Interview: Doug Levitt gets to the “Edge Of Everywhere” by Greyhound

Credit: Patrick Fraser

Echoes of Jack Kerouac and Guthrie for the 21st Century with a Muscle Shoals vibe.

It has taken twelve years and something like 120,000 miles riding a Greyhound before Doug Levitt released his debut album, ‘Edge Of Everything’, which looks at today’s America through the eyes of the people he met riding the bus, and got a rare Americana UK 10/10 when it was reviewed. His epic journey has been featured on The BBC’s World Service, and later this year Doug Levitt will have features on BBC Radio 4 and BBC4 TV as a prelude to 2024’s American Presidential Election. It may have taken a while for him to record his debut, but he managed to get Trina Shoemaker to produce ‘Edge Of Everything’ in Muscle Shoals. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Doug Levitt over Zoom as he prepared to leave for his UK tour to get the details of his twelve-year odessey, and what drives him personally. Clearly, Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie were an influence, but his father’s suicide may also be a driver. What is absolutely clear is that he made real connections with real people, and he has been able to bring these people’s stories to life and a wider audience through his songs. While some people would be nervous about riding a Greyhound, Doug Levitt explains his guitar meant he appeared less threatening, even if he was prepared to hit someone with the G chord.

How are you and where are you?

Well, I’m definitely not on a bus, and I’m great.

When you started your journey, did you ever think it would last 12 years?

It’s getting to be a thing, I think, and there must be a support group for it, but I’m not sure what. I think maybe it is the nature of travelling by bus, where you have long distances and moving murals that are passing by on both sides, the windows and the moving wheels, it is a slow reveal to a story over time, I’ve found. For the folks who use Greyhounds, security is something not measured in months or years, it is measured in days or weeks, so you do get to meet people who are living on the edge of life and survival. As a result, it is like a buddy of mine described it, therapy for the uninsured, and that kind of resonated, and I was wondering if that included me. I’ve just found it to be a wholly unique place, certainly within American society.

The Greyhound bus is iconic, and the range and variety of American landscapes are legendary. Have you been tempted to travel by bus in other countries, or are you just attracted to the American aspect of long-distance bus travel?

I think for me, it is probably the latter, it does feel particularly American. I’m sure there are other places where bus travel would be really fascinating. The nature of Greyhound is that for many people, it is transport of last resort, so you get lots of ex-offenders, as a matter of fact, everyone released from prison is given a Greyhound ticket to where ever their case went to court. I’ve met people who have only been out of prison for an hour, and I’ve met guys on the way to prison to turn themselves in. Then you have veterans who are ferried around by Greyhound, and then there are the people who are dealing with the intertwined illnesses of mental illness and addiction. This is just one example, a guy I met fell on the job and busted one of the discs on his back, and they gave him what they give people for pain which is oxytocin, and that began a descent for him. He lost his wife, he lost his kids, he’d sold his kids Xbox for drugs, and so he seemed to be on a path that was not going to resolve itself soon, but there are other people who have found themselves in the position to get a better awareness of self through struggle.

You are right about the American landscape, the vastness of it. On the same route, you will travel through the tiniest of one-stop towns and the biggest metropolitan cities, and then you will have transfers at 3 o’clock in the morning in Kansas City, and you don’t know where you are, or the bus breaks down somewhere. It is very visual, and the stories people have shared have been so searing and impactful personally. I’m sure there is a way of envisaging this elsewhere, I don’t necessarily see it for myself, per se.

How easy was it to get people to open up with you and share their thoughts and fears?

It is just in the nature of sitting next to somebody, it is not like an interview, it is just conversation. Because I’ve been doing this thing so long, I’ve been through periods where mobile phone adoption amongst Greyhound riders has been the last I’ve seen in the US and Europe because it is not just the cell phone, it is also the data plan if you want to be scrolling through the internet and all that. So phone usage has only really ramped up on the Greyhound in the last three or four years, but prior to that, there was very little to do, you are just on the bus. You maybe had some form of entertainment on the bus, but because of the distances, and unlike a plane where you have classes which divide everybody, on the bus, you are stopping for a smoke break at a truck stop or a pre-dawn meal break at a fast food place, and that getting off and on the bus together adds to the sense of we are all travelling together.

It is not just the person next to you, you may be talking to a group of people before you get back on the bus. I’m not much of a cigarette smoker anymore, but I find on the bus I am because it is the social kind of thing to do. So, I find, generally, it is not just me talking to them, it is them talking to me. There are two questions you ask when you are sitting next to someone while travelling, where are you going to, and where are you coming from? Those are obviously geographical factual questions, and then there are the more broad allegorical human life questions, and these can be intertwined, I’m going here because I’ve just left an addiction program, and I’m going to see my daughter. These things tend to flow naturally, I think.

