Desoto Rust: (from left) Steve Savage (bass, slide guitar), Ray Hunter (rhythm guitar, lead vocals, songwriter); Dave Reeve (drums); David Otwell (lead guitar, mandolin, vocals, songwriter): ‘On this album we really wanted to combine the sense of fine-tuned production to bring out all the elements of what it is that we do,’ says Ray Hunter. But at the same time we wanted to keep that bar-roots sense of where we are at.’

Artists On the Verge 2010

Let’s Get It Goin’ Til the Break of Dawn

On Highway Gothic, DeSoto Rust Roars With Blue-Collar Fury

By David McGee

“La-da-na-na-na-na-na/La-da-na-na-na-na-na/La-da-na-na-na-na-na/la-na-na-na/na-na-na-ah…weekends at the old hole/They got it going on without a care…”

Thus the first few, adrenaline-charged, relentlessly pounding seconds of “All Riders…All Nighters,” a gritty, unsparing celebration of, if you will, “the subtle life of a music man,” as the song says, full of the Friday night “smell of booze and sin” and gassed up girls that “spit you out, then they’ll take you in,” culminating in the exhortation to “all you riders, and all nighters/let’s get it going til the break of dawn…” Come Monday morning, the girl is gone for good, the music man is gearing up to return to the hole “for pay and booze and overnight affairs/Yeah, you know we’ll be playing there.”

The bluesy, husky voice of Ray Hunter telling this tale brooks no doubts as to the authenticity of its feeling—it’s coming from a place it knows all too well. Similarly, the musicians behind the voice are pushing the anthemic “All Riders…All Nighters” into Springsteen/Spectorian grandeur, with a booming, ferocious, basic band assault, and celebration is in the air. Within the mundane facts of the music man’s existence lies a proud nobility of purpose—women come and go, but on Friday night, he takes the stage and cranks it up again, gets it going til the break of dawn.

You don’t even have to get all the way through “All Riders…All Nighters,” the leadoff track on DeSoto Rust’s third album, Highway Gothic (so named after the 1940s highway signage font now being phased out by the Federal Highway Administration in favor of a custom typeface called Clearview that is easier to read, especially at night, and at speeds above 65 MPH), to know this band is for real, and understands rock ‘n’ roll not as some precious, artsy-fartsy intellectual endeavor (all Brooklyn bands take note), but rather as how it’s been defined in its purest form since the day in 1954 when a certain 19-year-old electric company truck driver celebrated elsewhere in this issue walked into the Memphis Recording Service and cut revved up versions of Arthur Crudup’s blues, “That’s All Right,” and Bill Monroe’s bluegrass ballad, “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and was closely followed in that pursuit by a quartet out of Jackson, TN, that had been playing hopped-up honky tonk music for years, led by a gifted guitar picker/writer/singer named Carl Perkins. Just as Perkins made poetry of the lives and culture of poor white southerners; just as John Fogerty tapped into something primordial about the common man’s feelings; just as Springsteen went from romanticized reflections on youthful strivings for dignity and identity to piercing ruminations on working class life and various social issues; so do the musicians in DeSoto Rust cast their lot with the most enduring strain of American rock ‘n’ roll, that which mates a fierce, pounding rhythmic charge and snarling electric guitars to striking, populist poetry, ringing melodies, emotionally gripping vocals and a sense that, with each note, something is at stake. Certainly that’s the case with the music man who will not be deterred from serving the people every Friday night in “All Riders…All Nighters.” It is surely the case with three truckers who figure in a trio of the album’s most dramatic songs: one who is most alive on the “Open Road,” a study in relentless propulsion and snarling slide guitars circa late ‘60s-early ‘70s primetime Stones, in service to a love song to the “open road that runs true, from morning light to midnight blue”; one who will not be deterred from making his runs by fines for being “Two Loads Overweight,” not when there’s fleeting solace to be had in the arms of the sheriff’s wife, who “may be crazy and a little bit big, but boy she’ll fit in the cab of my rig,” before he moves it on down the line, never to return (the anxiousness of the trucker’s quest to keep it rollin’ is humorously underscored by guitarist David Otwell’s appropriation and variation on a signature Duane Eddy twangin’ guitar riff from “Forty Miles of Bad Road”); and, most poignantly, in the determined crunch and ringing guitars of “Northern Road,” profiling a fellow who is conflicted by his love of a rig that allows him to escape “who I was, or the deals I made,” even as his heart yearns for his wife and sons.

