Peter Case is a mosaic of American underground music that has simmered for more than 40 years. As a late-1960s teen, he sought out bluesmen and gigged with anti-establishment schoolmates, like a soapbox hero behind jangly chords; in the 1970s, he joined the premier neo-punk unit the Nerves and disseminated taut, melodic, and edgy new music throughout the anemic land; in the 1980s, he steered the Plimsouls’ limber roots-pop into mainstream circles; ever since, he has thrived as a keen-eyed troubadour that uses Bob Dylan-meets-beatnik wordplay to shed light on the nuances of relationships, landscapes, and the less-than-civic side of American life, like dire rent hikes, neglected military veterans, small town deaths, and overall struggles to survive.
His new album, an Americana foray titled Highway 62 (Omnivore Recordings), navigates an under-appreciated vein of road that slices from Buffalo, N.Y., through Woody Guthrie territory to the country's southern border. “New Mexico” evokes kids stuffing America under their belts as they roam the land with a satchel of songs and a surefire ability to deflect bloodsuckers. Forceful “Pelican Bay” takes aim at the inner hellholes of prisons, while brooding newsworthy “Water From a Stone” chronicles the misery of crossing the Rio Grande under the gun of gangs and border patrols. To discuss Case’s latest effort, we snagged him before a gig in Baltimore.
Houston Press: You've just gigged with Kinky Friedman: what strikes you about his songwriting that a casual listener may bypass by accident?
Peter Case: With Kinky, it's not so much he's a songwriter. He's a person with something specific he keeps saying. He talks about the underdogs and how America’s been sold out away from them into corporate hands — the injustice of it. He sticks to his message in a humorous way sometimes, but he really does always ride that without letting up: Sold American.
For you, what matters most about Woody Guthrie’s legacy, and what was it like to visit his archives?
His life, his music, and his art all tell the same story — the struggle of one in the face of adversity and struggle of a class of people against injustice. But he loved America and its people and expressed that prolifically. He was so prolific and worked so hard continually. Maybe that was the biggest inspiration to me.
Your new album, in part, is a meditation on Route 62, which ran through your hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., to the southern border. Was this a kind of a Kerouac impulse?
Highway 62 ties together east and west, north and south, connecting three countries. It's two lanes most of the way, so it's not of the huge-spectacle kind of U.S. experience. It disappears and reappears. And I grew up one block from it.
So, you feel the highway provides glimpses that are more authentic and intimate — the real America hidden behind the simulacrum of billboards and chain fast-food outlets?
Case: The billboards and fast food are the real America now. At least a big part of it. But the rest of the story, as the man used to say, is the tension and struggle between corporate business and people. The people are the real America, and they're getting screwed by banks, business set-ups, injustice in applied laws, landlords, by collective greed. Highway 62 is an overlooked little highway, but there's a lot of people hurtin' out there.
Other portions of the album tackle some profound issues, like the Pelican Bay isolation units, which hold over 1,000 inmates. What propelled you to write about the penal system?
6,500 hundred at Pelican Bay I think. The song says it: we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world! And solitary is a cruel and unusual punishment. It hurts people permanently. Why do we imprison so many like this? What's happening at the bottom of society tells you a lot about the top.
Weeks back you saw the 40th anniversary punk reunion in San Francisco with the Mutants, Alice Bag, Avengers, and more. Against the backdrop of the newly gentrified city, did this gig seem like a last howl against local "business as usual"?
San Francisco is involved a class war, meaning a war by the top percent on the working class, people of color: workers, artists, students, the longstanding population of the city. Most of the punks don't wear that on the surface, though some do. The event could have improved its political understanding, but it was a great event.
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On the new album, you worked with Ben Harper extensively. What does he bring to table?
Ben’s grandparents ran the Claremont based Folk Music Center. His mother still runs it. He was brought up with folk and roots music and the awareness of the world and history that goes with it. He's a great slide player and was very committed and enthusiastic about the sessions.
On the “Long Good Time” you sing, “Everyone everyplace everything has been erased/ That’s the way it goes,”which seems to exude a double meaning: first, family memories and loss but also the loss of American places, people, traditions, and traits. Did you mean that?
I just sing the songs, I don't explain them, but I won't say you're wrong!
Peter Case performs at 7:30 p.m. tonight at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk.