Paul Metsa: The long, mysterious road to Blue Guitar Highway

Singer, songwriter, and seven-time Minnesota Music Award winner

My love of books started when I was in kindergarten and would spend Saturday mornings listening to Miss Smart (a perfect name for our local librarian) read from them as we sat in a semicircle around her at the Virginia Public Library in Minnesota. I sat, cross-legged, closed my eyes, and would drift away into the worlds she’d describe, transported first-class via this diminutive lady with the gray hair in a bun and thick wire-rimmed glasses, in a voice that at times sounded not unlike the cracking of the ice that froze at midnight over a sidewalk puddle you’d step on on your way to school. Yet this preschooler gave her the benefit of the doubt, as both her sincerity and those stories would open one new world, and then another, expanding my imagination one Saturday morning at a time.

Books were one portal into my awareness, as were newspapers whose headlines and columnists I would eventually devour, but not after a year or two of just reading them for box scores and comic strips. But what really opened the floodgates, and would become the fenceless corral of the power of words and language was the AM radio. It was 1965, and Mama was in the basement mixing up the medicine. Now words starting coming at me from all sides: lyrics, books, the Bible, poetry, and magazines all crashing against each other, becoming one huge wave upon the shore. And also echoing in my young ears were the televised speeches of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., whose poetry, cadence, and power felt within my reach. And even now as I do not need to understand the language of opera to appreciate its majesty, the sound of words would sometimes become as important as their meaning. I loved it all and could feel it making sense if not always understanding it literally.

And then to start writing words of my own: class projects, letters to Grandma and Grandpa and cousins, then a poem or two, and after a few guitar lessons, a song. A real and original song. Lyrics and a chorus wed to a melody, like Tinkers to Evers to Chance. To the sky ma, to the sky and seventh grade, here I come.

Hunter Thompson entering Las Vegas as the bats were about to appear. And from there, back to King Kerouac, reading On the Road but not old enough to be on it. Cousin Kesey and crazy uncle Ginsberg and Walt Whitman the wordy birdy Johnny Appleseed. Bukowski? I think I would eventually drink with someone who looked like him. A man landed on the moon, Woodstock came and went, and I was about to turn 15 now surrounded by books and writers I adored and stayed up late with. A brave new world indeed.

Years came and went and I got more serious about writing songs, and prose and poetry too. Scads of illegible poetry written on barroom napkins, erotic letters to bygone girlfriends, midnight letters to the editor, punch lines stolen from saloon philosophers or anonymous strangers just passing by. The songs I wrote I sang, and the rest of it I’d throw in a drawer. I am a guitarist by trade, a songwriter by inspiration, working in a life of music, as music is nothing, if not the discipline of hope. The poetry and prose was a way to keep track of the other parts of my life that didn’t need a melody.

A couple of years ago I met Kevin Avery, a writer/editor/agent, after reading a piece of his on the Dylan-centric website I asked him if I could send him several pieces I had written and get an objective viewpoint on my writing. He read it and suggested I had the beginning of a great book. I sold a guitar, rolled the dice on New Years Day 2010, and hired him to help me edit and pitch the book. I signed a publishing deal with the University of Minnesota Press on October 30, 2010. That is the same university, I like to add, that refused me entrance to its music program and that I subsequently dropped out of. That my memoir is about my 35 years in the music business adds a certain sweetness to the irony and represents my karmic diploma. Funny how life works.

And now, a little over a month after its publication, I am finding myself connecting with people I haven’t seen or spoken to in years. Last week during a reading at Common Good Books in St. Paul, I ran into a woman who looked as pretty as the night I took her to the prom in 1974 and hadn’t seen much of her since. Add a bass player, a bar owner, and a bookie or two, and you start to get the picture. Like Joni Mitchell used to sing, “and go round and round and round in the circle game.”

As I was finishing the piece, the phone rang. It was the head librarian at the Virginia Public Library, the same library where Miss Smart would hold forth with her enchanting fairy tales. They would like me to appear there in 2012 to read from my book. And who says you can’t go home again?


Paul Metsa is author of Blue Guitar Highway (which you can also check out at Metsa is a legendary musician and songwriter from Minnesota. Born on the Iron Range, he has been based in Minneapolis since 1978. He has received seven Minnesota Music Awards and has played more than five thousand gigs, including forays to Iceland and Siberia. He lives in Northeast Minneapolis with his faithful dog, Blackie; a dozen or so guitars; twenty-five orange crates of LPs; hundreds of books, compact discs, magazines, and vintage postcards; and several kitchen cupboards full of old cassettes.

“Paul Metsa is a natural-born writer. He can write anything. Lyrics, letters, articles all flow out of him like an exotic, ferocious waterfall splashing down on all the senses. If he writes it, I read it.”
—Nora Guthrie

“The roads Paul Metsa has traveled are so fabled you might think, opening his book, that it would be a book of footnotes—the record of a man walking in other people’s footsteps. But Metsa brings every myth the roads carry down to earth, rewriting their stories in real time, returning the roads to real life, opening them up again to both past and future.”
—Greil Marcus

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