And nowhere is more at stake than in the country-inflected shuffle of “Six Appeals,” a modern re-telling of the High Noon showdown, its protagonist being a lawman who’s ready to hang it up at 43, but is headed for a set-to with a gang newly pardoned from prison and coming back to settle an old score with the sheriff who cleaned up the town they once terrorized. The populace is urging him to flee, he’s ready to head out of Kansas and settle down with Ginger Mae in Carolina, but “this lonely law abiding man” is not going to leave the environs to the McKinney bunch. “I’m the law,” he growls with determined menace, “got six appeals in each nickel plated round.”

In the DeSoto Rust universe, nothing comes easy, romance least of all. In David Otwell’s southwestern-style country rocker, “Way Back to You,” the main character is in precipitous, emotional free-fall after breaking up with his gal and seeing no  hope for reconciliation; in the graceful, loping rhythm and dense textures of acoustic and electric guitars defining the soundscape of “Weather” emerges a bittersweet story of a doomed relationship getting ready to mark its final scene—“You know some things ain’t never meant to last/Janey knows it too and that’s why she’s sleeping with me/and I don’t want to blame the weather no more…”

Surprisingly, though, the penultimate song (but the final one listed on the album credits) bursts forth with light and promise: in “You Can Wait On His Memory,” the message is from a man telling a woman she can choose betweensomeone who’s already let her down or “you can answer my call/You can spend your whole lifetime/Waiting on nothing at all,” in an arrangement bursting with soaring background voices, howling electric guitars and stomping rhythm. Which is immediately followed by the unlisted track, a bustling, celebratory rendition of Bob Dylan’s “New Morning” that gives Highway Gothic a sunrise sendoff, the band emerging from the shadows and darkness permeating its narrative, no longer fearing what lies ahead, but anticipating a fresh start at, well, everything. So ends the journey of Highway Gothic, a title as well suited to an album’s content as any other in memory, given how the road, and certain heightened fears of imminent demise, define the atmosphere and subtext herein.

As listeners, we arrive at the end of Highway Gothic; as a band, DeSoto Rust arrives with Highway Gothic. It’s a quantum leap ahead of where the roots rockers were at after two previous albums, and by all rights should signal their emergence into the top ranks of America’s rock ‘n’ roll bands. If this were a Battlestar Galactica episode, readers would hereby be instructed to repeat after their faithful friend and narrator: “So say we all!”

DeSoto Rust, ‘San Angelo,’ from the album Highway Gothic, Cherrywood Grill (New Jersey), March 14, 2009. Ray Hunter, lead vocals/rhythm guitar; David Otwell, lead guitar; Steve Savage, bass; Dave Reeve, drums.

All residing in or around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, now, the members of DeSoto Rust have long histories with each other. Lead guitarist David Otwell was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, grew up in New Orleans, and moved to Philadelphia with his wife in 1986, when she took a job at Temple University; lead singer/lyricist Ray Hunter grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and met Otwell in 1993, through a mutual friend; the rhythm section of bassist Steve Savage and drummer Dave Reeve date their friendship from their childhood days in southern New Jersey, and played the Jersey Shore circuit in various bands during their early professional years. But Reeve and Savage are also the newest members of DeSoto Rust; before they came aboard, Mike Simmons was on bass and Jane Sennett on drums, and the band, circa 2002, was called Heart Like Mine. On the website, Simmons, who was also one of two principal songwriters in the band (along with Hunter, plus an occasional contribution from Otwell) and its producer as well, describes their sound as “a lot different then, some punk tunes and some long, rambling ‘Elvis Costello-esque’ songs and a few other twangy/folky songs. Eventually we focused on the twangy side of our sound. Ray re-dubbed the band DeSoto Rust and we recorded a demo to help get gigs. Things got a little too twangy for Jane and she left the band,” to be replaced by Reeve. Simmons too would leave the band, in 2006, but not until he had produced the first two DeSoto Rust discs, a straightforward, self-titled debut, and a more ambitious sophomore album, Greene Country Towne, the name coming from William Penn’s long-ago vision of his new city, the sound being broadened out to include organ, piano, pedal steel and female backup singers, and the concept being, according to Ray Hunter, an “Americana Rock Opera.” When Simmons departed, Reeve recommended his friend Savage for the open bass spot, and DeSoto Rust was a quartet again.

