Fifteen years and 150,000 miles travelling across the United States on Greyhound buses are what have shaped the debut album from Doug Levitt which will be released on March 3rd and titled “Edge of Everywhere” Produced by multiple Grammy Award-winner Trina Shoemaker, the producer/engineer behind albums by Brandi Carlile, Josh Ritter, Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris, the album is drawn from Levitt’s travels by Greyhound bus and tells the tales of the people he met along the way.
When he was 16, he found his father dead by suicide. For years, he says, he couldn't cry and turned to music as an outlet. But before using that music to reflect the journeys of others, he set out on his own, first at Cornell, where he studied Critical Thinking with Carl Sagan, and then as a London-based foreign correspondent for CNN and ABC filing dispatches from such places as Iran, Rwanda, Bosnia and Gaza.
He followed those instincts to Music City, USA. Not long after moving to Nashville, Levitt set out on his first Greyhound bus tour, with nothing but an initial six-week bus pass, a Gibson J-100, a copy of Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory, a country to cross and an American story to tell — one about life from the margins in.
Following the success of a BBC World Service documentary in 2018 (listening link here) with two further BBC radio and TV documentaries (for the UK and the world) about Levitt’s Greyhound journeys are planned for this year. Both will feature excerpts of songs from “Edge of Everywhere”. Doug was recently back in London ahead of the release of his record where we were lucky to get some time to chat in detail about this really interesting project. Thanks for taking the time to come and grab coffee this afternoon, how long are you in town for? “Just the rest of this week, until Friday. I’m here for the festival (Americana Music Association UK Music Week) where I obviously don’t have a slot this year. Paul Fenn is my booking agent, and he represents people like Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and all these people but he has really taken me under his wing, hooked me up with a manager here and hooked me up with my publicist, I’m meeting with the head of entertainment relations for Gibson so I’m just making the most of it whilst I’m here.”
So, to talk about the record that’s on the way, you’ve spent fifteen years travelling around and hearing people’s stories, but it’s somehow taken fifteen years’ worth of songs that you have written to finally bring out this extended debut album. “That’s right, well I have had piecemeal things here and there, but once I started working with Trina Shoemaker who produced my record who is crazy, well first all she is a legend and a genius that happens to have a fantastically crazy streak. She is not a bullsh#tter and she has been a real believer and a real supporter for me. Once that started everything just came down to it.
With putting it together, was it quite hard considering all of the songs that you have written and are in your catalogue to choose what fit the record because a first album can be viewed as a musician or songwriters life story so far. “It was largely the newest material, so it was fresh. There is one song from a few years back but everything else was pretty recent, although I have a lot of other material that I really like and is really good, but it was the fresher stuff that was top of mind for this. These journeys are sort of ongoing, like I just took a three-week trip with BBC doing another documentary and one-story kind of out stories the next story. The first person that sits next to you has just got out of prison that day, it was his eighth time in prison where he is thirty-one and when he used to get in arguments with his dad, he would put a headgear on and box it out. Things that you couldn’t make up and yet on the Greyhound, it is kind of like a storehouse for people that are processing all kinds of experiences. A buddy of mine called it therapy for the uninsured and in a way, the truth is that it actually has been my therapy too. Like a lot of us, I had some of my own issues as it were and when I found myself in a spot and I start talking to somebody or they are talking to me, it’s like that connection just takes you out and puts you in a different place.” I suppose with the songs, as you said are the newer things you have written, from that standpoint gives that snapshot of the real America right now. The longer the period the stories cover, I guess, like we were chatting before about how much Nashville has changed for example, what people were going through ten years ago will be slightly different to what they are facing now. “That’s a really good point and you would think that there would be some even if not a serious difference yet, how the news will talk about “Ever Green” this is sort of like “Ever Struggle” where the stories could be ten years ago or could be right now. They are human struggles of people struggling with addiction, staying away from crime or issues where you don’t f#cking know how you are going to get through the next day or week and that is constant. It is a constant for most people that travel on the Greyhound system.”
The really intriguing thing to me about the premise of the way that you write songs is how every songwriter is as we would say a storyteller but what you do is you are telling other people’s stories, almost like a narrator. People generally write songs from their own experience but yours flow from other people’s where you take the time to listen to their stories rather than other styles that are also observational where there isn’t that interaction, so they are just trying to imagine what is the story of those two people walking across the street. Then it’s not just you having the opportunity of telling the story of the people on the bus but also giving the people that have gone through struggles some dignity. “You’re spot on because once I’m talking to somebody and they know I’m a songwriter who writes songs about people that I meet, it’s almost like I feel a charge or responsibility to get it right and match the feeling state of their struggle, the feeling state of where they are. There are so many people are transient but there are a handful that you do come across again and I saw a few on this trip. There is a song that is not on this record but will likely be on the next one, it was a guy who had just got out of prison and was saying that this was like his metamorphosis, then now he has a new woman where he has his boy, and she has her three boys. I knew he had heard the song because he wanted me to play it for him but whilst I was playing it for him and his woman, they felt this sense of honour. I feel honoured and they feel honoured, they were like there is something about this and how it actually reflects us, then whilst we were there, they kissed each other like it was something special that we were all sharing in that space.”
To us as Brits and particularly living here in London, which you obviously will be aware of this because you have lived here, the concept is really different as we have two cardinal sins in the capital. Firstly, it is standing on the wrong side of an escalator and the second is making eye contact with a stranger. As a generalisation when you compare us here to Americans, we are more reserved and not as open so the idea of having conversation with a stranger would terrify people. It’s so alien almost to us and the coach system here is not a way that a lot of people would choose to travel but over there where there are so many people in transit, and it is the only way a lot of people can afford to get from place to place. “Some of these trips are like three or four days, so it might be five AM at a Jack in the Box in Amarillo, Texas talking about one thing and the next thing you know you are at a truck stop or a smoke break somewhere and they are calling out shower numbers for long hall truckers so it’s like a slow reveal to a story. Sometimes it may be faster than that where you are only with somewhere for four hours but the depth of that exchange which I think in part is that you are sitting side by side in like a confessional or a bar so there is eye contact but also not eye contact. There are things that you are looking at and movement, then there is this really interesting sense of community between people. People that have nothing in common, then all of a sudden everybody is laughing at something that the bus driver said about the bathroom only being for number one and not two, three, four or five. You’re in it together and like come on, what the f#ck is number five? I don’t even want to know what five is. There is something about that kind of realness and also, it’s not stratified, it’s self-selected because if you are on a Greyhound, it is that you need to be on the Greyhound. I mean I fly as well and other people do as well but when you go on a plane, some people are in business or platinum super class or whatever but there it is just one class, and you know from travelling the States that it is so visual and expansive. I have had the same Gibson J-100 guitar with like Frankenstein scars on the side from being put back together or whatever and I really feel that the vibrations from the bus have made that guitar sound better, it’s caked into it.”
You mentioned that there is a new documentary with BBC on the way, the first one came out in was it 2018? “Yeah, it was in 2018 and I think they have replayed it but then obviously COVID hit when we were just about to go out again. It’s funny because initially I had been taking trips for years without anybody following me and I didn’t know how it was going to go, would it be different, would it change the vibe, be too objectifying or whatever but it hasn’t been. These are stories of other people but at the same time, the way I came into music when I’m one hundred percent honest was the trauma of coping strategy. I couldn’t cry for years, like I would start crying but just couldn’t and it was like I had erectile dysfunction of crying.”
Like Tear-ectile Dysfunction then? “Nice, that’s pretty good.”
Actually, that’s really quick on a pun for me. “Yeah, that’s very good. It could be all the coffee. But underneath there is a kind of connection of a feeling state of what do I do with this issue? What do I do with this pain and how can I express it and get it out?”
With the documentary on the way this year, is a continuation or a bit of revisiting things on the last one? “No, although we did just see some people that we had met in the first and we will see in the edit with what ends up happening, but I think it’s largely new and episodic.”
One of the things that I did find really interesting with the first one when I had listened back to it the other day was where you had gone down to Woody Guthrie’s hometown, where I loved how you said with full transparency that you took and Uber to get there but hearing that just reiterated the key theme in life of change and it isn’t consistent. We were talking before about everything evolving in Nashville but there are parts of such a vast country that stand still and almost get left behind from the times. I saw that on my last trip to the States where we drove from Nashville down to Clarksdale in Mississippi, then right across Alabama, through Chattanooga and on to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge before heading back to Nashville. When we stayed in Clarksdale, we went to Red’s Lounge as there is all the Delta Blues history with that juke joint but heading there, we just saw how different things are rurally. Driving through “towns” with maybe 6 or seven houses and a church, then five miles later hit another town five miles later with ten houses and a church which repeated until every sixth or seventh town along would have a Dollar General. Even Clarksdale as the built-up area you saw how it hadn’t grown in terms of infrastructure or bring opportunity like in Los Angeles, New Yor, Chicago or Nashville where it is obvious and well demonstrated but there it was almost as if things had just stopped and there is a story about places like that too. “That’s exactly right. My mom was born in Greenville, Mississippi on the Delta so we used to do Christmas there and you go down there now, and it is shocking. There is still Doe’s Eat Place if you ever head back there but there are a lot of these old downtowns that have just been bypassed. They exist, people’s houses exist, and they can’t move, it’s not like they are going to go somewhere but it’s just that the services aren’t there, and they have to get on the highway to find a bigger store, but Greyhound still services I think even after COVID where they had dropped a number of services about twenty times as many destinations as the largest airline in America. They are covering all of these places that aren’t really seen otherwise and also media, with our collective storytelling these people are not part of the story because they are not near the story unless it is a shooting, a public policy mess or something like that but it’s really evocative. I think with the Woody Guthrie piece of it is there is always this need for posterity, like I’m doing something at the Smithsonian where they are going to do an exhibition through the Center for Folklife and that is really exciting for me. That’s been part of it for me, I’ve been doing this, but I don’t know how I’m going to stop is the only thing. It’s like at what point? I even stopped telling people when it got to more than twelve years and more than one hundred and twenty thousand miles because after that you just sound crazy.”
“Edge of Everywhere” will be the debut full-length album from Doug Levitt that will be released on March 3rd through Earthly Records, and you can listen to the title track which is out now HERE.