What do you share about yourself?

I will say I’m travelling around the country working on a project where I travel on a Greyhound and write songs about fellow travellers, and along the way, I perform in prisons, veterans hospitals and shelters to bigger venues like The Kennedy Center. Ultimately, I think you introduce yourself by the facts of what you are doing with your work that put you on the journey. There is also part of the introduction which is what you are dealing with underneath, and people can be sharing deep personal details about their lives. ‘Hector’s Story’ on the record is about his son being shoot. If somebody is telling you a deeply personal story like that, your natural personal tendency is to acknowledge you don’t know what they are going through but that you have your own struggles. For me, that has been going through a long process of dealing with my father’s suicide. That definitely is not an initial introduction, but in the context of a conversation, it is introductory when you talk about something about yourself.

What have you learnt during your twelve years on the bus?

I think I’ve learnt this about America, especially now when we are talking about divisions in America which are real, and because those views get so much air and attention, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that when we are together some version of pluralism, a collective America, still exists. It is in every shade and from every background, and we can find areas of commonality when we are in positions to do so. On the bus, you don’t want to talk politics with anybody because you don’t know what their view is, and you don’t want to get into a conversational corner you can’t get out of, but as a result, you see points of connection. Seeking points of connection is a preternatural human need, and doing that in person with strangers can sometimes be a deeply informative experience because you are talking to someone from over there. Then there is this common thread between you, and there is some truism in that common thread, and if you add another common thread, then it builds into a new one. That’s not to say it is some wide-eyed halcyon view of the world.

On the bus, I’ve seen it as what I’ve called “a rolling congregation of souls”, and in support groups and group settings, there are certain ways in which a group can help us to forgive ourselves, and that is a really common thing on the bus, people contending with “Oh I wasn’t there for my brother-in-arms in Afghanistan”, “My sister became a crack addict and I wasn’t there for her”, people sort of blaming themselves. When you’ve heard lots of people saying that the natural instinct is to say they are not, and then by definition if it is not on that person or that person then maybe it is not on you. That may be longwinded but those are a couple of things I’ve learnt. Also, for anyone who loves language hearing all these dialects and forms of communication for such a length of time is captivating. If you took a bus across the country and went as straight as possible and didn’t stop and they switched drivers, it is still going to take three and some odd days, that’s 24 hours, after 24 hours, after 24 hours, and it can take a lot longer, and you are with most of the people on the bus for most of that time.

How much were your travels influenced by Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac?

Absolutely, in fact, when I set out I had a copy of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Bound For Glory’ with me. I was very much inspired by Woody Guthrie and Kerouac, also Walker Evans and Robert Frank because I’ve also taken some images along the way. They have all been very inspiring, and a lot of the themes are similar, and folks riding the Greyhound, like the folks riding the rails in Woody’s time, are at the margins of American society. It speaks to folks everywhere, not just at the margins of society.

You’ve been featured on the BBC World Service, and have BBC 4 and Radio 4 slots scheduled for later in 2023,, how did that work and what can people expect?

I met a BBC producer when I was at a Steve Earle retreat and he was covering it, and that is how the initial connection came about. They are running the new stuff in the fall, on Guy Fawkes night I believe, which is one year before the American Presidential elections, and I will be in the UK for the Black Deer Festival and supporting Laura Cantrell on her tour, I’m also doing the Cambridge Folk Festival at the end of July. I love spending time in the UK, and I did live in the UK for a few years, I have great affection for the place and I have people over there who are helping me. I’m excited about this tour, and Laura is a super-talented woman.

It is interesting with the UK and americana music because in some ways I think the UK has a better view of americana music than America, I don’t know whether it is distance bringing a different perspective or whether it is just the pond, but there is an appreciation and knowledge about it that reflects back to America.

I think the British psyche helps with that if we look back to the ‘60s and the British blues boom and the obsessive tribal aspects of that and the earlier Trad Jazz movement. The Rolling Stones are probably the best example of taking a fading music form and playing it badly compared to the original artists, and selling it back to America as a new popular music. Also, Britain is a smaller more homogeneous country with different waves of immigration than America.

That may be true, but a lot of this stuff does come via Appalachia from the UK.

There is that connection, but also, for some reason, we seem to put more effort into understanding and finding music, and we’ve done that for the last seventy years with American music, and americana is simply the latest chapter.

You do have a tradition like Bob Dylan trying to break out in the UK.