What is most evident from listening to all three DeSoto Rust albums, though, is how quickly the band found its voice—the themes of people alone and best left alone, and many of them out on the road trying to get to some better place in their lives or within themselves, though present in many of the songs on the first two albums, flower fully on Highway Gothic. As Otwell tells it, this has been the blueprint from the start, refined along the way.

“When Heart Like Mine went on the rocks and we found Mike, we actually sat down—and this is the first time this has happened with any group of people I’ve played with—and decided what we wanted to be and what we wanted to aim for,” Otwell says. “ If anything, we’ve maybe loosened up a little bit on that. In other words, we very much were saying from the git-go, alt-country, Americana, trying to narrow our focus more. I think we’ve loosened up on this album; I think parts of it are maybe a little more overtly rock ‘n’ roll, roots rock. That was a key part of it. That’s a tough thing to stick to, and Ray in particular is incredibly prolific with songwriting, bringing in ideas for songs, to the point where the hardest part is turning stuff away, saying, ‘That’s great but that’s not our sound, that’s not what we’re good at.’ That’s one of the things that’s gotten easier and more intuitive the longer we’ve played together. But we actually did set out to do what we’re doing, rather than stumbling into it or evolving into it.”

To Hunter, Highway Gothic is indeed the culmination of a process that began with the debut album in terms of defining DeSoto Rust’s sensibilities, and it reflects the multitude of influences the musicians lean on. “On this album we really wanted to combine the sense of fine-tuned production to bring out all the elements of what it is that we do. But at the same time we wanted to keep that bar-roots sense of where we are at. Stones is a good point to look at. We’ve always appreciated Gram Parsons’ work as well. For me personally, I grew up listening to Credence Clearwater Revival, so I’ve always been into that—decent stories told in a short amount of time, definitely get the point across and more or less finish a song and leave you wanting to hear it again or wanting to hear more of the same thing. That’s kind of where I went with Highway Gothic, wanted to leave you wanting to hear the next tune or, if you want to hear it again, skip it back and play it again. There are so many different influences we all have that I could talk all night about them.”

DeSoto Rust, ‘Two Loads Overweight,’ from the album Highway Gothic, Cherrywood Grill (New Jersey), March 14, 2009.

Highway Gothic departs from the band’s first two efforts, though, in a couple of significant ways. First, with Simmons gone, Joe Carroll was enlisted as producer, his work with Tom Gillam being a big calling card with all the members of DeSoto Rust. Second, whereas on the first two albums the songwriting was almost evenly divided between Simmons and Hunter, this one lists Hunter as the sole lyricist (except for the song “Way Back to You,” by Otwell), with music by DeSoto Rust.

Carroll behind the board brought all the best elements of DeSoto Rust to the fore. He knew the band from having heard  them on dates with Gillam (he’s in Gillam’s band as well), and he had the studio savvy to bring new ideas into play to juice up the songs.

Otwell: “Joe added a tremendous amount to the process. For one thing, self producing as opposed to having an outside producer, there are pros and cons either way. We felt like, for us at this point, it was really important to have another set of ears, basically somebody who could tell us, ‘Yeah, you think that’s how you want it to sound, but trust me.’ And as a matter of fact, we did some raw demos for Joe in advance of the studio time, and when we showed up, one of the first things he said was, the tune that opens the album, ‘All Riders…All Nighters,’ was originally performed at about half the speed as you hear it now. He said, ‘I really hear this song a lot faster. It’s up to you, but why don’t you try speeding up the song?’ So we did, and it worked, although it was six weeks, two months after we actually recorded it like that that we felt comfortable with it to actually perform it that way—that’s how much of a radical change it was. In retrospect he was absolutely, totally right about it. That’s probably the biggest single thing he did. But we also took advantage of being in a really large studio, and were able to do some things sonically, particularly with my guitars, that wouldn’t have been possible in a smaller place. We were able to do mic placements at the speaker, 20 feet away, all sorts of stuff. Joe was really good at figuring out on the fly ‘let’s try this, let’s try that.’”

