Cuan Liner Notes: Western Highway
Track 5: Western Highway (3:41)
In the late 80s and early 90s when my friends were listening to pop music I was busy buying up albums by Mary Black, Dolores Keane, and Maura O’Connell and poring over every inflection and ornamentation in those unbelievable voices. As a result I am useless in a pub quiz, but know a bunch of really great songs sung by a few of the mainstays of Irish music. One such is the song Western Highway.
Gerry O’Beirne wrote the song, as the story goes, as he was driving up the Pacific Coast Highway from California to the San Juan Islands. Growing up in Seattle, the islands were only a ferry ride away, but felt like they were part of a different world entirely. They still do. And some of my favorite memories are of time on the islands and the Olympic Peninsula. I can see why such a drive and arrival would inspire such a song.
I have been singing the song with my brother Mark for almost 2 decades now and had no intention at all of including in this project. In fact, I did vocal takes on 2 different days with Jordan Leff at The Secret Society and still wasn’t happy with the way it was coming out and was ready to just remove the whole track from the record. In a last minute decision, our mixing engineer Ezra Holbrook set up a vocal mic while we working and I retracked again just in case we got something we liked. I was exhausted and the result is a much quieter, more introspective version of the song.
All that being said, when we play live, Colm sings this one. ;)
It was a very stormy night, a very stormy night. At one point the rain was so heavy I had to relent and pull the car over, and just listen to the radio as the car shook in the wind and water ran down the windscreens like a Costco carwash in the middle of nowhere. By now I was about three hours (and at least four fallen trees) south-west of Seattle, deep in the Olympic peninsula, close enough to highway 101 to see the posted tsunami evacuation signs, but not quite yet at America’s edge.
The previous hour had been a windy winding passage through awe-inspiring forests that were shaking, shivering, and whispering the route. And as I pulled over, the last grey drops of murky twilight dripped into the narrow canyon of clear horizon in the distance.
After a while, the rain did relent, and within a few miles, I’d caught up with a pick-up truck; who I was more than happy to follow at a slow cruising pace. For about twenty minutes, two strangers formed a small convoy through the vast and pristine forested wilderness that defines greenest Washington.
The pickup driver pulled over and let me pass. And minutes later I found out we had entered deer country, deer who seem to think there isn’t much better in the world than darting across a road in front of cars on a dark and stormy night. I bet that pickup driver knew what was coming. Thankfully it was the last leg of the journey.
The destination was Long Beach, for a small winter concert with Colleen and the inimitable Casey Neill. We played two sets of songs, to a small crowd, but people we knew and trusted. It was a good time to try some new things, and hear them back to ourselves through other people.
Outside the weather was still howling, but inside it was warm and serene, and the light had an orange tint, like a hug. Some time in the second set, we played this song. Colleen introduced it, we looked to our right, at the very highway we were about to sing about, and after the short deep low D cross-picking intro, she practically walked right into the song and hit every last note, and every little sound, perfectly. “Shimmering”, “cool”, “air” (and it sounded like air), the words reverberating off of the wooden rafters and wrapping themselves around the space. It was a great first time to try that song together.
After the gig we went our separate ways. Colleen and Casey made their way back to Portland, for a radio appearance, and despite a sensible and generous offer to stay the night with our friends Bill and Sue Svendsen, I made my way back to Seattle like a crazy person. But my reward was those City lights, shining until tomorrow, just like the song says; a blindingly white island in a sea of trees.
Gerry, go raibh maith agat do amhrán in a bhfuil cumas an iar-thuaisceart comh cruinn, agus comh feiliúnach don áit.