From a truck stop in western Pennsylvania, Peter Case runs down the route he's traveling: "[I'm] just about to jump on Highway 81, down to Chattanooga, switch to 40 then jump on 75 and then I'll be in Knoxville in about 11 or 12 hours." Case knows the roads. He's been on them since he was a kid—hitching, bumming, hustling, stealing, busking and writing some of the finest songs in the American vernacular style. Don't remind him of the Nerves or the Plimsouls, as those bands were a lifetime ago (even though he reunited the latter just last year). His solo work is just as catchy, just as rocking and even wiser. His latest CD, Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, is in name an homage to the blues great; in its acoustic soul and substance, it's a timeless rotogravure of a man absolutely locked into his folk blues muse. Case hopped back on the highway and let B-Sides know where he's heading.
What was your connection to Sleepy John Estes?
I lived on the street in San Francisco, when I was a street musician as a teenager. I had one album: Sleepy John Estes' Broke and Hungry on Delmark. I carried it around with me just in case I ran into someone with a record player. He was a great lyricist and a really soulful singer.
Peter Case performs Saturday, December 8, at Bend Studio.
Would you disagree with me if I called your album an elemental record?
No. I'm not sure what you mean. It's a pure folk record, as opposed to a pretend folk record, which you hear a lot of these days.
What's the difference?
The difference is they're all sweetened up! You know, the first Joan Baez record, the first Bob Dylan records, Bert Jansch's first record, even Donovan. They weren't demos. They were full performances. But maybe I should ask you what you mean by elemental.
Getting down to the elements: storytelling, truths, even the natural and moral elements.
I haven't looked at it that way. I look at what I do as trying to capture vivid pictures of life. I use American roots music elements to get that across. But they're pictures of life now. A lot of the stories are about people who are hard hit, and a lot of them are about the road. I haven't written much about the road. I thought Jackson Browne had pretty much drained the subject, you know, Bob Seger and those guys. But the way I go out on the road is so much less insulated than those versions. People used to say, "Troubadours traveled around and sang the news." But then we had news so we didn't need them anymore. But now we don't have the news again, so maybe there's a job for me still.
Do you still teach songwriting?
Yeah, I do workshops three or four times a year in Los Angeles and sometimes on the road.
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I wouldn't say this to your students, but don't you think teaching songwriting is kind of impossible?
I do think it's impossible. I only have people in my class who can already write songs. I'm not teaching them how to write songs. The workshops help people get over their problems. If they don't have a feeling for it, you can't teach it.
What's the biggest problem?
It's more important how you say it than what you say. You have to pay attention to the sound of the words. People get very focused on trying to get a sentiment across. But everyone in the world's got a story. A songwriter needs to know how to tell a story.