“What we always liked about Joe is that he has a strong understanding of how the music flows and how it should sound,” adds Hunter. “To be honest with you I was kinda flying blind because I had met Joe a couple of times, had a couple of beers with him, chatted, stuff like that, and we obviously saw eye to eye on a lot of things. But when the opportunity was presented to have him come in with us, based on some of the works I’ve heard him produce, especially with Tom Gillam’s work, I was really excited. Joe has this really nice sense of allowing the performers to dictate the terms as to what musically needs to be done. One thing, you don’t want to do is to impair the growth of what you do musically by having somebody come in and bark orders at you. There are some groups out there that need that, but that’s not necessarily for us. (laughs) He kinda knew where we were going with this album, and he had heard us a couple of times previously at other venues, so he had an understanding as to who we were and what we wanted to do. Basically, when we were working in the studio together, he allowed us to hold the reins on a lot of things.”

DeSoto Rust, ‘Dirt Track Mile,’ from the album Highway Gothic, Cherrywood Grill (New Jersey), March 14, 2009

This is the nuts-and-bolts of how DeSoto Rust and Highway Gothic came together. It does not speak to, however, the band’s pronounced affinity for and empathy with the working class, and the specific dramas of that world. In part this is because the musicians are speaking of what they know; in part, it’s because in Ray Hunter they have a writer who works as much from imagination as he does from personal experience, with all ideas filtered through the prism of personal experience and values.

“I would speculate that to the extent that any of us have been to college, we are probably the first in our families,” Otwell says of the band members’ backgrounds. “My father was an accountant, and I wouldn’t consider that blue collar, but by the same token, he grew up on a farm during the Depression. So I think there is a lot of that, and I think it’s also true because we’re older—you know, most of us have to get older to experience disappointment, in order to really experience the sort of curveballs that life can throw. A lot of people are lucky enough to make it well into their 20s before bad stuff happens to them. So as you get older you recognize how close we all live to the edge—let’s face it, if Tiger Woods had just made it out of the driveway that morning, who knows?”

“I don’t know that my story is any different from anybody else’s,” says Hunter. “Grew up in and around the Philadelphia area, folks split up when I was pretty young, ten or eleven or so, and I just got to watch how a lot of people function in their day to day lives. Growing up I can remember my dad, who would work an eight- to ten-hour job, come home, have enough time to feed myself and my brother, and he had to hit the books so he could go to school. Then he had a weekend job hauling canoes, so he had a lot of stuff on his plate and very little time for himself. It is a unique story, but I’ll be honest with you, I’m pretty sure there’s quite a few people that have had the same experience out there. Like I say, you pick different things from different places; sometimes you can just come up with something that really sticks. When I wrote ‘Two Loads Overweight,’ that was a just a fun story that I concocted. It flowed well from beginning to end, had a catchy little hook to it. There were other songs, like ‘Northern Road,’ that came about when I had jury duty a while ago. I never come prepared for jury duty. I don’t like jury duty, never thought I’d have to serve it and was stuck in the middle of it. I grab a three-day-old newspaper that was sitting on the back shelf and was leafing through it. The most interesting thing was in the entertainment section, where a writer had penned a half-page article about this television show that was previewing called Ice Road Truckers. To be honest, I could give a damn about the TV show but the way this writer penned the stories of these guys and what they had to go through, riding on this northern road coming up in Canada, it was a real gripping story. Just to see it in black and white it spurred enough in me to pen a pretty decent tune, so like I said, it’s basically what you see and what you read, and of course there are plenty of stories in my past that have influenced the songs on this album, too.

