After six years in Lawrence, Kansas, former Lower Ninth Ward duo Mike West and Katie Euliss have expanded their family from four to six and added five albums to their discography as Truckstop Honeymoon. There are other things to brag about as well, such as chickens and hamsters and the daily triumph of sanity. They feel at home. The peach tree Euliss planted as a way of dealing with their forced Katrina exile is now producing apricot-sized fruit; they bought part of a cow to get raw milk from a local farmer; and visitors to their three-story house can witness the potty-training progress of the couple’s youngest daughter Esther (Essie) as soon as they walk through the front door. To get to their house, you can turn on Louisiana Street. It’s a nice block, full of leafy trees and nice neighbors. West recalls when three men in suits came to his doorstep in late 2005, carrying a pie:
“I thought it was 1948,” he says. “I get a knock on the door at eight o’clock at night, in the middle of winter. I’m like, ‘What have I done?’ Our neighbor Harry had baked a pie and came with the other male neighbors to present the pie. ‘You’ve got to be shitting me. You brought a pie?’”
But the more West and Euliss make a home for themselves in Kansas, the more they find themselves going down Louisiana Street—literally. This is the case on their new album, Steamboat in a Cornfield, which they see as their most New Orleans-inspired album yet.
“Katrina was such a huge ordeal that it’s been interesting landing and really reflecting on the contrasts between the places,” Euliss says. “More than just missing New Orleans, we now claim Kansas as home.”
West elaborates: “In New Orleans, we did this folk-country thing in a town where there was only a handful of people interested in Middle America string band music and bluegrass. Now that we live here in the heart of it, with each record we do more and more songs that are influenced by the old R&B songs and 1930s show tunes, jazz and vaudeville.
“When we moved to Lawrence, we really slotted in because they loved the punk-tinged bluegrass thing and we were right there. Now we’re still right there, but we have more and more tunes that are influenced by 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. Playing this in New Orleans didn’t make sense to us because so many people play it, but here nobody’s doing much of it. When you say ‘jazz player’ in this town, it means people who are only interested when there are solos coming up. [laughs] They’re modern jazz players. Whereas in New Orleans, there are so many musicians who just love the wonderful songs. The lyrics and melodies are great, and our horn players here seem really happy to be playing them. I use my five-string banjo like a tenor banjo as best I can, vamping old swing changes. I’m dealing with the relocation by playing tugboat songs; suddenly I am the little guy in the striped suit, dancing on river boats.”
Kansas natives were quick to welcome the duo. West and Euliss’ annual Mardi Gras parade has grown to a crowd of several hundred revelers, and so far, nobody’s bothered about a permit. The main difference for West and Euliss is that they often end up wearing thermals under their tutus, and they don’t run into any other parades.
“As far as diversions and distractions, there isn’t much,” Euliss says. “Mike and I have a lot of time at night to sit around writing songs. New Orleans, you can just go there and dissolve into whatever is going on, and whatever comes of you is fine, but you also have to sacrifice yourself to that.”
It wasn’t easy finding a new place to live for a family who wanted the life of working musicians. “It got very narrow,” West says. “Where can we live and play music for a living? Where we can afford? San Francisco? New York? No way. You can’t afford it. How do you go from New Orleans to anywhere? But we found that people here in Lawrence didn’t think it was weird that this is all we do, and that we disappear for months at a time. They’re not going, ‘But what do you guys really do?’ Plus we’ve found so many fantastic musicians here, and they’re willing to work for cheap because they work hard. The laziest, highest hippie here still has the Midwestern work ethic. People get stuff done. They show up. The sound man comes to do sound for us, and he’s been bailing hay all day long. ‘Well, you’ve got to get the hay in.’ And I just love that. This rock ‘n’ roll kid that’s been up since 6 a.m. who will work until 3 a.m. It’s very cool, and it’s really different from New Orleans.”
West, born and raised in England, has a lot to say about how New Orleans made it possible for him to become a professional musician in the first place and proved to him that the life he wanted was possible—a lesson that’s made it possible for Truckstop Honeymoon to not just survive, but continue to grow, in Kansas:
“People outside New Orleans and a few other places have this idea that professional musicians must be absolutely brilliant because you basically have to be Britney Spears to be viable in the larger music economy,” he says. “But if you do it like a regular job, you can actually get by. That’s a New Orleans thing—no middle man. A few months ago, we opened for Del McCoury, and what really impressed me is that his wife is running the merch, and has done for the length of his career. They have agents and a label, but their bottom line is: ‘We make a living doing this, and we don’t pretend we’re going to be pop stars. We play bluegrass music, and it’s a fringe genre.’ You can only make so much money.
