 

The last verse is a composite of real situations I’ve been in. Fleas included. 

So if anyone asks you what “The Highway” is about, now you can tell ‘em. 

The Highway 
© Jody Stecher, Vegetiboy Music (BMI) 

The first time I strayed from the highway 
Was the summer that I turned nineteen 
Through a forest so deep in a mexican jeep 
And the shade trees were wondrous green 
At a clear river brim the road went right in 
On the far bank it carried on some 
Half a mile from the shore it busted in four 
I was way off the highway and gone. 

Ch: The highway always the highway 
It’s a yellow striped serpent of stone 
I’ve always run slow when taking ways low 
Now we’re off down the highway and gone 

The first friend I lost to the highway 
He could soothe your soul with his song 
His guitar could raise your blood pressure 
And the hairs on your neck or your arm 
But he made his abode in the ways of the road 
Till he couldn’t be happy at home 
That yellow striped snake made a meal of old Jake He’s off down the highway and gone 

The highway always the highway 
A yellow striped serpent of stone 
Boys, I’ve  always run slow when taking ways low 
Now we’re off down the highway and gone 

The next friend I lost to the highway 
Was facing a double load truck 
On a hairpin in North California 
And that’s where she ran out of luck 
Down the steep mountain dell she flew and she fell 
Though her heart was intact and beat on 
She heard the breaks squeal and she let go the wheel 
She’s down off the highway and gone 

The highway always the highway 
It’s a yellow striped serpent of stone 
You’ll always run slow when taking ways low 
We’re off down the highway and gone 

Now the back roads of west Mendocino 
That run through the small pygmy pines 
They’ll get you to your destination 
So long as the sun gamely shines 
You can carry on fair, though they’re mostly air 
But they pothole like mad in the flood 
They eat gravel and rocks, your travelin’ stops 
And you’re sunk to your axles in mud. 

The highway always the highway 
A yellow striped serpent of stone 
To get out of this mess will take some finesse 
Now we’re off down the highway and gone 

On the way to a gig on a back road 
The engine fell out of our car 
And the bright sunny morn turned to blizzard and storm 
And we haven’t a clue where we are 
Sunk in mud to our knees and half covered in fleas 
And we’ll soon be impacted in snow 
Sure the scenery’s grand but they can’t find the band 
And the folks have gone home from the show 

The highway, always the highway 
A yellow striped serpent of stone 
Boys, you’ll always run slow when taking ways low 
We’re off down the highway 
The highway, always the highway 
It’s a yellow striped serpent of stone 
Sure there’s wonders and signs on the Lake County line 
But we’re way off the highway and gone 

Jody Stecher: vocal and guitar 
Kate Brislin: vocal 
Keith Little: vocal and banjo 
Eric Thompson: guitar 
Chad Manning: fiddle 
Paul Knight: bass