American Road Trip Playlist (updated)

It was a year yesterday that I first published my American Road Trip Playlist. For a while it was one of my most popular and most visited posts, probably because “road trip playlist” is an astonishingly common search term. In the original post, I only had eight songs on my playlist. By the time I got home, I had fifty. You’ll notice quite a few songs are place-specific. It’s extremely gratifying to listen to “Sweet Home Alabama” when you’re in Alabama. Here’s the updated list, including a few retellings of the original eight.

1. 1000 Miles Per Hour by OK Go

This song is number one for a reason. Before I even had a list, this was on it. I hear the chorus and I want to throw away my whole life and drive east without purpose or destination.

2. On the Road Again by Willie Nelson

3. Memphis in the Meantime by John Hiatt

I don’t even remember who told me about this song. Maybe it was someone I stayed with, maybe it was a stranger in a diner. I’d never heard of it, but it was a song about going to Memphis, and that’s where I was headed when this person mentioned it. The first few times I listened to the song I didn’t really get what it was about. It was only after I spent the night falling asleep to the sound of bluegrass in Arkansas that I understood the musical change that happens when you cross the border into Tennessee.

4. King of New York from the Newsies Soundtrack

5. I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by The Proclaimers

6. Leaving Las Vegas by Sheryl Crow

“We can listen to ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ while we’re leaving Las Vegas!” So were the words my sister said to me when we made the plan to have her fly to L.A. and drive with me to the Grand Canyon. On the road out of California I threw on The Very Best of Sheryl Crow, and my sister insisted that we skip “Leaving Las Vegas” until we were really leaving Las Vegas. Two days later we were already an hour out of town before we realized we’d forgotten to put on the song.

7. Open Road Song by Eve 6

And for a moment I love everything I see and think and feel.

8. Route 66 by Natalie Cole

After much consideration, I decided to go with the Natalie Cole version of this classic song. When you are cruising through those tiny towns where 66 is still Main Street, it’s hard to listen to anything else.

9. The Boy From New York City by The Ad Libs

10. Home Sweet Home by the Paradise Valley Band

No link on this one I’m afraid, I got this track off a 1980s recording of the band my folks were in during the 1970s. It’s one of my favorites off the quietly produced album, and I played it almost every day from somewhere around Nebraska until I got home.

11. Wouldn’t It Be Nice by The Beach Boys

Really, anything by the Beach Boys sounds good in California.

12. Rock’n Me by the Steve Miller Band

A classic rock song you might not know you know. Not only does it name a lot of destinations, it’s a good grove to wake you up if you’re starting to suffer from the third-hour-of-driving slump.

13 & 14. Baltimore by The Clintons (the original recording from Who Invited Roger as well as the bootleg Jereco Sessions)

15. Lubbock or Leave It by The Dixie Chicks

This song has some real history. Back in 2003, the lead singer Natalie Maines made a comment during a concert about the group’s personal opposition to the Iraq war, and how they were ashamed that President Bush was from their home state of Texas. The backlash was incredible. Patriotism is so ingrained in the culture of country music, and in those years especially patriotism meant standing behind the president. Their 2006 album Taking the Long Way addressed the controversy, including this song about Natalie Maines’ hometown of Lubbock Texas. I starting listening to this song in Texas, but I found myself putting it on a lot. It’s good for when you’re ready to get out of wherever you are.

15. Soak Up the Sun by Sheryl Crow

16. Cruz by Christina Aguilera

I was never that into Christina Aguilera growing up, but one year my sister gave me the album “Stripped” as a present. She told me when I opened it that she knew it was a strange gift, but that she felt I might actually like it. She mentioned one song in particular that reminded her of me. I was confused when I heard it. It was a song about taking off, something I always felt was her dream, not mine. Perhaps it was the line about “living it, leaving it to change.”

17. Sault Set Marie by Mick Sterling with Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets

See note.

18. California by Joni Mitchell

19. I’ve Been Everywhere by Johnny Cash

I think memorizing the words to this song is going on my Bucket List. I’m getting better at keeping up when singing along, but I’m still not even good enough for karaoke. My desire to sing it grew each time I passed through a place listed in the song.

20. San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in You Hair) by Scott McKenzie

21 & 22. Like a Rolling Stone (both MTV Unplugged and Highway 61 Revisted)

When I first decided to write a blog for the trip, I needed to pick a name. I went straight to this song, which seemed absolutely perfect. However every line I thought might make a good title had already been used by someone else as a title for something else. No Direction Home. A Complete Unknown. Rolling Stone. Sigh. I found my title elsewhere, but that doesn’t make the song any less perfect. There’s nothing like Bob Dylan to remind you not to think too much of yourself.

23. Steve McQueen by Sheryl Crow

24. Highway 61 Revisted by Bob Dylan

I had the pleasure of listening to this song on repeat while driving down highway 61.