“You know,” he adds, “one of the things I wanted to do with this album to simplify the writing. The previous two albums I was a little bit more politically involved, I was reading certain things, I can’t pin one author or novel or even a group of stories down that would describe my influences. My influences are what goes on around me, what could go on around me and what has gone on around me. But this album, I really wanted to strip it down to basics, didn’t want to get overcomplicated, didn’t want to get too poetic, didn’t want to write lyrics that would send you to a dictionary to look up something and go, ‘Oh, that’s what he meant.’ I tried to strip it down and keep it very basic on this album. Honestly, I’m a watcher, and I like watching how other people dictate their lives. I get a sense of enjoyment at seeing how people dictate their terms and go through the motions; it helps me as a story writer. When I write tunes, there’s two simple approaches: I either come up with a pretty decent hook musically, come up with a series of chords that work for me; or I’ll just pen a story about anything—about lost love, about being stuck on a dead-end road and trying to look for some way to get off of it—and take it from there.”

The Highway Gothic typeface (left) and its replacement font, Clearview, at right

Complimented for resurrecting the Highway Gothic font that many Americans have seen on highway signage for most of their lives but probably never knew had a proper name, Otwell laughs and notes he had it filed away for a long time, waiting for the right moment to use and hoping others wouldn’t get it first.

“This is one of those things where you run into stuff and you just file it away. It was actually a piece in the New York Times Magazine about three years ago when the highway department started converting from Highway Gothic, which is falling out of favor now, to the new font, Clearview. When I saw that the AJ san serif, which is the technical name, was colloquially called Highway Gothic, I just thought, Holy shit! That’s great! Gotta use this! And of course, this past three years my big fear was that someone else was going to get to it first. One of those things—you pick up something, open it up and there it is.”

[Editor’s Note: The New York Times Magazine story, “The Road to Clarity,” by Joshua Yaffa, was published in the August 12, 2007 edition. Typeface and signage junkies can access the story online at]

As intriguing as are the original songs DeSoto Rust offers, its choice of Dylan’s “New Morning” as a cover is inspired, being that the song is hardly the best known Dylan tune, one hardly ever referenced even by Dylan scholars. Otwell says the band “DeSoto-rized” it by bumping up the tempo, but it was done mostly as an exercise, possibly to be given away free on the band website if it came out right. “But then we hear it on the first mix and it was, ‘Oh, crap, we’re gonna have to do something with this,’” he recalls.

“It is a DeSoto Rust cover tune,” Hunter adds, “but it strays off the beaten path of how we perform ourselves. But all in all, it’s still a fun tune to play and we do put a totally different spin on it than what you’ve heard before.”

More than anything, Highway Gothic has given the musicians in DeSoto Rust a jolt. It’s an album to build on, and sothey are, with plans afoot for a spring tour down south, a possible appearance at South by Southwest, taking it to the people—in a phrase, working it, much like the characters in their songs work it for all it’s worth.

“I feel rejuvenated,” says Hunter. “We’ve been together six years now. I’ve known David since 1993 or so. The first album was what I like to think of as a knock on the door. Just letting people know who we are, this is how we do our thing, this is where we’re coming from and we hope you like it. We got a good response from a lot of people, especially over the pond. Dutch radio really picked up on what we were doing and gave us enough energy to try to accomplish Greene Country Town. For me personally, Greene Country Town, we approached it more as an independent studio session kind of thing. We would come in and put down the base ideas and then everybody would come in individually and put their two cents in. Which I thought isolated us as musicians a little bit more. We weren’t working so much as a unit as we were on the first album. Greene Country Town was a much more polished album than the first one, but for me personally I feel a little isolated from it because it wasn’t so much of a group effort. I really wanted to get back to working as a collective unit, because I felt that was our strength. That’s where we get the most response and we get the most energy to go ahead and do what we want and need to do. That was basically what Highway Gothic was about—trying to pull ourselves together and even take it up a step. I think it’s the best album we have of all three. I’m really, really hoping a lot of people pick it up and it will go someplace. And we are planning in March to take our first tour and go down south, try to get the word out there as to who we are and what we do. Take it from there. It’s been a lot of fun, ran into a whole slew of interesting people out there, and it will be nice to spread out a little further and see where this baby goes. I’d just like to get the word out there so people know who we are, and hopefully they’ll enjoy what we do.”

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Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024