"We could try for a table, or get it to go
Might see somebody famous, or someone you know Order the daily specials in a foreign tongue
I heard Fitzgerald rode here when he was young
The Magnolia Diner, coffee cups and one-liners
Sometimes I need a reminder, to take it slow."
-- "Magnolia Diner"
By Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
When you hear the first few lines of Martin Devaney's "Magnolia Diner," it's as if you're transported to your favorite greasy spoon, where the veteran St. Paul songwriter staggers to the counter about 2 a.m.
"It's kind of a composite sketch of a couple places in my experience," Devaney said. "And so it's almost like a song for my friends that have known me for a long time or people who have been along on the ride."
For Devaney, the diner is the perfect setting for the tune, the opening song on his new album "House of Rust." The songwriter will perform some of its tunes tonight during a record release show at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.
As much as evoking a place, "Magnolia Diner" also is a song in which Devaney tried to express a feeling, of nostalgia, comfort -— even refuge.
Diners continually feed the muse of artists, who consider them places with an inspiring ambience, where friendly people serve comfort food and coffee to a wide cross section of society.
"You know that world doesn't exist a lot anymore," Devaney said. "And I think there's something about that, like, mid-'70s film noir sort of vibe, that has always appealed to me."
The tune also is an invitation to enter Devaney's world. It's not as personal as some of the songs further in on the album, but in every verse he lays out scenes and captures moments of the everyday life inside its doors: daily specials, neon signs, conversation, relaxation, contemplation.
The song takes its time, in the way an overnight server might not rush to bring you a menu. But its mood resonated so much with Devaney that he couldn't help but choose it as the album's opening track.
"Often records don't start with a slower song, but the way the progression works...It's very simple between, you know, two chords just kind of repeating," he said.
"I think the icing on the cake was when we put the pedal steel guitar down."
"Magnolia Diner" was already in the can when Devaney decided it needed "some more atmosphere."
He brought in Twin Cities pedal steel player Jimmy Johnson, a great talent who has played with Bellweather and many local artists, among them Dana Thompson.
It took Johnson just a few passes to latch on to an addictive riff, a hallmark of the song. Its other distinguishing trait, the songwriter said, is a somewhat unexpected chord change in the chorus, at the moment Devaney sings, "Sometimes I need a reminder, to take it slow."
The shift gives the song a freshness and energy that disguises its length.
"Otherwise it may end up being a monotonous song," Devaney said. "And I think it makes it so that this song that's about five minutes long doesn't seem five minutes long."
"House of Rust" is Devaney's sixth full-length recording. With all that experience, he said, has come a greater reliance on instincts.
As to whether his songwriting skills also have sharpened in time, Devaney is modest.
"The hope is that the longer you go, the better you get," he said. "You hope that with writing, be it songwriting or if you're an author or novelist, your craft deepens."