Hometown Focus reviews Blue Guitar Highway
It’s a compulsively readable, and beautiful panorama of a musician’s early days on the Iron Range, his arrival into and success in the thriving Minneapolis music scene from the late '70s through the present, and the struggle, up to the present, to live completely by means of his music. Blue Guitar Highway is a testament to the kind of life a musician who is largely unknown to the general public can live, and a testament to Metsa’s personal tenacity and talent. Paul Metsa has survived and literally lived to tell the tale—and what a tale.
If you were around Virginia during Paul’s early days, you will likely hear many names and places that you know and remember. Maybe you saw him with one of his early groups, like the Positive Reaction or you caught his band Cats Under the Stars before he headed off to the Cities. In fact, it’s worth saying that this is a memoir fully rooted in the Iron Range.The Range, as so many of us of all ages know so well, is a place to return to in order to get your bearings, to clear your head, and to remember who you are. And that’s another beautiful thing about Paul—his unabashed pride in his Virginia, Iron Range and DFL roots. You will hear the names of many local and Minnesota politicians in these pages, including those of Wellstone, Rukavina, Oberstar and Coleman.
On the other side of the coin, there are so many well-known individuals that appear in this book that I blanch at the idea of trying to rattle them all off. Suffice it to say, you will read of encounters with, to name but a few, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. But, you will also have just as many stories of lesser known, but no less wonderful and talented individuals like Howlin’ Wolf ’s great guitarist Hubert Sumlin and the late John Hartford. This is not a “star-studded” book that attempts to cash in on the names and fame of others. And, I should get it out of the way right now, other reviews of Paul’s book I have read have talked about him as a top-notch name dropper. And there are no shortage of notable names, to be sure. But there are two ways to look at the phenomenon of name dropping. Usually, it’s a sad way for people to try to impart onto themselves a greater sense of self worth, a way to increase personal value through proximity to the greatness or value of others. But I don’t think that’s what Metsa’s doing. He is giving a shout-out to all of the people that made a difference in his life, or who gave him the gift of a memorable encounter. He is trying to conjure up a time in his life, and these are people that, in part, populated that time. In Blue Guitar Highway, the onslaught of names feels more like we are experiencing the wide-eyed wonder of a Ranger who somehow was lucky enough to meet this grand tapestry of figures that has woven in and out of his life—and the cumulative effect is one of gratitude. Here’s another way to think about it, using the book’s own concept: those names and people are all sign posts, little cafes, gas stations, scenic overlooks, flat tires and kind strangers along the blue highways of life. His memoir is a testament to a back road America that he, in part, represents, and the “alternate route” that has been his for most of his life. He talks about the road less talked about, the life of the hand-to-mouth gigging musician. In our media today, we only hear about the huge sensations, the rags to riches, crash-and-burn stories. But there is another kind of musician, who, to paraphrase Paul, can’t go out of style or become irrelevant because he never was in style or “relevant,” whose work is not tied to an era or a fad, but is, in its way, timeless. Blue Guitar is Paul Metsa’s personal Whitman-esque version of the song of Life in general, as it happens to everyone, with all of its highs and lows, the deaths of loved ones, and an affirmation of the unending value of family and roots.