Like Patty Loveless and Peter Wolf, Omaha songwriter Matt Whipkey is holding onto “nothing but the wheel” these days. “We were doing all this road stuff, and we were renting a minivan every week. I thought maybe instead of renting all the time I should buy a car, and all of a sudden I had this car payment. I signed up to drive for Uber and started driving two days before New Year’s 2015. You get a unique perspective of your community just driving through it.”
The fruit of Whipkey’s travels around town, and beyond, can be tasted on his new album Driver, a collection of emotional ballads and take-no-prisoners rockers. Most of the songs grow out of his encounters with passengers he ferried around town in his car, or simply from the experience of sitting behind the wheel, flying down the road. The title track, for example, blasts down the highway under the influence of Wishbone Ash—the twin guitars on the bridges fly off of “Blind Eye”—Bloodrock—the ominous bass line on Whipkey’s track floats straight out of Bloodrock’s “DOA”—and Lynyrd Skynyrd—with the lead lines on the first bridge coming straight out of “Saturday Night Special.” The haunting ballad, “Amy Knows,” opens sparely with a lone harmonica and blooms into Byrds-like guitar tune about the knowledge we gain from the loneliness of the road and the inescapability of looking into ourselves on a long-distance trip. “I picked Amy one morning, on September 25, at the Amtrak station, and she had been traveling from Washington, DC,” says Whipkey.
Whipkey’s been writing songs since he was a teenager. “I was never satisfied just learning the cool riffs of the day. As soon as I learned a few chords, I started writing my own songs. Words always make sense to me, and I had such a knack for them even as a kid. Now I’ve learned to recognize when something’s going on. Sometimes it happens so fast, I have to write it down right away. The songs often come in batches; one feeds off the other.”
The songs on Driver feature a blend of reflection on the nature of life as we know it and sonic musical structures that allow the songs the freedom to blossom capaciously. “Coalmine” starts off with a slow vibe that escalates quickly into a rocker about the ways we close ourselves off and the dangers and false freedom of it. “Marian Kowalski, Dec. 1994” is Nirvana-like rocker about a picture that Whipkey found on the backseat floor of his car. “One morning I picked up this bridesmaid on her way to a wedding,” says Whipkey, “and she was very nervous about making it the wedding on time. Later that day, I found the photo of her grandmother she had dropped on the floor and wrote the song out of that experience.” You’ve never heard the Beatles’ “Drive My Car” until you’ve heard Whipkey’s version; it’s a funked-up version with vocals that echo as if from inside a chamber backed by stinging leads and crunchy downstrums. The driving “Camaro” flies down the highway fueled by punk rhythms and grunge riffs.
Whipkey, who’s opened for Dwight Yoakam several times, feels that without a doubt he’s playing, singing, and writing better than ever now. “I’ve been trying to allow myself to recognize when the inexplicable is happening and to hold onto it.” Whipkey certainly recognizes on Driver that he’s taking us on a trip down the byways of our lives, and he’s inviting us to hold on for our lives as he careens around the corners and speeds down the straightaways. This is supercharged music just right for holding onto nothing but the wheel.