Kerouac hopped freight trains cross-country and years later returned East to write about his adventures in what would be deemed one of the greatest American novels, “On the Road.”
The open road has inspired “Blue Highways,” “Travels with Charley,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Graceland.”
Swiss photographer Robert Frank gained world renown for his images captured during his travels in the States. Robert Johnson hit the road to busk and play plantations and, as the story goes, sold his soul to the devil in the process. Woody Guthrie famously rode the rails and lived, for a time, as a hobo poet, resulting in gems like “This Land Is Your Land.”
Like countless artists who came before him, Phillips Saylor Wisor, an outsider folk music artist based in Brunswick, embraces his wanderlust and uses his experiences on the road as material for his creative work.
His most recent release, “Distant,” the 2021 Wammie Award Winner for Best Folk Album, pays homage to those spaces found outside of the everyday, when wandering open, two-lane highways — and, in Phillips’ case, stopping at random crossroads to play music and see who, if anyone, stops to talk.
“There are these times when I go out rubber tramping, just get everything in the truck and go out for a month and come back, and these are the songs that have been of that experience,” Wisor said from his home in Brunswick. “Some people like going to the beach. I love driving. It’s just what I’ve always loved to do.”
These periods of drifting are part of his process.
“I’ve studied ethnomusicology, I’m a total folk nerd, and this is going to sound really pompous, but there’s the myth of Robert Johnson going to the crossroads — and there are all these cultural lenses to view that story through, but the point is there’s a crossroads, there’s a guy with a guitar, and there’s a chance meeting with a stranger,” Wisor said. “Years ago, I had this notion, like, what if I just go out and do that and then see what happens. And that’s what I did. I went out, no highways, and would find an interesting or beautiful place to pull over, and I’d just play until someone stopped. And someone always stops. Then you have a brief conversation. Sometimes you have a long conversation.”
“Susan at the Crossroads,” the first track on “Distant,” is an obvious example of one such result.
Don’t you tell me about your maker
I know him well, but we are good
go to hell, you pretty faker
you know what I could make with guitar wood
I am going to explode ...
I believe Susan at the crossroads
Oh, her hair, dark as the river
mourning doves find her there
and her skin is smooth as winter
I may drown or I may freeze
I am going to do what I’m told
I am telling Susan at the crossroads
Wisor was born in D.C., raised in Darnestown, and then, as he puts it, “drifted for a long time.” He left Maryland at age 16 and took to the road for the next few years, before attending college in New England. In 2003, he started what he considers his first professional band, the Shiftless Rounders, an old-time duo that toured extensively for five years, including a stint as the opening act for the Be Good Tanyas.
By 2008, Wisor returned to D.C. and began writing and recording solo material under the name Stripmall Ballads, a homage to the Woody Guthrie album “Dust Bowl Ballads.”
“That record is amazing. I got it as a teenager and just played the tape all the time,” Wisor said. “After that came out, he was billed as the Dust Bowl Balladeer, even though he went on to write all these songs on all these different topics and was so broad and so prolific. … I was thinking about where I grew up, watching all of Darnestown and these beautiful, rolling hills become, like, strip malls. And homogenized. As a banjo player and a lover of folk music, you’d imagine I’d come from this rustic background or upbringing, that I’m ‘from the hollers’ of … somewhere. And I’m just not. … I embrace it.”
While living in D.C., he linked up with clawhammer banjoist Brad Park, who recorded his first solo album, “Since Jimmy Died.” Park brought his recording equipment to Wisor’s home, and they recorded the entire album in one sitting, about three to four hours, inside Wisor’s kitchen.
“I’d been in music scenes forever and am a bit of a music snob, and the first time I heard him, I was blown away,” Park said. “I was initially drawn to old-time music because of those old, melancholic murder ballads, and a lot of his material has this sort of plaintive and melancholic pathos about it.”
After recording the album, Wisor went on tour again, this time as Stripmall Ballads.
He went onto record another four albums before moving to Brunswick a few years ago, an area he’s visited since he was a kid and has always enjoyed.
The pandemic undoubtedly shifted his life a bit, as he’s not been able to perform live shows for the past year at venues he frequented prior to 2020, one of his favorites being the Guide House Grill in Knoxville, but it’s been productive.
He’s performed a few live-streamed shows from what he calls his Garage of Solitude (aka his garage) — “a cool way to connect, but it’s surreal,” he said. “There’s a new venue in every town, and it’s your phone.”
He’s continued to teach guitar, mandolin and banjo lessons, which he’s done for the past 10 years in D.C. and now virtually.
And he’s working on what will likely become a future album, a collection of Richard Brautigan poems that Wisor has turned into songs.
He’s also been tasked with writing a new version of “The Hobo Shuffle” for this year’s National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, an event he tries to get to ever year.
“He’s one of the best players I know — he’s got some serious chops — but he’s a folk musician in a very broad sense. He’s always had a broader artist’s eye,” Park said.
While living in D.C., for instance, Wisor created the DC Banjo Insanity Collective and hosted old-time bands at a coffeeshop that would soon become standing room only events, Park said. “It was kind of ground zero for folk music in D.C. for two to three years. Phenomenal people were coming through.”
Wisor also produced the elaborate puppet show folksong opera “The Perfect Pipe Bomb” at the Strathmore mansion, inspired, no doubt, from his work with the Bread and Puppet theater while living in Vermont in the late ’90s. He played banjo in their Insurrection band.
“His life is built around music and art,” Park said. “He needs to do this stuff. It’s not really a choice for him, I don’t think, in the way that it is for a lot of people.”