Ramblin’ Man: Richard Currey’s Lost Highway
by Michael Henningsen
Some years ago, come summertime, I would quit my job —whatever it happened to be at the time —pack my belongings and head southeast to Medina, Texas, to work on a small ranch. I met many friends over the five summers during which this ritual was the centerpiece of my life, and one of them was country singer/novelist Kinky Friedman, whose father owned the ranch. Kinky spent summers there, too, living in a small, green camper trailer, working on his latest novel and feeding my head late nights —over shots of Wild Turkey and cigars —with some of the richest stories I’ve ever heard. They were stories about country music, life on the road, heartache, worn motel rooms, Hank Williams Sr., and the purity of living one’s dreams and passions. Kinky had never met Hank Sr., but he spoke of the elder Williams as if he’d been a god. And, in many ways, I guess, he was. “It was men like Hank Williams,” Kinky used to say, “who could turn life into a song, who wrote and shared true American history through their music.” And with the resurgence of country music and its growing presence as an influence in other genres, I’m beginning to better understand what he meant.
Richard Currey understands as well. His novel Lost Highwayis more a biography of country music as an art form and way of life than it is simply a fictional account of one man’s journey through life as a country musician. On its surface, Lost Highway is the memoir of Sapper Reeves, a country singer/songwriter par excellence from the small town of Maxwell, West Virginia. From his introduction to life on the road in the late 1940s to his present status as a roots music legend, Sapper Reeves is the quintessential country musician —he loves his family as much as he loves his music and does everything he can to avoid ever having to go about the terrible task of choosing between the two. Along the way, Currey weaves a group of intriguing and pivotal characters into the mix with the skill of a literary master and the wisdom of someone who has lived the story he’s told —making Lost Highway instantly personal, with a unique intimacy reserved for pitifully few novels.
Currey’s prose is centered around his use of careful, three-dimensional imagery. His descriptions of miles of road stretched out ahead, elderly country gentlemen nestled on shady porches, and fingers caressing songs out of steel wires are vibrant with emotion and alive in the language Currey obviously has great command over. Reading Currey is quite akin to listening to Willie Nelson sing “Georgia On My Mind,” the gently delivered lyrics somehow appearing to originate deep within the listener rather than from stereo speakers. Similarly, Lost Highway is far more than words on pages. It is a story within a story —a novel with meaning and implications far more reaching than the formulaic telling of a tale.
The real story here, and the spirituality of Lost Highway, rides atop the story line. It’s hinted at in the prologue, punctuated and put to rest in the epilogue. Sapper Reeves is Hank Williams. He is Earl Scruggs. He’s Patsy Cline and George Jones and Ralph Stanley. He’s The Highwaymen and Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) and Jeff Farrar (of Son Volt). He is Lucinda Williams. Sapper Reeves’s story is their story. Lost Highway is not a chronicle of events leading to the lifeless fruition of a designed plot. It is, rather, a book about experience, about living and breathing one’s dreams —musical or otherwise —and about the evolution of passion.
Reading Lost Highway inspires the unique sensation of having been there. And books that tangibly affect one’s cache of personal knowledge, wisdom, and experience are all too rare. Lost Highway, especially if you share an affinity for music, is a book you’ll thank yourself for reading.
Michael Henningsen is a music writer and journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is senior editor and music critic for that city’s Weekly Alibi, where this essay originally appeared.