ESCONDIDO — Matt Rivers looked something straight out of Americana.
In a white T-shirt and jeans, Rivers sat on an old painters bucket in the middle of a parking lot in an Escondido shopping center, a Pall Mall cigarette dangled from his lips, a fedora cast a shade over his face.
His guitar showed signs of wear from heavy use. Where it used to read “Stop and Listen,” on the body of the instrument now reads “Top Ten,” the rest of the letters being rubbed away over time.
At his feet a tin can collecting whatever dollars and change passersby were willing to give.
The tattoo on his right forearm, a drawing of a skeleton still wearing his boots and the words, “Ain’t dead yet,” he said, has acquired more meaning for him as the years have gone on than what he originally intended for it to have.
“Live life to the fullest,” Rivers said in between songs.
And he might just be doing that. In a few days Rivers, who grew up in Escondido, will be on the road again — this time, he said, heading up the coast towards the Pacific Northwest, dipping into Alaska for a minute and then heading east to Minnesota and finally to the south, winding up in Mississippi.
“Home is the highway,” Rivers said, in true troubadour fashion.
He was back in town only for a short while, he said, raising some cash by playing on the streets.
Rivers has been living the lifestyle of traveling musician for at least six years now, making it to 44 states all the old-fashioned way — hitchhiking and hopping the freight trains.
“The real stuff,” he said. “I decided if I was going to sing about riding trains and hitchhiking, I’m going to have to do it, at least once. I did it once and I liked it. It was fun. It is fun.”
But things are a little different now that he’s recently bought a truck.
“That’s one of the things that I’m worried about having a truck now,” he said. “Because I don’t know if I’m ever going to — if I ever ride a train again, it’ll be because I want to.”
He’s also traveled abroad to nine countries.
Rivers began playing guitar 13 years ago.
“There were guitars around,” he said of his gravitation towards the instrument he now rakes his hands across, sometimes flipping and twirling it into the sky before catching it and resuming the fast-paced strumming — an attention grabber for anyone walking by.
Though he never took any formal lessons, he said.
Before settling on playing jug band blues, a form of Americana folk music, Rivers said he’d play mostly covers of Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie songs. But he credits a friend of his, who had visited New Orleans and brought back some of the songs with him, for introducing the style to him.
“It’s like the original dance music of the early 20th century,” Rivers said. “It’s fun,” he added. “It gets people moving and at the end, it’s pretty simple to play once you get the feel for it. Once you listen to it enough, it becomes almost second nature to fall into that beat.”
The lifestyle, he said, isn’t something that he remembers deciding on, more something that he just fell into.
“When I’m broke is when it’s time to play,” he said wryly. “But I’d be playing anyways, whether I’ve got money or not.”
But what about when it’s time to leave again?
“I don’t know,” he said. “That varies. Whenever things get stale, I guess.”
The life is no harder than living check to check, like everybody he knows around here does, he said.
“It’s easier, I think…maybe you have to sleep outside sometimes, and you don’t have cigarettes sometimes; maybe you don’t have all the things that you wish you had.
“But you have all that you need. And there’s no pressure. I don’t have to worry about making rent. I don’t have to worry about all that stuff that people worry about. It shortens your life,” he said.
His music can be found online at mattrivers.bandcamp.com.