Grace Potter returns to JAS Labor Day Experience with ‘Mother Road’
There is nothing more Americana than the idea of the great American road trip.
From Jack Kerouac to John Steinbeck, Robert M. Pirsig to Hunter S. Thompson, American authors, filmmakers, artists, and musicians have ingrained into our collective consciousness the feeling of liberation and freedom that comes from hitting the open road with a loose itinerary and a longing for adventure.
But for three-time Grammy award nominee, singer, songwriter, and musician Grace Potter, it’s also more than that, serving as the cathartic experience and inspiration for her fifth full-length release, “Mother Road,” which she will be supporting during her upcoming appearance at JAS Labor Day on Friday.
“Mother Road” takes its title from John Steinbeck’s description of Route 66 in “The Grapes of Wrath,” from the passage that reads, “The Mother of all roads … the road of flight.” It is a personal account of Potter’s combination of several solo road trips on the legendary roadway after a time of personal loss and tragedy, in which she came to realize she wasn’t flying free but running away.
The album can best be described as cinematic because of the vivid scenes, physical landscapes, and colorful characters she invokes through both the music and lyrics, expertly taking the audience along on her journey. The sound is expansive and includes veins of soulful rock, funk, country, and R&B that heighten her distinct and powerful voice.
For this album, she again collaborated with producer (and husband) Eric Valentine, with contributions from guitarist Nick Bockrath, bassist Tim Deaux, drummer Matt Musty, pedal steel guitarist Dan Kalisher, and keyboardist Benmont Tench.
Potter is no stranger to the Roaring Fork Valley, having played in Aspen and at JAS Labor Day several times throughout the years, going back to her early career days with Grace Potter and The Nocturnals. She said she feels a connection to Aspen because it reminds her so much of her hometown of Burlington, Vermont, which she called “Aspen of the East,” citing the influence of ski culture, the arts, reliance on tourism, and the influx of the wealthy as similarities the two places share.
We spoke with her via telephone from her home in Vermont to discuss her return to Aspen, the healing nature of road trips, and why she feels like she’s just getting started.
Here are excerpts from that conversation:
The Aspen Times: You’ve played in the Aspen area multiple times. Do you remember the first?
Grace Potter: The first trip I ever took out of Vermont in an RV with the band was back in the early aughts. We drove across the country for the very first gig that we were supposed to play, which was opening for Tea Leaf Green at Belly Up. The RV broke down, and we never made it. Not for that gig. We ended up living for two weeks at an RV repair shop on peanut butter/jelly sandwiches. Yeah. It was awesome. Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to return many times since then.
AT: Several years ago, you went through some heavy personal stuff; first, a divorce, and later, you suffered a miscarriage followed by a bout of depression. Why did you choose to take a cross-country road trip at that time?
GP: There was no other option. My body often will just do what my brain doesn’t. There’s an agreement I made early in my adulthood, from my early 20s on, most of the time when it came to writing albums — my solution was to just get in the car and get away. This time, I had a lot more foresight and more of an understanding of what had gotten me there. I was in therapy for the first time, and I was asking those harder questions. I had a lot of stuff to weed through, and I thought that a great, American road trip would be a good starting point.
AT: You’ve been on the road for over 20 years, so I assume you have been on Route 66 many times. Why revisit it?
GP: I wanted to visit my grandparent’s grave in Albuquerque, and I knew that Southwest swing was part of the journey. During my childhood, my parents were going through a tough time financially, and we ended up in Albuquerque for a couple of winters. I was living with my grandparents, and we were just trying to get back on our feet. That time engaged a transformation in me at the age of like 9. I always found myself going back there because it’s such an alien land to me compared to Vermont, and it really forces me to look in the mirror.
Albuquerque is a reminder that nothing I know is the only truth. Nothing that I have in my container that I’m holding onto is the only way to look at things because everything is different there, at least my surroundings are. It really allows me to understand more about my better self my, higher self, or something like that because I have a lot of respect for my grandparents, and that’s where I go to get wise.
AT: Did you initially set off to write an album?
GP: That was a big revelation, was that I had all these memories I had been putting down into stories; I didn’t recognize that they were about me until about halfway through the first road trip. There was a lot of woulda, coulda, shoulda — a questioning of multiple realities and roads not taken and what else I would have been doing. I saw other younger and older versions of myself that were existing on a different plane. You know, it’s grieving and letting go. And it’s also celebrating and chasing down the unfinished sentences in one journey.
AT: That’s a very difficult thing to do, to grieve the past and what could have been.
GP: It is, and I think I hadn’t understood that it was grieving. I felt like I was just going crazy, you know? Many people when they’re going through grief or have experienced tragedy or trauma have those feelings. So, as I’m seeing these characters, and I’m starting to envision something; it wasn’t songs. While I was driving, it was more like a movie because that was the only way that I could explain it.
AT: What music were you listening to while on the road?
GP: Oh, that’s a good question. Each trip had a slightly different bent to it. The first trip was mostly heavy metal from the late ’80s and early ’90s. It was Van Halen. It was Whitesnake. I went all the way down the rabbit hole of hair metal. Growing up in Vermont, I saw those posters, and I would see these rock concerts, and I’d see these movies and suddenly care about stuff that was beyond myself. I stayed focused by listening to music that was not anything I’d heard in a really long time. And it’s part of the reason why you see that sort of early ’90s, hyper-commercial aesthetic on the record packaging.
My husband Eric was in a band called T-Ride from Northern California. There was a moment when I listened to the whole record that they made, which just kept me awake because I knew that there was someone behind it that I could summon his mind up in my head and think about the way he thinks.
The second road trip was all spaghetti westerns and books on tape. I was listening to “Travels with Charley” and “Grapes of Wrath.” So there wasn’t quite as much music on the second trip. It was more storytelling.
Then the third trip country music started to seep in; Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Townes Van Zandt, and Emmylou Harris.
AT: On the track “Little Hitchhiker,” you harken back to your 9-year-old self who ran away in a bathing suit and sneakers to find better snacks. What would you tell her today?
GP: Trust your gut, be brave. Don’t ever let a man tell you that they know better or that you shouldn’t be there. I have the greatest respect for my 9-year-old self because she was living on instinct and living on bravery. And somewhere in there, around the seventh grade, you start to stop trusting yourself, and you start to buy into the stories that other people are trying to tell around you and the social constructs. I would tell her to ignore that and trust her own instincts.
AT: Are you looking forward to returning to Aspen?
GP: Oh yeah, I love the journey so much that I decided to drive myself from Denver because I miss being in the car.
The journey is not over for me. I think “Mother Road” is the beginning of a conversation. There are so many more questions now than there were years ago when I would finish a record and say, ‘Done, Cool. Here we go.’ But I think that’s what touring is for. I like to work it out on the road in front of people. You need an audience. And I’m just so excited. This is the fifth or sixth time I will be going to Colorado leading up to this album coming out. So clearly, Colorado is one of the founding places for this music. It keeps calling me back.
Grace Potter will be performing at 6 p.m. on Friday ahead of The Lumineers.
For more information about JAS Labor Day Experience and tickets, go to jazzaspensnowmass.org/labor-day-experience.
On Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, from 5-7 p.m., Berklee College of Music / Berklee City Music and Jazz Aspen Snowmass (JAS) will host a workshop for middle and high school students focused on pursuing a college education and careers in music and the music industry.