Once again, Ricky Skaggs soared to the top of the charts when he released “Highway 40 Blues” in 1983 as the third single off his first platinum-selling album, Highways & Heartaches.
The single stayed at No. 1 for one week and spent a total of twelve weeks on the chart.
A Song Written By Skaggs’ Childhood Friend
Written by veteran songwriter Larry Cordle, “Highway 40 Blues” is actually “about that little state highway in Kentucky” and not what most people believed to be about Nashville’s Interstate 40.
In the early ’80s, Cordle lived in a small Eastern Kentucky town of Paintsville, not far from Loretta Lynn’s famous childhood home at “Butcher Holler.” He worked for a CPA firm during the day and played music in clubs at night. He’d perform three nights a week in the house band at a small club in Hazard, Kentucky, about 70 miles away.
While coming home one night after a gig, Cordle passed by the road sign where he turned off Route 40 and the title “Highway 40 Blues” suddenly popped into his head. He pulled over to the road’s side and wrote the first verse right then and there. The next day at home, he sat down and wrote the other two verses. He had the melody already in his head and ended up writing the entire song without ever picking up a guitar.
On the other hand, Ricky Skaggs – who was Cordle’s childhood friend and neighbor – had already established himself in the music business. When he heard “Highway 40 Blues,” he promised Cordle to record it someday. And that’s what he did.
But Skaggs had to change one line first to accommodate his devoutly Christian parents. The lyrics “My eyes are filled with bitter tears. Lord, I could use could an ice-cold beer” was slightly altered to “My eyes are filled with bitter tears. Lord, I ain’t been home in years.” In Skaggs’ autobiography, Kentucky Traveler, he said that he did not want to record a song he would not have felt comfortable singing in front of his parents.
Featuring hot steel guitar licks this time, “Highway 40 Blues” quickly went to No. 1. Indeed, Skaggs made good on his promise. After its chart run, the song remained popular with Skaggs’ concert crowds for years because of its fast-tempo nature, a great “jamming” song.
Tune in and watch Skaggs’ heart-tugging performance of “Highway 40 Blues” in the video below.