“Highway 40 Blues”
Written by Larry Cordle
What gets lost in the everlasting traditionalism versus progressivism debate within country music is how, in reality, the definitions for both stances aren’t nearly as linear as they seem. For example, at least for one side in that debate for now, in the early 1980s country musicians pursued several approaches to “tradition.” John Anderson and Gene Watson played to a neo-honky-tonk style, but they surely weren’t playing the exact same music as acts like Asleep At The Wheel and Riders In The Sky, acts that aimed squarely at playing to an older, somewhat niche sound – even if the overall focus of preserving past sounds for a modern auidence was generally the same in both cases.
And then there’s bluegrass. A separate, but related art form to country music, where the foundational acoustic approach to the sound stuck, but, outside of a few moments in history, was relegated to its own independent scene. Folk, too, in a somewhat different sense. As such, it’s hard to classify acts like Emmylou Harris – who we’ll explore for the next edition of this series – and Ricky Skaggs; two acts that were country in ambiance, but drew upon many sources and inspirations nevertheless for a fresh stylistic diversity.
Indeed, Skaggs’ road to success would intertwine with many artists over the course of his career, including playing Stanley Brothers covers as a teenager with a friend by the name of Keith Whitley, to then playing in Ralph Stanley’s band upon him hearing Skaggs and Whitley perform one night, and, eventually, leaving Stanley’s band to front several of his own bluegrass bands. As he expanded his repertoire to include more progressive material, he had his chance to play in his first electric outfit with Harris’ own Hot Band, replacing an outgoing member by the name of Rodney Crowell.
But, of course, those are the names most country fans would immediately recognize. Skaggs was also friends with songwriter Larry Cordle – most famous for his composition, “Murder On Music Row,” just to keep the conversation thematic – who was intimidated so much by Skaggs’ talent (and Whitley’s, too) that he ended up sticking solely to songwriting.
In the early ‘80s, Cordle was living in the small Eastern Kentucky town of Paintsville, not far from “Butcher Holler,” home of Loretta Lynn. A CPA by day and musician by night, Cordle worked three nights a week in a house band in a small club in Hazard, Kentucky, about 70 miles away. While coming home one night from a gig, Cordle passed the road sign where he turned off Route 40 to go to his house when the title “Highway 40 Blues” popped into his head. Cordle got to work right away on the song, finishing it within the next day without even picking up a guitar.
Skaggs took Cordle’s song and made a bluegrass cut of it, featuring lead guitar, banjo and dobro. Skaggs, still a long way away from achieving his eventual mainstream success, joked with Cordle that, should he make it big, he’d cut “a lot” of Cordle’s songs and do a re-cut of “Highway 40 Blues.” After signing with Columbia Records in 1981, Skaggs kept his promise to his friend by re-recording the song, this time anchored by steel guitar licks, even if the faster tempo would always make it a great bluegrass “jam” tune first and foremost. While the song originated in Kentucky, most listeners associated it with Interstate 40, the main east/west route running through Nashville. It was Skaggs’ fifth No. 1 hit.