“New Orleans is full of that. There’s no pretense. There is no ladder to climb. There are rooms that sell liquor and you’re the entertainment. You’re just there to make it fun for people to drink, so they don’t drink at home. Coming from England, New Orleans was such a good wake-up call for me because the only viable musician in England is one that has a hit, so you’re always trying to have a hit and always working for free to try to make it so you have a hit, paying promotional people and agents and such, and you never see a dime. And it would never occur to you that you should because you thought you had to reach this other level, that it wasn’t just a job, like a carpenter.
“I was in pop groups and we were so snotty about the cover bands that would play the little pubs because they didn’t play original music. Then I got to New Orleans and there’s only bars and sometimes you go in and there’s a loud art rock band and the next night there’s French jazz with a clarinet. It’s the same venue, it’s the same bartender. It’s just a place.”
Making the transition from England to New Orleans allowed West to let go of both some hopes of stardom and some fears of failure that had been keeping him from building what he actually wanted—a musician’s life:
“In New Orleans, you have that nice thing where the jazz player also plays in a noise band and it’s a good band and it’s fun and something totally different,” he says. “Why not? You’ve got Thursdays off. Sure! There’s nothing to be lost. If you like the music, then you do it. Whereas in England it would be, ‘Mike, I don’t think you should be sitting in with a jazz band; you’re an indie pop guy.’ The scales fell from my eyes when I came to New Orleans. As soon as I stopped trying to enter the hallow domain of celebrity stars with the very important band, I started making a living for the first time in my life, playing music.”
When Euliss and West began touring as Truckstop Honeymoon, they stuck to the same basic philosophy. Decisions about where to perform were often based on whether they could get a free meal, or a couch to sleep on. West is happy to call himself a made-in-New-Orleans “cottage hustler,” doing whatever it takes to have a house and raise a family while playing music and not having to go bartend after the kids go to bed:
“We do house concerts. We love house concerts. Basically, it’s the rent party. You show up and it’s somebody’s living room and they get 50 people in and they pay $15 a piece and they give you all the money, and they get a free concert. It’s golden. If they went out into town to see you, by the time they’d bought all their friends drinks and paid for the taxi, they’d be $100 in the hole. And you make more money than you’d be paid at a venue.”
The success of Truckstop Honeymoon’s house parties eventually caught the interest of some music venues. One tried to get Euliss and West to come play for little to no money, as if the opportunity to play a large club was compensation enough and a positive career move. West scoffs: “Don’t do the thing of ‘This is an important step,’ because I don’t play anywhere as a step. We’re not doing this so that tomorrow we’ll be elevated people, ‘improved.’ There’s no meaning to it.”
Touring with four kids, albeit difficult, has also proven to be a manageable challenge. They found asking club owners to find a babysitter for the evening was often met with blank stares and worried mumbling, “We don’t allow kids here,” as if the children would be hanging out backstage instead of in a hotel room nearby. Instead, they’ve done well finding their own through the friends-and- fans circuit with its vast social network.
Barefooted Essie has stepped in chicken poop outside and is dragging her feet in the grass. She went looking for eggs in the chicken coop and there were none. There’s no bread for breakfast, but there is granola, which everyone enjoys, along with the non-homogenized, non-pasteurized milk from a large glass jug in the fridge. A small post-it note on the jug says “Barb.” West realizes he swiped someone else’s milk.
It’s a much simpler life than pop stars lead, but it works for Truckstop Honeymoon, and they learned how to do it in New Orleans:
“Basically, we’ll play anywhere we can sell CDs and get a free meal. It’s $50 or $100 at a time. That’s the level we’re at. We don’t have a tour manager to pay, we’re not paying agent’s commission. We’re not paying anybody except the babysitter, and if we sell 20 CDs tonight we just made gas, groceries and our hotel bill. Our whole tour is viable because of those little pieces of plastic we sold.”