31: Highway 40 Blues

31: Highway 40 Blues

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

Highway 40 Blues

Story by Larry Cordle

Song written by Larry Cordle

Recorded by Ricky Skaggs

In the 1980s, I was living and working in Kentucky. I was a CPA by day in Paintsville. Three nights a week I worked in a little club band in Hazard, Kentucky, about 60 or 70 miles away. I came home late one night after a gig. When I passed the road sign where I turned off Route 40 to go to my house, the title “Highway 40 Blues,” popped into my head. I pulled over and wrote the first verse right there.

Of course, a lot of people who hear it think it’s about Interstate 40, which runs right through Nashville, but I actually wrote it about that little state highway in Kentucky. The next day, I sat down and wrote the other two verses. I had the melody in my head for about a week before that and I actually finished writing the whole song without even picking up a guitar.

I knew Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley. The whole reason I started thinking I could do this music thing was because I saw how successful Ricky was getting and I decided maybe I could give it a shot, too.

We started playing around, first at people’s houses, and then playing some clubs. To be honest, I probably wasn’t good enough at the time. I was a decent guitar player, sang some and did a little writing, but when you are raised around people like Ricky, it can be pretty intimidating. Ricky was playing with Emmylou Harris at the time and hadn’t really come into his own as an artist quite yet. The original recorded version of “Highway 40 Blues” was a thing that Ricky produced in 1980. That version actually had a young kid named Béla Fleck playing on it and some other real killer players. We had the same instrumental breaks and everything. I don’t think mine had steel slide on it like Ricky’s eventually did, but it had some great licks. I think we had Dobro, and banjo and lead guitar. Ricky told me, “If I ever get a record deal, I’m going to record some of your songs.” I just laughed about it. I knew it was probably a long shot for either of us.

Then one day, after he had moved on to Nashville, he called me and said he was coming through Kentucky and said, “I’ve got something I want you to hear.” When he got here, he played me the rough mix of “Highway 40 Blues” that he was going to include on his album.

He asked if I wanted to move to Nashville and I said, “You mean try to write music for a living?” I didn’t know if it could even be done. I had no idea how the business worked or anything else. He said, “Well, yes.” So eventually I moved to Nashville, and Ricky got his deal with Columbia. The song was released as a single from his Country Gentleman album and became a big hit.

It’s been recorded by several other people since then and all the artists and musicians still think it’s about I-40 because that’s the road they all take when they go out on the road from Nashville. It runs east to west all the way to both coasts so it’s a major road for touring busses.

“Highway 40 Blues” was actually the first cut I ever had as a writer and it went to #1, which is almost unheard of. It also helped boost Ricky’s career as an artist and it’s still a favorite song for his band to play live today. It’s a great jamming song.

Highway 40 Blues

Well, these Highway 40 blues,

I’ve walked holes in both my shoes.

Counted the days since I’ve been gone,

And I’d love to see the lights of home.

Wasted time and money too;

Squandered youth in search of truth.

But in the end I had to lose,

Lord above, I’ve paid my dues.

Got the Highway 40 blues.

The highway called when I was young,

Told me lies of things to come.

Fame and fortune lies ahead

That’s what the billboard lights had said.

Shattered dreams, my mind is numb,

My money’s gone, stick out my thumb.

My eyes are filled with bitter tears,

Lord, I ain’t been home in years.

Got the Highway 40 blues.

INSTRUMENTAL BREAK

You know, I’ve rambled all around,

Like a rolling stone, from town to town.

Met pretty girls I have to say,

But none of them could make me stay.

Well, I’ve played the music halls and bars,

Had fancy clothes and big fine cars:

Things a country boy can’t use,

Dixieland I sure miss you.

Got the Highway 40 blues.

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