Doug Levitt Tells Stories from The Edge of Everywhere
Doug Levitt’s long project writing songs about people who he speaks with when traveling by Greyhound Bus is reaching a major milestone with the release of the album Edge of Everywhere on May 10, 2023. Don’t consider that the end of his quest, however, since even now, he’s still making those journeys and writing songs, often playing concerts at large and small venues, as well as prisons, along the way.
Levitt has always had a musical and artistic inclination, but he previously worked as a London-based foreign correspondent for CNN and ABC, filing dispatches from places such as Iran and Gaza. An early incident in his life, the painful suicide of his father, is something he credits with pushing him to reconnect with music of his own, but the way that he explored that connection was by setting out on these exploratory trips. He found himself learning a great deal about human beings living in “in between” states and striving to tell their stories.
Levitt has been making these journeys and creating songs about them for over a decade and they have been the subject of a BBC World Service documentary, with two more planned. The album itself was produced by multiple Grammy Award-winner Trina Shoemaker (Brandi Carlile, Josh Ritter, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris). I spoke with Levitt about the human aspect of his experience, as both a traveler himself and a witness to other peoples’ lives, and how he navigated his role as storyteller.
Americana Highways: Needless to say, hearing so many peoples’ stories must make you a more empathetic person. Do you think that helps you, in some way, too, to hear what they are saying?
Doug Levitt: There are so many stories. When you hear somebody else say something they’ve been through, you’re natural inclination is often to say, “That’s not on you.” But then, when you say that, out loud, you think, “If that’s not on him or her, maybe things in my life aren’t all on me.” I have found that to be true.
AH: Wow! Do you you think it’s that by giving other people forgiveness, you can forgive yourself?
DL: That’s right. We learn from each other to forgive ourselves. In some ways, we can only learn from each other to forgive ourselves. In a sense, that’s what AA is about. It’s a place where you hear other people with versions of self-blame and then you feel connected. Especially now, in this sort of day and age, when everything is so digital, it’s a cold media. That can be valuable, but at the same time, being in the presence of other people is something I’ve described as a “rolling congregation of souls.”
On the bus, people are in-between, in a way that might be less common on other forms of travel. I remember one time I was taking a trip and for some reason the bus wasn’t traveling across Northern Utah. We had to get off the bus and take a train, an Amtrak, across Utah, and then get back on a bus. All the Amtrak riders were in certain cars and I’m not saying that people are necessarily well-heeled who travel by Amtrak, but the last two or three cars were the Greyhound riders. When you walked back into that area, it was like a socio-economic curtain. You entered a different space. The truth is, when people are lesser seen, or more marginalized, society tends to place less value on them. And yet peoples’ stories and their life experiences, even their struggles, are so deep, and rich, and powerful, and moving. That’s what has fuelled my ongoing travel by bus. I’m about to get on the bus again and I’m playing at a prison in Attica, New York.
AH: I have a personal curiosity about your background in journalism. I find that journalism works for me if I’m allowed to include myself in the story to show that objectivity isn’t really possible. That’s just what works for me. Did you have any issues moving from correspondent journalistic work into this kind of storytelling where you need to include yourself in the story?
DL: I was never much included in stories that I was doing overseas. There are strictures of that form. I found that I was doing well in it, but it has its own form and structure. Once you know that part of it, the expressive lane is somewhat narrow. You’re telling other peoples’ stories, but for me, I don’t even know if what I’m doing now has roots in what I was doing then. Back then, I knew underneath that I was an artist. I was always playing out. I didn’t know if I had the guts to do more.
I was worried. If I didn’t tap into the deeper expressiveness, I had a feeling that I would not be on a good path, mentally speaking. But it’s a good question. Most of the songs on this record are about other people, but the feeling states are mine. What it’s tapping into is my own yearning or pain. It’s my own storehouse of experience that is melded or funneled into someone else’s story. Even though a song may appear to be entirely about some other person, what’s underneath is certainly my own need for healing.
I’d had an experience, due to my father’s suicide, where I couldn’t cry for a decade. Music was that for me. It was a way of getting out things that felt wordless to me.
AH: In these songs, I can see different distances from the subject occasionally. The narrator is always there, but in some songs, the narrator is more quiet and reserved. Then there are a few songs that approach the audience more directly with a narrator’s voice and carry some ideas that you wanted to put across about this whole project and experience, really. I think in your track notes, you point out that some songs have that quality, like “Edge of Everywhere,” and maybe even “Cold Comfort.” Also, “Highway Signs” is a major one for that, for coming to grips with the major themes that you knew were there.”
DL: You’re right. I remember that a friend of my father’s quoted Kierkegaard in my father’s eulogy, saying, “Life can only be understood backwards.” Then he added that the problem is, it must be lived forwards. “Highway Signs” is a bit of that backwards-looking perspective. That’s how the arc of this journey had impacted me. I might have set out thinking I was shedding light on other peoples’ struggles, but along the way, other people were helping me come to terms with things. In some ways, being a narrator of somebody else’s experience can be freeing to a certain extent, too.
