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J Kutchma & the Five Fifths' Blue Highways

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Jason Kutchma does not lack for audacity. His new album, Blue Highways, is actually a massive multimedia project, where the music comes paired with a book and film of the same name.

The presentation aligns with the persona Kutchma has developed during the last decade. One of the region's most active bandleaders and balladeers, the Durham songwriter was the sweating, scowling frontman of the almost-punk, almost-arena-rock group Red Collar. He eventually settled into solo folk songwriting, occasionally backed by his lush band, The Five Fifths. With that group, he released 2012's Pastoral, a record accompanied by a book; a year later, he offered three distinct versions of Sundown, USA, a survey of modern American malaise. He favors neither modest ideas nor executions.

Blue Highways' title comes from William Least Heat-Moon's tale of his trip across the country using "blue highways," rural roads notated on maps by blue lines. Kutchma works similar territory, driving deep into concepts of Americana. From music and folklore to food and automobiles, it's the stuff that makes Americans American—Ford pick-ups, baseball, Budweiser, drive-in movies, Coca-Cola, road trips, diners. In recent years, the idea as a musical idiom has given way to sterile, largely acoustic blends of classic country, early rock, blues and bluegrass. Blue Highways taps those standard elements but adds flourishes. Steve Oliva, for instance, slips his slide guitar into the mix, lending a loose halo of twang to the tunes. Cello from New Reveille's Kaitlin Grady contributes elegant gravitas.

The film, meanwhile, combines 8mm and 16mm footage from the Prelinger Archives, an immense trove of visual American ephemera. Edited together by Kutchma, the clips take the album as their score, so they share interwoven but distinct perspectives. During "Bull Durham," over footage of a parade celebrating Detroit's 250th anniversary, Kutchma sings, "I don't know where I'm going/I don't like where I've been/What am I becoming?/Who the hell am I again?" He sings the song from the perspective of the city's iconic mascot, using the vantage to key on images of American atrophy. As he picks his guitar during "Far Rockaway," Kutchma's voice breaks just above a whisper. The music feels small, guarded. As a viewer, you go along for a ride through open landscapes and end up feeling small, too.

The companion book expands Kutchma's reflections on the road, with a poignant focus on the follies and frustrations of being a touring musician. Five Fifths drummer Evan Rowe presents fractured snapshots of road life, offering tips about sleeping on a porch or under the van in a rest-stop parking lot. The book also collects the album's lyrics alongside video stills, postcards and other curios that tie the project together. For a work with such a sprawling theme, the book acts as a welcome hub, pulling all the blue threads into one.

During the album's final track, "Neighbors," Kutchma reflects on restlessness, as the film pictures everyday folks going about their days. Though the footage is old, you get the sense these people could be your grandparents, your parents, even your neighbors. But there's no fade out or graceful final note to Blue Highways; it just ends. You snap into a necessary realization, Kutchma hopes, as if you've spent the last hour watching the sun set only to notice that now it's dark, or that, at last, the time has come to get in the car and head anywhere else.

Label: Last Chance Records

This article appeared in print with the headline "The nerve."

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