In his alt-country classic Windfall, Jay Farrar describes an all-night drive and finding a radio station that sounds like heaven. Those are vivid images and it’s a great song, but I don’t usually listen to music when I drive. That surprises a lot of people who would guess that because I’m a musician, there’s always music playing in the car. I think that part of my aversion to a constantly playing radio comes from a lifetime of driving beater cars and vans. There’s a very small window of opportunity between the first small, telltale warning sound that your car makes, and being broke down on the side of the road. (This happened to me one time. That small squeak that I couldn’t hear over The Rolling Stones turned out to be a wheel bearing burning out).
The real reason that I eschew a constantly playing radio when I’m driving is because it gets in the way of whatever else I may be thinking about as I drive along. In my experience, long drives propagate long thoughts. This is especially true when you get west of Texas’ Balcones Fault, where you can drive for hours and not see more than a dozen cars.
It’s true that I’ve written some of my best songs while I was driving, but I’ve gotten way more long thoughts than songs out of my travels. And since long thoughts are best shared and discussed with likeminded friends, I’ve had some wonderful conversations during these long solo drives. That may sound like an oxymoron. How can you have a conversation with somebody who’s not there? Except they are there. My conversational partners may lack corporeal substance, but they are absolutely real and present. I think of this process as conversational astral projection.
I read somewhere that everybody talks to themselves. I used to do that, but then I got bored with my own company. So, I started talking to friends of mine instead. I’m not talking about reminiscing, where you replay past conversations in your memory. I’ll have an interactive, ongoing conversation about things that are currently happening. Often pieces of those conversations will turn up again the next time I see whoever I was astrally talking to. So it can also be a bit like a conversation rehearsal. When that happens, it’s great because you kind of already know where the conversation is going. The downside is that the sense of déjà vu can be a little bit unnerving.
During the recording of Topanga with the Top Down, I booked a few solo gigs in Georgia and the Carolinas. On the drive there I had a very successful production meeting with Jim and Kevin. The meeting was conducted via conversational astral projection. Both Jim and Kevin had some very good ideas, ideas that made it onto the final recording, altho neither one of them helped with the driving.
Long drives also give me the opportunity to stay connected with old friends who have already gone on ahead into the great maybe. Two of those departed friends that I talk to on a regular basis are Lunn Evans and Bob Fleming. A few years ago, on a drive through New Mexico, Lunn helped me sort out an argument that I was having with another friend of mine. Lunn told me, “Billy Boy. This argument that yer having. Did he intentionally do something that merits your anger? Or is he just not very good at thinking things like this thru. If it were unintentional, start by telling him that you know he didn’t piss you off on purpose. That’ll get him to stop being defensive, and then ya’ll can talk it out”. Lunn’s been dead over twenty years, but he still gives good advice and he still calls me Billy Boy.
On one of the last trips I made before the pandemic hit, I was making up a set list as I drove. Bob Fleming showed up to help. Radio Bob remembered songs that I had forgotten, what key they were in, and where in the set order they should go. He also told me that I still look like a rumpled feather.
Jay Farrar is right. You’re really not alone.