“The road is waiting,
Start the car and drive”
The music of New Orleans courses through singer/songwriter/pianist Travers Geoffray’s veins like the Mississippi River cuts across the South. His great-grandfather Fernand Maris Geoffray arrived there from Paris in 1910 and played viola for the New Orleans Opera, as did his son Rudolph Cesar, who was good friends with trumpet player Al Hirt. His father was the leader of the USO band while stationed in Vietnam, and passed that musical legacy to Travers, who studied classical, then jazz, piano at the prestigious Levine School of Music in Washington, DC.
His solo debut, Highway Kings, is steeped in the sounds of the city where he moved from his hometown of Alexandria, VA, at 18 to attend Tulane University. While still an undergraduate, Travers formed his first band, Mississippi Rail Company, which made its mark with appearances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Voodoo Fest.
You can hear the Crescent City in his piano playing, steeped in the classic ragtime-turned-stride styles of Ferdinand Joseph “Jelly Roll Morton,” LaMothe Henry “Professor Longhair” Byrd, Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, Antoine “Fats” Domino and James Booker, honed under the tutelage of legendary local keyboardist Tom McDermott.
Produced by Grammy-winning gospel/bluegrass vet Michael Latterel (Jim Lauderdale, Rhonda Vincent] at Nashville’s House of Blues Studio, Highway Kings is about the lures and pitfalls of the open road, stretching like an empty canvas before him, as Travers starts up the engine of his solo career, examining what makes him tick. The new songs were more introspective, varied, and less about maintaining that party atmosphere all night long.
“This album became such an intense and personal project that I felt it had to come out under my name,” he explains. “It sounded like me. And that’s how other people seemed to relate to it. It’s more transparent as the statement of an individual, rather than a band.”
Combining the organic Americana roots of Sturgill Simpson, the lyrical depth of Jason Isbell and Tom Waits’ Tin Pan Alley/country-blues hybrid story-telling, Highway Kings’ songs are both literary and cinematic, evoking the epic sweep of The Grapes of Wrath in the title track, with its trip through Oklahoma and “the buffalos on golden prairies up above the Utah sky,” ending up at the “crystal shores” of California.
“I love the mystique of the open road and traveling,” he says. “Many of these songs are not just about physical trips, but the imaginary ones we go on in our heads, because a lot of people can’t just pick up and go when they please.”
There are echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and the Border trilogy in the wide-screen orchestral scope of “Ride Out West,” its melodic peak riding a south-of-the-border feel which evokes both Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a fantasy about being a cowboy, “even when the reality can be pretty cruel.”
“McCarthy’s books just hit home for me,” says Travers, who also gleaned some inspiration from a college course he took at Tulane dubbed, “The American Hobo Hero,” where he saw movies like John Schlesinger’s gritty Midnight Cowboy. “His style is just very simple and elegant in writing about the basis of what it means to be human. There’s nothing complicated – just you live, you die and in between, you go where you need to go. Your fate is in your own hands, until it’s not.”
And then there are tracks that offer the pure exhilarating rush of the dance floor in the speeded-up, chugging Chuck Berry rockabilly of “Drive” and the ragtime funk of “Mabel,” reminiscent of both The Band at its most downhome and the boozy, tongue-in-cheek playfulness of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Counterbalancing that are the sepulchral, plaintive “Oh, Alabama” and the dirge-like “Wake,” the former featuring the mournful clarinet of Jeff Coffin, the ex-Flecktone member who now plays with the Dave Matthews Band, the latter a wailing, chilling saxophone solo.
What makes Geoffray’s music endure, though, is his commitment to the melodies and harmonies of classic American songwriting tropes, from the musical theater to the Brill Building. You can hear it in the simple pop piano progression on “Don’t Stop,” a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on your local Top 40 station, at least the ones who still play Coldplay or U2. “Hold over my ears magnificent sound,” sings Travers, and that’s exactly what he’s created here.
Influenced equally by the travels of Harry and Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber, Tommy Callahan and Richard Hayden in Tommy Boy and his favorite childhood comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, Highway Kings puts the listener in the driver’s seat, behind the wheel and invites us to turn the key.
By the time, we get to the album closer, “Take Me Home,” a tribute to his sweet Virginia birthplace, Travers admits, “There are times when you have to take off your shoes, eat a warm meal and be with family and friends. It just makes going out on the road that much better.”
And that’s exactly where Geoffray will find himself in the coming months. With an appearance at this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on tap, he is ready to take his band and play the new songs to see how audiences react.
“I walked across temperamental seas,
Writing stories never told,
Over hills and purple meadows,
I found heaven on my own,”
“Take Me Home”
“My biggest goal would be just to be able to get to the point where I can make another record,” he says when asked about future ambitions. I’ve already started developing more material that’s even better. This album helped me develop that process, and I just want to continue mastering it. If I can get there, I’ll be happy.”
Start the car and drive. This trip is just beginning.