The long, strange trip of Paul Metsa

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 17, 2011 - 6:45 AM

In his compelling new memoir, the Minneapolis music vet rubs shoulders with everyone from Jerry Garcia to Karl Rove.

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Veteran Minneapolis singer/songwriter Paul Metsa, shown at home, is “the best storyteller in any circle of friends you can have,” said longtime pal songwriter Kevin Odegard.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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College football teams battle on one soundless TV and a Fox pundit silently blows hard on another. Most of the patrons at Rudolph's BBQ are lost in their ribs and conversation. Paul Metsa sits in a lonely corner under not-too-loud speakers, absorbed in a blues ditty on his acoustic guitar.

At least one guy is listening. He pulls up a stool 6 feet away from Metsa and begins to mime the guitarist's fingerwork. Undaunted, the veteran Minneapolis music force presses on for 45 minutes, accompanying the soulful vocals of Willie Walker, his duo partner.

While Metsa might dismiss the evening as a "paid rehearsal," the guy who has shared a stage with Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger also knows it's an opportunity. It's a chance to plug his latest endeavor, the just-published memoir "Blue Guitar Highway." Metsa, maybe more than any other Twin Cities musician, knows how to sell himself.

That's why "Blue Guitar Highway" has so many compelling stories that you can't put it down. Because Metsa was able to rub shoulders with the greats (Bob Dylan, Dennis Hopper, Joey Ramone), not-so-greats (Tom Arnold, Frank Stallone, the Chippendales) and local heroes (Dave Ray, Bob Mould, Paul Wellstone). "Highway" is a long-and-winding tale about family stuff (Mom dying in surgery), personal stuff (getting busted for cocaine possession) and musical stuff (performing everywhere from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minn.).

Metsa writes the way Sam Spade talks -- about the guys on a New York subway "smoking reefer like it was Bob Marley's dressing room" or the producer who had "a sense of humor drier than Cary Grant's martini." He drops names like the Vikings drop passes. But he's the kind of writer who turns what could have been a one-liner on a postcard into a vivid yarn that truly makes you wish you were there.

"Paul has always been the best raconteur in the Minneapolis folk crowd," says Kevin Odegard, a Twin Cities songwriter who has known Metsa for more than 25 years. "He's always got great stories. He's friendly and happy. He's the best storyteller in any circle of friends you can have."

The moxie of Metsa

But "Blue Guitar Highway" wouldn't exist if Metsa weren't an effortless schmoozer, a seeker par excellence, a guy who could cold-call Jerry Garcia's hotel room, get invited up and hand the Grateful Dead's head guy his latest album -- and some psychedelic mushrooms.

"Paul takes great pride in putting himself out there," said Odegard, to whom Metsa introduced himself when Odegard was with the National Academy of Songwriters in Los Angeles in 1984. "There are world-class players that don't have the moxie Paul does. Paul has the right stuff."

The marketing comes naturally, Metsa says, because he's so social. It didn't hurt that he watched his dad -- an insurance agent whose bible was the Dale Carnegie book "How to Win Friends and Influence People" -- selling policies out of the basement of their home in Virginia, Minn. The elder Metsa also served on the local school board and city council and eventually was elected mayor.

"He developed one of the most thriving businesses in Virginia. It was determination, self-promotion, marketing and manners," Metsa said last week in his northeast Minneapolis home filled with vintage furnishings and images of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Twins star Zoilo Versalles. "I've never played in a cover band. I've never played music that I don't want to play. I've always made a living playing the music I want to play. So that takes the extra effort to sell yourself."

Metsa landed the book deal by e-mailing a writer from a Dylan website. The guy turned out to be a literary agent; he liked Metsa's stories, coached him and eventually sold the book to the University of Minnesota Press.

Concerned that his tales of drugs and drink might embarrass certain parties involved, he asked his U of M editor: "Do you think I should be using synonyms in this book? He said: 'I think you mean pseudonyms. But you should probably be using both.'"

The songwriter-turned-author didn't want to pen "the Chamber of Commerce version of Paul Metsa. When I got the deal, I told my father that some of this was going to be really hard to read. Not just all the stupid things that I've done but also some of the emotional stuff with the family. But he said something that set me free: 'Tell the truth, son.'"

Never had a day job

Unlike his dad, Metsa, 55, has never really had a day job, unless you count the hustling that led to the nightly paychecks that enabled him to buy a duplex. A college dropout who has been performing since junior high, he has booked bars (Famous Dave's, Mayslack's), organized festivals and put together almost as many benefit concerts as he's played at.

As Metsa himself might put it, he's got more contacts than LensCrafters. He's an activist and do-gooder who has sung on behalf of political candidates and donned a suit jacket to speak before a Minneapolis City Council committee to try to save the original Guthrie Theater from the wrecking ball. He leans left but can work both sides of the aisle, as "Blue Guitar Highway" stories about Karl Rove and Norm Coleman attest.

While he has put out five albums under his own name, plus two with harmonica-playing blues partner Sonny Earl, Metsa concentrates these days on projects by other artists. As guitarist/producer, he's working on a recording with 84-year-old R&B saxophonist Big Jay McNeely and another with soulful-voiced Minnesota transplants Willie West and Willie Walker, called "Paul Metsa Gives You the Willies."

Over the years, he has written and recorded enough first-rate songs -- "Slow Justice," "Jack Ruby" and "Robots on Death Row," to name a few -- to warrant a best-of collection that could earn him high marks. But his voice ain't what it used to be. Painfully parched, it sounds like he smokes one pack a day too many, though he says his voice is affected more by chronic acid reflux than cigarettes.

Still, Metsa would like to put together a revue, maybe with the two Willies, and tour the country. That's one thing he's never done -- a full-fledged tour outside Minnesota. He hopes "Blue Guitar Highway" will be his path to a wider world.

"Whether it's the David Letterman show or the Gunflint Tavern in Grand Marais, Minn.," Metsa said, puffing on another Marlboro, "this book is going to be a portal for me to wherever I'm supposed to go."

  • PAUL METSA BOOK PARTY

    When: 7:30 p.m. Wed 10/19

    With: Q&A conducted by WCCO's John Hines; Metsa songs performed by Sherwin Linton, Mari Harris, Willie West, Willie Walker, Wain McFarlane and others.

    Where: Ritz Theater, 345 13th Av. NE., Mpls.

    Tickets: Free.

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