There’s a song called, “Run It All Back” and Hector, who its about, has become a dear friend of mine. We’ve lost touch for a couple of years here and there, but we’ve stayed in touch and visited each other. When I first played him that song, I was nervous. You want to get it right. This is someone’s intimate story about their son being shot and you want it to speak to them. I played him that song in a hotel in Modesto. When I was done, he hugged me and said, “My dad ministered to people in prison. One of the inmates wrote a ‘Corrido’, a story-song about him. Now I have my own ‘Corrido’.” He shared it with people. It’s a very unusual experience even in music to have someone share something with you, knowing that you are going to write a song about it. Then share it back with them, and it informs their experience.
AH: It reminds me of the fact that in ancient and medieval history, people really wanted to have positive songs written about them. It was a big deal. It was cultural currency and that’s how a patronage system developed. Sometimes that seems foreign to us because in mainstream music, setting roots music aside, it became unusual.
DL: I see this in a storytelling vein. I see this in the world of roots music, going back to Woody Guthrie, and obviously much further back. In a way, the road to the south travels by way of others. Looking at the phrase, “I would do anything to run it all back,” I absolutely feel that way, but we know that’s not how life is, so sharing that feeling with someone else is probably the closest that one can get to running it all back. We help unlock it in one another.
I think, on the bus, there’s something about the expectation that when you see somebody, you’re probably not going to see them again. You have these vast distances, these varied landscapes, the rumble of the wheels, the lights, the passing cars in streaks. It is a certain collective capsule that you’re in. There are a lot of these outside cues that you are in a space that’s in between.
AH: I’ve often observed when traveling that people seem to say and do things when they are in in between states that they might not otherwise share or do at other times. They talk about things they might not usually talk about. It seems to bring it out. I’m sure I do the same. It’s a special state, in a weird way. But then again, a lot of these people who you’re talking about are living in these in between states, so maybe it’s less true of them.
DL: No, it is true! Absolutely. There are gradations of that. It’s a kind of greater need that people feel. It’s like an, “I need a witness,” kind of moment. People are willing to explore things that they might not otherwise. Maybe they feel like they need a bit of wisdom from somebody else. Maybe they feel it will spark a new awareness or catharsis. It is born of need where you share your own experience. But actually the two questions that frame the whole thing are, “Where are you going?” and “Where are you coming from?” Those are two epitaph-like questions.
I was on a bus once and the first guy who sat next to me had just gotten out of prison. It was his eighth time in prison. He was 31. He was trying to figure things out. When you get sent to prison, and they let you out, it’s where your case is from, where your crime happened. You have to do your probation in the same location. So that means that you might be going back to the same stressors, the same world, that you were in. You can’t just start over in a new location.
That’s not something I would normally think about, necessarily. I could tell that this guy, Ronald, wanted to do something different. He wanted to find his brother, who had a roofing business, but he actually didn’t know how to find his brother. So there was this sense of “I’m on this path. I don’t know how to diverge. I tried in the past. It didn’t work.” Dealing was his past, his contacts, how to make a living. I’ve written a song about him recently, and I hope that he was able to right the ship.
AH: It must influence how you see human life to tally up the outcomes that you know of regarding these people you’ve met. Now seeing what happens afterward your conversations with them could be very uplifting or very upsetting, I imagine.
DL: Right. It’s true. Dualism is at the root of all experience and yet the hopeful moments or stories, or the sacrifices that people make are there, too.
AH: For me, sometimes the most surprising things about these stories is the way that one thing leads to another. Often things happen that no one has intended, and now they are bowled over by life’s events. That’s at the heart of a lot of these stories.
DL: Right, like in the case of Edward, who was turning himself into federal prison and has started out as a graffiti artist.
AH: I was going to bring that song up, “Turning Myself In,” because it’s so hair-raising and moving. There’s this guy who has evaded the feds, now has a life with a wonderful woman and two kids, but because he wants to clear the slate, he’s turning himself in. I don’t think I’d do that!
DL: Also, if you put yourself back into a prison system, is that going to inform you in a negative way? But it was a determination that he and his wife had made, and he wanted to show his daughters the power of owning up to your past mistakes. Initially, he had violated parole by smoking weed! It wasn’t even that he had done something wrong, really. He was hoping to get the same parole officer. We were in Amarillo, Texas, and I think he was going to Livingston, and he said to me, “This is probably my last cigarette before I got into prison.” People are making decisions that are risky, and yet, they are being driven by moral force.
But originally, he was a graffiti artist, a minor thing, and he met someone who asked him to drive some stuff from the border to make money. Then that led to him somehow becoming the heavy. How did one thing lead to that thing, lead to that thing? But oftentimes it’s the love of a person or a thing that diverts you, as it did here. That relationship with his wife and kids helped him right the ship.
Thanks very much for chatting with us, Doug Levitt. Learn more and find tour dates and music on his website here: https://www.douglevitt.com/