Seacoast Musician Mike Dunbar Explores How Sounds And Places Shape Each Other

Jan 30, 2016

The cover of Mike Dunbar's EP "Suitcase And Guitar In Hand," which was inspired by his road trip to some of America's top musical destinations.

A place can shape the music created there. And the music can return the favor and shape the place.

That’s the concept at the heart of Seacoast musician Mike Dunbar's new EP “Suitcase and Guitar in Hand.”

Dunbar and a fellow musician hit the road for six weeks, driving from the East Coast to the West, and stopping at some of the places that shaped the music they love – Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago and San Francisco, to name a few.

Dunbar talked with Weekend Edition about the record and the road trip that inspired it. 

How does setting foot in a musical mecca change the way you experience the music made there?

On the one hand you can say, yes, I know blues music, but at the same time you really just know this deracinated form of it that lacks any other context. That's something, especially with the age of the Internet, that's especially true. You can, growing up as a millennial now, I've been exposed to every genre of music in the world, and it's all at my fingertips. And yet the fact that you can do it so easily and without much sacrifice almost causes a disconnect, I think. That was part of what I wanted to explore was, what happens if you really go to these places? 

How much of that character is still there these days? Nashville is a great example of that - it's known for the Grand Ole Opry and the country music industry, and yet it's growing enormously these days, culturally, socially and economically, and you wonder whether its character is changing. 

Yeah. There's a lot of mythmaking that goes on, and there's a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy about places like this. We tried to keep in mind the fact that going to Memphis now is obviously different than going there in the 50s. But you're still going to Memphis, and you're still seeing at least the reverberation of what that culture was. A lot of the same things that were true back then, that helped make the music what it was, you can still find it. 

In Sun Records in Memphis, there's a piano that still has a burn mark from where Jerry Lee Lewis put out his cigar on one of the keys. In Fame Studios, we walked in, it was the end of the day, the intern said, "Oh, you want to play that Wurlitzer piano?" I said yeah, and he said, "You know the Aretha Franklin song 'I Never Loved A Man'? You know that little piano part in the beginning? That's the Wurlitzer." I got to play that piano. It's hard to overexaggerate how powerful it is to have that physical connection. It gives you a lot to think about - stuff that I'm still thinking about. 

You were not only looking to experience these musical destinations but to create some new music along the way. What's the push and pull like - is there a temptation to write a Memphis-style song or a Chicago-style song? And then does that still feel like a Mike Dunbar-style song?

The first thing I wanted to avoid was, oh, I'm going to write a blues song because I was in Chicago. The sound of the album incorporates those things that we heard - and it was great getting to hear so much live music - but those things are ingredients, as they should be. 

And then it was nice to be heading home again, because we'd been on the road for six weeks, and that's a long time. 

So there is a kind of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz "there's no place like home" quality? 

Right. And what was interesting was that Colin Garcia, my travel partner and fellow guitarist - the places we liked the most were always somehow in relationship to home, like, I really like this part of Arizona, it's like Portsmouth but more this or less this. Not only do these trips inform you about the places you've never been, they also help to inform your understanding of home.