“Taking those wrong turns on the back roads leading nowhere…”
I’m sputtering around the back roads of Atascadero in my junky 1968 Oldsmobile Dela 88 singing along to my new favorite band, Red Eye Junction. As I sing, I imagine this Hank Williams-sounding, soulful crooner is narrating my crappy life—which—at the moment is looking bleaker than usual. I was 22 and had just moved from Long Beach to my Dad’s house in rural Atascadero.
I was basically living “in the basement,” although that’s not entirely correct. It was a downstairs room that my Dad had lovingly built when I told him I needed to get away from the drama of the city and “figure out my life.” I even got to paint in the color I wanted: Seafoam. That was something.
I had just graduated from Long Beach City College with a degree in print journalism. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that any modern school would allow something as archaic as “print journalism” to be a degree at all.
My days were long, lonely and haunted with fever dreams. I didn’t know anyone in town anymore, although I had gone to high school (freshman and sophomore year) at Atascadero High School just seven years prior. That is, before my parents split and I moved to Redondo Beach with my mom. After exactly seven chaotic years hell bent on self-destruction, I had turned my back on the city life: I was done with the grime, the darkness, the cold concrete covered in vomit and blood stains. I had a half-shaved haircut that I intended to grow out. Maybe I would even be “normal” if I set down roots in this town again.
To my disappointment, the picturesque, rural landscape didn’t feel much different than the hellish 405 freeway.
I wasn’t different. I hadn’t changed.
The gnarled oaks and golden hills reminded me of teenage angst and smoking under bridges more than any semblance of rebirth or renewal. All my old friends were gone—had escaped to the cities or gone off to war or just dropped away from my periphery. I hadn’t yet gotten a job at Atascadero News as a reporter, and my hopes for a paid writing gig were low. I was on antidepressants that made me sick.
Every day I’d wake up and think, “How many precious years do you have to waste?”
It was a ghost town, and Red Eye Junction was my sad country soundtrack.
I rumbled down the dirt roads and smoked and told myself I’d stop smoking. I had just bought a bunch of Waylon Jennings and Loretta Lynn records too, and I played them over and over again on my portable record player in the basement room by myself.
But Red Eye Junction was always in my Delta.
It was strange to me that this band could be modern…even from San Luis Obispo, just a few minutes to the South of the old Mud Hole.
I spent long afternoons driving my big, rattling boat of a car up and down the length of El Camino Real, listening to this new band and wondering who this tortured-sounding signer was. The car was thrashed, but felt comforting filled with this man’s honest voice. It reminded me of the field I found it in, broken down. I had been jumping on the trampoline as a teenager when I spotted it, and my dad and boyfriend at the time gave it new life. Now, I was estranged from that longtime boyfriend/car fixer, although we had an off-again-on-again relationship that broke down just as often.
Like the bad boyfriend, I wouldn’t give the car up. Why do we hold on to the things that bring us pain? The seats were ripped and moldy and I’m pretty sure there was a mouse living in the shabby interior (I’d find little droppings here and there). Thick red and yellow wires snaked from the cheap stereo to the backseat, where a half-dead speaker (killed from playing Motorhead too loud) slid back and forth, banging against whatever high heels or junk I had stashed back there. Jewel cases of Red Eye Junction CDs were among my cracked and soiled possessions.
I had found out about Red Eye Junction by way of a miracle.
When I moved to Atascadero I decided I would do something that scared me: learn to play banjo. You can read about that insanity here.
Anyway, before I went to the banjo teacher’s house for the first time, I (naturally) googled him to make sure he wasn’t a crazy murderer or cat hoarder. That’s how I found his banjo credit on a Red Eye Junction CD. He was on a REJ song called, “Stiletto Heels and a Switch Blade Knife.” I instantly connected to the music and the terrified, self-destructive girl in the song. Powerful, chilling steel guitar and that wailing singer…whoever he was…echoed my mood in way that felt painfully good.
One late night, I decided to look the band up and actually see if they were playing around Atascadero—a thought that had never occurred to me before. When I found out the band was indeed playing nearby, at Pine Street Saloon in Paso Robles no less, my heart did a weird little jump. I was nervous. I can’t say why. I guess I had made this band out to be important—meaningful—in my life. I knew it was childish to feel that way about something so intangible, but I did. That’s how I felt about all the most important records in my life, from Lou Reed’s “Transformer” to No Doubt’s “Tragic Kingdom.”
I went to the show alone. I wore a faded blue dress the same color as my old Delta and put a yellow flower in my hair. I drank beer and sang along to all the songs. The band was everything I wanted them to be, pure country gold. Even though I thought it would be impossible to do, the lead singer became even more intriguing than I had first expected. Mysterious, tattooed, and unaffected, he seemed miles away, although I was sitting just a few yards from the stage.
He seemed…hard to reach. Was he even on the same planet as the rest of us? Was his mind connected to his heart, or did he leave it all on stage each night?
“Dog tired of this dead end town. Better pack it up and head on down the road…” he moaned while strumming an acoustic guitar painted white and emblazoned with the image of deer antlers. The distinctive drum beat reminded me of Waylon, but the vocals were all Hank Senior. I could already feel my head swimming with questions for this strange guy. I wanted to know what was in his record collection. At least we both knew my banjo teacher.
I stayed for the entire set, singing along to most of the songs. I didn’t care if I looked weird. Years of going to punk shows had taught me that everyone is weird—some just don’t enjoy it enough.
Afterward, the guitar player slipped up to the bar, bumping my elbow.
I exploded with a mile of questions, to which he just chuckled and said, “Those are questions for someone else.”
The guitar player left and brought the singer—my singer—to the bar, practically pulling him by the ear.
“This girl has questions for you. You should talk to her,” he said with a semi-wink in his eye.
I felt like there might be a joke lying just beneath his casual words, but I couldn’t quite tell. Was I the punchline? If so, why?
My singer looked at me with wolf-like blue eyes. He was half smiling, half scowling, so I couldn’t tell if he was pleased to see me or looking right through my brain.
I told him how much I loved his music, and rambled on about learning banjo. I felt my cheeks burning up as I continued to spit out useless, tangled words.
My singer was all business.
There was only one thing he wanted to know. He wanted to know if I was learning Scruggs or Clawhammer style.
No sooner had I said “clawhammer” than he walked away.
That was it.
I left the bar feeling downhearted, trampled. Had I said something wrong? I looked for his cowboy hat in the parking lot, but I was alone again. I stepped inside my musty car, the door slamming the windows so hard that they could have shattered right then and there. Alone again.
On the drive home, I listened to Red Eye Junction, but considered turning it off and perhaps even flinging the CD out the window.
Could it be?
On the 101 South heading back to my Dad’s house—I saw a van in the lane next to me. A white van. Could that be the band? I revved my engine and rolled down the window. It was.
I saw the driver’s silhouette, and I knew it was him.
As I sped up, he sped up.
We raced, my heart thumping every time I set my cowboy boot down on the gas pedal. The engine roared and I could smell sweet, sweet gasoline. I felt warm and fuzzy inside.
What was this feeling?
I was in love.
Click here to download Red Eye Junction's new "Best Of" CD for free, out now. As a true fan, I was able to help guide my husband toward the perfect track listing. As you can imagine, it sent me down the rabbit hole of nostalgia.