And Paul Simon wrote ‘Homeward Bound’ supposedly at Widnes railway station. I think we may be appreciate it more and don’t take American music for granted, whereas in America, people have heard of it and may be aware of it and know it’s there, but aren’t in a hurry to listen to it.

I think that’s it, we tend to take things for granted that are very nearby, and from afar we can really see the detail of something.

And you have also finally released your debut album, ‘Edge of Everywhere’?

artwork for Doug Levitt album "Edge Of Everywhere"It feels great, and to work with someone like Trina Shoemaker who is a legend and a real trailblazer for women, and also just as an engineer and producer to think she has been on the other side of the glass to Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile and any number of these people. It is a pretty stunning experience, and she has been so supportive and just kind, and she said she thought it was amongst her best work. I’m really excited about these songs and the creative part of me is excited about volume two, you know what I mean. I’ve got my eye on the next destination, but I’m really glad to get these songs out there. Some nice things have happened, it was made an Apple Music top pick and other things, and for any artist, it is one foot in front of the other, but I’m really grateful it has gotten me this far. Also, in cases where I’ve been able to keep in touch with people, there are a lot of transients who travel by bus and you don’t always have phone numbers that are going to work next year, and sharing the music with them is a sensitive thing because of the trauma behind the songs, have you got the feeling and the emotional truism right. Then there are the details, does it keep to that person’s story, I’ve had remarkable experiences just sharing the songs with people, and it is almost a reflection and honouring of their story. They have then shared it with people as a way of communicating how they have felt.

This is about five years ago, and there was this guy who had just come out of prison and he was going to see his son’s first Little League Baseball game, and he said he was going to do some work training and he pointed to his bag and he said that is everything he owned, but when he comes back he is leaving it all, clothes, habit, everything, and that this was his metamorphosis. You don’t know how his story is going to go, but we kept in touch and about six months ago I was in Galveston, Texas, in a living room and he is with a woman who has kids, and his son is now with him. They’ve got a blended family, and this woman is studying to become a nurse, and they are struggling but they are struggling together, and he is on the right path to keep her and make sure all this continues. I sang them a song about him, and while I was singing this song they kissed each other, and it is hard to describe a moment like that. It gives me chills right now, what is this, I’m a stranger coming into this home, I’ve got a song from a Greyhound from five years ago, and this is speaking to his story, and it is just a depthful experience and exchange. It is experiences like that, that are drawn from the Greyhound which have changed who I am. When you sing a song about somebody else for a long time there is some kind of fusion. Underneath there is a bit of my story and feeling, there has to be, and the people I’ve met continue on with me, not just by my memories but also by the music and the songs.

What was it like recording in Muscle Shoals?

Mobile, Alabama, is like the original New Orleans, and it is also a place I’ve gone through on the bus a lot of times and part of my family is from The South in Mississippi and Texas, so it feels very natural. As I was saying about Trina, I can’t think of anybody doing what she is doing, though there are some very big producers working in the americana space that are doing amazingly successful things like Dave Cobb and others, but she is just a unique figure. I think others like Brandi would point to her as the reason she is at the phase she is at, I feel Trina is like a musical medicine woman. She also gets the project, the need and significance of drawing a fuller picture of America, and to be able to do something in song in this way is something she has been incredibly supportive of.

Have your journalistic skills influenced your songwriting?

They play some part, but it’s weird because journalism is very form based, as you know, you know when you are doing a television thing you want the person to complete the sentence. They each have their own demands within them and maybe it helps me dig into a story, but I think that may just be because I’m an inquisitive person. So, I’m not sure if the skills from journalism have fed into this, or is it just being interested and outward-looking, and being fascinated by other people. Also, when I was a journalist, I went to places like Iran which I may have been a bit nervous to go to, and to be honest, I was a little bit nervous the first time I went on a Greyhound. Being able to push myself into areas to explore because you are interested in it and you think it is important, and then those things combine. As soon as I started on the bus it was hard to stop, even though it is a gruelling form of travel, the experience of connecting to somebody you expect in a different way is something I can’t compare to anything else I have done. Then I’m on my way, playing in stations, and when you ask how I get to talk to people, it is sometimes just by playing music and they come to me, or a bus breaks down and I’m playing music. When you are travelling with a guitar you are not threatening, what am I going to do, hit you with a G chord? It makes you more approachable, probably, and I think the music plays a big part in these journeys because it is a real connector. Everybody has some connection to music through their own love and joy of music, or they play music. I’m not saying it is a high-value currency, but it is its own currency.

Doug Levitt’s ‘Edge Of Everywhere’ is out now as an independent release.

About Martin Johnson 414 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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