Charleston-based songwriter Luke Cunningham grew up just a few miles from Muhlenberg County, Ky., the grandson of a moonshiner and the son of a country lawyer and writer, storytellers both. As a child, he rode around with his dad in a "loud as shit and unsightly" old green Chevrolet truck called the Green Tomato. Looking out the window once, he noticed that the hillsides looked strange and he asked his dad, "Why do the hillsides look like a Dr. Seuss book?" Over a beer last week, the local songwriter choked up as he tried to explain how much his father's response has shaped his life.
"This town used to be a place where your grandfather would come to vacation. It was called Paradise," Cunningham remembers his father saying. "And the coal company came and they basically ruined it all."
As he relayed this moment to me, like any good storyteller, his face told the story as much as his words.
"In the Green Tomato, I can feel the seat covers. I can tell you every detail," he says. "The stickshift, the smell of the vents. There wasn't good AC in it, there was a hint of gasoline in it, and I just remember him telling me this and him putting in the John Prine cassette tape, you know, 'Daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County,' and that song, it's hard for me to play. That was my dad and me. That's where I grew up. That's truth. But even better, it's a tribute to John Prine. He wrote something that is just the epitome of honesty, and I can't even talk about it, it's crazy how amazing that song is and how special it is to me."
The storytelling tradition is apparent on each track of Cunningham's new album, Heart Pressure. When you sit with him, his storyteller manner is inescapable. In the new documentary about the recent Mac'n at the Drome benefit concert for his close friend Mac Leaphart, Cunningham's stories — and the way he told them — almost steal the show.
"I had an edge because I lived with Mac when we went through some of the worst times of our lives together," Cunningham says about living with Leaphart in Los Angeles. "When you have that much time with somebody, you see the best and worst of them, and you see some hilarious shit too."
They joked about the strangeness of their L.A. peers, chuckling that,"The only two things they talk about are traffic and the weather: the only two goddamn things that never change." But the period was hard on both of them. They slept on couches or in cars, and they even considered living in garages and storage facilities.
"It was miserable, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me," Cunningham says, laughing at the rough go they had. "There are songs on Heart Pressure that hint to it. And it's not flattering to admit, but not having any money at all, and there's a 7-11 on the corner, and for an entire week, eating hot dogs and coffee, and the things that'll do to your digestive system are something you don't wish on anybody."
Cunningham remembers his rock bottom moment because he turned it into "Songs about California," the best track on the record, and because, he says, "I can never have a bad day after that."
After saving money for a new apartment for months, he got a call from his on-and-off girlfriend in New York, who wanted to give it one more chance. So he spent all his money to get there, only to have her change her mind — and have Delta lose his guitar and luggage.
"We're in this apartment in Little Italy in the summer, and it's hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock in that place," he says. "And every day she would take the one pair of clothes I had down to the Chinese laundromat. Meanwhile, I'd sit ass-naked in the bedroom of this woman I was no longer with, and it was just this crushing thing, especially because I knew I wasn't going to have a place to live when I got back."
After Leaphart picked him up at the airport, Cunningham remembers, "We're coming out of Burbank and through the valley, and I remember consciously sitting there and saying, 'I know for a fact this is the worst day of my life.'"
In the middle of a freak rainstorm, at a bar on Sunset Drive, Cunningham realized his week had been like a great country song. "And I'm like, yeah, I need to write it," he recalls. "But I said, fuck it man, there's too many goddamn songs about California. Everyone's got a California song, and it pisses me off. I thought, well, that's the hook."
Heart Pressure is so named because Cunningham says the songs involve the "push-pull" of relationships and life pressures. On "For the Best," he thought of how the farm boys in Kentucky and their high school girlfriends always split up when the girls go off to state college, and how, as he says, "sometimes things happen to demolish relationships that have nothing to do with love."
Crowfield guitarist Micah Nichols plays often with Cunningham. Nichols stepped in as the producer during the Heart Pressure sessions, and he tried to draw the best out of Cunningham along the way. With his trademark wit and self-deprecation, Cunningham says, "Look, I'm not Thom Yorke. I'd like to tell you that I pulled lyrics out of a hat and made a collage, but I'm not that cool. The majority of the song was there, but Micah would take it from the producer's standpoint and ball it up and kind of smash it on the floor in front of me. But he has a delicate way of saying, 'This is good, but let's rearrange the chord structure and do this,' and it always wound up being better that way."
During a recent Crowfield/Cunningham show in Wilmington N.C., Nichols and Cunningham performed a couple of Cunningham's new songs on the air at the alt-rock station Surf 98.3. A woman called in and told them she wanted to come out to see the show. "They'd already given away the tickets, but the DJ gave her another ticket anyway, and she was like, 'Well OK, I'm really short, my name's Mary,'" Cunningham says. A small woman walked in when he was one song into his set. "She's in her 60s, and she's really short," Cunningham remembers. "We started into the song we played on the radio and said, 'This is for Mary,' and her eyes just beamed up, and she's doing this thing with her head where you can tell she's really taking it all in. I go over to her after the show and — not to be cheesy, but this is one of those things, things like this can fuel you as a songwriter for a long time — she goes, 'I haven't been downtown in years. I was a victim of sexual abuse in West Virginia and I've been so introverted that I never go out. I felt like myself for the first time in years tonight."
Random connections and experiences like this fuel Cunningham's song ideas. He savors the moments.
"You never know how you can indirectly touch people and never know it," he continues. "I asked my dad one time, 'What's the definition of success, how will I know if I made it?' and he goes, 'Did it matter to someone?' And I think about that every day. When it stops mattering to someone, I'll stop doing it."
Cunningham recently performed a new song titled "Between a Rock and a Heartache" at the Charleston Sound Sessions, which aired on the Bridge at 105.5 this week. See 1055thebridge.com for more.