#ThrowbackThursday: “Headsick Highway” by Kenneth O’Meara

headsickby: Thomas D. Mooney

Editor’s Note: #ThrowbackThursdays are album reviews of old Lubbock and Panhandle events, songs, and albums–primarily albums–that, for one reason or another, need to further dissected. Maybe they’re hidden gems, overlooked mixed efforts, or shadowed by better works. Whatever the case, we’re (re)examining them every Thursday. This week, we’re talking about Kenneth O’Meara’s song “Headsick Highway.”

In 2010, the decision makers at The Blue Light decided to finally throw a singer-songwriter competition together. In the inaugural year, the winner would win a single recording, some radio promotion, among other things. That year, a young songwriter by the name of Kenneth O’Meara would eventually win the four-week event.

O’Meara recalls thinking David Brooks, one-time Blue Light owner, pulling his leg when he came up to him minutes before the official announcement and congratulating him with a whisper and handshake. He’d go on a record one of the songs that helped him take that top spot that year, “Headsick Highway.”

With “Headsick Highway,” O’Meara would jumpstart a minor run as the leader of KO Muleskinners, a band with a revolving door of Lubbock musicians backing the songwriter. It’d become a minor hit on local radio–primarily on The Rebel 105.3. And while being known amongst the songwriting circles in the region, the only way to truly describe O’Meara as an artist and songwriter would be to classify his fans as a cult following.

Some four years after “Headsick Highway,” O’Meara would finally get a debut album out, the excellent God of Wind. The year prior, he’d co-write the title track of William Clark Green’s breakout album, Rose Queen. Still, the quiet O’Meara wouldn’t be recognized by many if he happened to enter a bar on a Friday night–unless it was Blue Light and the bar was filled with Lubbock songwriters and musicians.

I hesitate to use the term “a songwriter’s songwriter” to describe O’Meara–or any songwriter for that matter. There’s this backhanded compliment feel with. It implies that his songwriting is too dense for the casual listener–that O’Meara’s songs aren’t digestible on a common level. Still, his biggest fans are other songwriters. 

With “Headsick Highway,” you find O’Meara becoming a casualty of not just the road itself, but everything that revolves around it. It’s farm and ranch. It’s trucking, plowing, hauling, and hard work in the simplest of terms. It’s the breaking of a man–both body and soul. 

The spaghetti-western meets truck driver country rhythm helps create the constant churning and revolving. It’s an unsettling pulse of pitter-patter and slide guitar twangs that’d accompany the rotating wheels of an 18-wheeler rolling down the Amarillo Highway just as easily as the whirling tumbleweed making its’ way across the plains and eventually meeting its demise in the grill guard of some farmer’s truck.

O’Meara’s lyrics aren’t linear or the standard. During the verses, he’s more or less sputtering phrases and words in a way that makes you feel as though he’s playing a game of word association by himself. With the first verse, he starts off with pump jack and up on ringworm.

You get the impression O’Meara could go on and on with this. For all we know, he has notebook full of alternate takes and additional lines. That’s part of the illusion of “Headsick Highway.” It’s that, somewhere, this song is going on still.

In the modern era of Lubbock music (what I’d consider 2000+), you’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who stretches the ears of the listener as much as O’Meara in the language department. It’s not that he’s presenting a vocabulary of words you’ve never heard before. But, he is using a rich and broad array without every sounding aloof.

Here alone, you hear him use the words (or phrases): bug splat, stray cat, ringworm, hallucinate, cow snot, roadkill, buzzards get a fresh meal, speed trap, airbag, asphalt, churning, adrenaline, muscle twitch, heart rate, hitchhike, scrambled egg, and brainwaves.

Sure. You’ve heard those words thousands of times. But they all spark a specific image that typical words just don’t have the power to do. This kind of simple, but effective imagery is something he’d perfect on God of Wind songs such as “God of Wind,” “Before the Drought,” “Chicken Bones,” and “When the Road Ends.”

Once you hit the chorus, O’Meara is already hitting his stride as the worn thin highwayman. It’s here that he does something that, for my knowledge, may or may not, be an intentional double-meaning. With the line “I must not be the highway kind, lost my will, lost my mind,” O’Meara plays the will/wheel card. He’s lost the will to wheel a truck down the never-ending highway. 

It’s here that highway hypnosis goes into full effect. The road goes on forever and the party never ends.

Listen to “Headsick Highway” below. It was recorded with Kenneth O’Meara on vocals and acoustic guitar, Joe Novelli on electric slide guitar, Jay Saldana on drums, Seth Williamson on bass, and Charlie Stout on backing vocals, mandolin, and twang guitar.

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