The magnetism of life on the open road has a long-standing mythos in American popular culture. Wide-eyed travelers were encouraged to get their kicks on “Route 66” in the blues standard first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946. Sal and Dean’s cross-country pursuits defined a generation in Jack Kerouac’s beat manifesto while the frenetic image of Raoul Duke barreling down the desert highway with drug-induced fervor in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas marked a seminal turning point in literature.
On his new record, Eyes on the Lines, guitar virtuoso Steve Gunn picks up the mantle in a meditation on exploration and adventure. Unlike the paths taken by Kerouac’s or Thompson’s protagonists, his trip evokes a warm sense of aimlessness, one where the car is set to cruise, the windows are down and the sun gives way to a lilting breeze. “Take your time, ease up and waste the day,” Gunn encourages in his rich baritone on the album’s opening track, “Ancient Jules.” Driven by a soaring riff and interlocking melodies, the song crescendos with a masterful solo and fades into reverie. It’s a tune to get lost in, harkening back to the time you “slept in the grass / sky turned gray.” The rest of the album follows suit: carefree, bold sentiments accompanied by layered, controlled guitar work.
“A memory flash up into the hill / We’ll make the drop by night,” Gunn sings on “The Drop”—a nod to trucker culture inspired by his time traveling around England, where he observed truck drivers at British rest stops.
“The drop, basically, was trucker slang for location,” says Gunn. “For their destination, their goal to where they need to get.”
Although Eyes on the Lines is a collection of songs bursting with momentum that propels the listener forward, the drop is unknown. Here, it doesn’t necessarily matter where you’re going; it’s how you get there. This concept is mirrored in Gunn’s approach to writing music, which he says is heavily influenced by the philosophies of minimalist artists.
“People like Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt, where they kind of simplify what they’re doing and really focus on this gesture and, you know, that kind of process is almost as important as the result,” says Gunn. “I think about music in that way and I like to get kind of deep into it and, you know, really work a lot with repetition and cyclical elements of music.”
His lyrical work is no exception. The characters in his songs change direction, retrace their steps and seek different paths. Meanwhile, the album title is a double entendre, drawing on its minimalist inspiration while never losing sight of the road.
“It has a multiple meaning,” Gunn says. “There’s that idea of like white line fever, where you’re staring at the road for too long and you kind of become sort of hypnotized by it.”
Gunn grew up in Philadelphia, where he became immersed in the rich music scene and got his start in a punk band.
“I was lucky enough to be in a town where there was a great guitar store, where I took lessons and I also had pretty close access to the city,” he says. “My whole kind of musical world really opened up when I was old enough to kind of go around by myself and check stuff out. And then there’s also a lot of great bands in Philadelphia so I got to meet a lot of musicians and play a lot of shows and kind of figure out how to play live and all that stuff.”
In his own work, Gunn draws on folk, jazz, blues and more. He credits his parents for his expansive musical palette.
“My parents were around in the ’60s and they were really into soul music and there were a lot of DJs and bands that came through,” he says. “We always had music on in the house.”
Eyes on the Lines is Gunn’s eighth solo effort, but it’s his debut on indie stalwart Matador Records. With a career that spans more than a decade, his musical output is as diverse as his influences. He’s been a solo instrumentalist, one-half of the Gunn-Truscinski Duo, a guitarist in Kurt Vile’s The Violators and a collaborator with Mike Cooper as well as old-time band the Black Twig Pickers. It wasn’t until 2013’s Time Off that he began singing. The follow-up, Way Out Weather (2014), received critical acclaim and was his first album to feature a full band—a sound that he returns to on Eyes. Since finding his voice, Gunn has opted to write lyrics from the viewpoint of a narrator.
“It’s something that as a songwriter I feel is important,” he says. “[To] look at other people and sing about…what they’re thinking about. And maybe certain people who don’t necessarily wanna tell their own story—that have probably a more interesting story than most people—kind of the hidden treasures of the peripheral world. For me, it’s all about working and playing…absorbing my surroundings and reflecting it back out.”