25. I Love L.A. By Randy Newman

26 & 27. Walking in Memphis (both Brown Derbies and Billy Joel, though I really ought to get the Cher version)

I can safely say that listening to the song Walking in Memphis while in the city of Memphis was one of my life goals. I first heard the song when it was featured in “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” one of the best episodes of my first television love: The X-Files. The first time I saw the episode I had no idea what was going on, because we were on vacation in Puerto Vallarta and the whole thing was dubbed in Spanish. But when I saw Mulder offer his hand to Scully and pull her up to dance, well, 13-year-old me flipped out. Over time I developed an appreciation for the song outside the context of this one episode, until the day I found myself on Beale Street in Memphis, just like in the song. And I was walking by a bar that was pumping the live music outside onto the street, and there it was. Walking in Memphis, while I was walking in Memphis.

28. Truckin’ by The Grateful Dead

Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

29, 30, & 31. Santa Fe & Reprise from the Newsies Soundtrack; Santa Fe from the Rent Soundtrack

I talked a bit about this once before, but I never actually went to Santa Fe. It doesn’t matter though, because neither of these songs are really about Santa Fe. They are about escape, freedom, adventure, and hope – all things I got plenty of in my travels.

32. Motorway by The Waybacks

It’s unlikely you’ll find footage online of The Waybacks performing this song, but it’s well worth looking. I bet you didn’t even consider incorporating a tuba into a Kinks song.

33. Down in the Valley by The Head and The Heart

I almost didn’t bother downloading this one, but by the end it was one of my favorites. California, Oklahoma, and all the places I ain’t ever been to.

34. New York Minute by The Eagles

35. Everybody’s Got a Home But Me from Pipe Dream

There were certainly times when this song seemed too sad for my journey. I wasn’t without a home, I was merely far from it. But there is something to be said about traveling from place to place, constantly seeing people in their own home towns and never seeing yours. The recording I have of this song is the 2012 Encores! Cast, which includes a few snippets of the dialogue normally spoken during the song when it’s performed as part of the musical. Before she breaks into the final chorus, another character tells her, “I guess you’ll land on your feet somehow.” She confidently tells him, “I am on my feet.”

36. Goin’ to New Orleans by The Waybacks

37. Jackson by Johnny Cash

38. The Shot Heard ‘Round the World by Ween (from Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks)

I had this song stuck in my head for most of the way between Virginia and Boston. Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, Yorktown. Every time I saw a city or place named in the song, I heard the voices of Ween in my ears.

39 & 40. Good Morning Baltimore (both the original broadway cast and the film version)

41. America by Simon & Garfunkel

My sister was shocked when I said this song wasn’t yet on my playlist. By the time she found out, I was already somewhere in the northeast, maybe as far along as Toronto. She told me the best place to listen would have been while driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, but she assured me that I would pass through plenty of other places that would still work. Personally, I fell in love with it driving through Michigan.

42 & 43. Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again by Bob Dylan (both the Hard Rain version and the one from Blonde on Blonde)

44. The One I Love by Greg Laswell

Every playlist needs a song that’s both up tempo and bittersweet. Even if you’re not really running away from anything, it’s still the perfect song for solivagants.

45. California Dreamin’ by The Mamas and The Papas

46. St. Augustine by Band of Horses

I doubt this song is about the St. Augustine I visited, but the way they sing the words “St. Augustine” is positively haunting.

47. Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd

48. Savannah by The Waybacks

This song is about a woman, not a city, but it is a beautiful thing to hear when you’re driving into the city. I’ve got four versions of this song in my iTunes, and it just so happened that listening to all four in a row added up to the precise driving time between my campsite on Skidaway Island and a nice parking spot just south of Forsyth Park.

49. Down South in New Orleans by The Band

Live’s a pleasure, and love’s a dream.

50. Mississippi by Bob Dylan (Dixie Chicks cover)

This song is the reason I went in the first place. Well, not exactly I suppose. It started with a short passage in Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader about a cat that got lost in Russia. That gave me an idea for a novel about a young woman who traveled around America (by necessity, not choice). The more I thought about the novel, the more I found sources of inspiration, like the Dixie Chicks cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi.” I found the lyrics to be beautiful. It felt like the song had been written just for my protagonist.

I sat down one day to write one of the scenes that was to take place in Mississippi. I started to type something about it being hot and sticky. I stopped. Where did that come from? All the people who’d told me that it was hot and sticky in the Deep South, I supposed. I had no idea if that was a good way to describe it. In fact, I was sure it wasn’t a good description by virtue of the fact that I’d heard it a million times already.

I stopped writing. I thought of all the places I wanted her to go, and I had nothing. I knew nothing of these states. I couldn’t imagine what worth I could bring to the novel if every location I put my main character in was going to be a regurgitation of things other people had already said. That was it then. If I wanted to write it, I’d simply have to see it all myself.

Stick with me baby, anyhow. Things should start to get interesting right about now.

The Sorrow of Ste Marie

Sault Ste Marie was a perfect disappointment. And I mean that as a compliment. It was absolute perfection.

Locks

From Sault St Marie all the way to Coeur d’Alene
Angels on the freeway speak to me
Crosses on the road
With names that I don’t know
A million whispers telling me where to go

It was over a decade ago that I was sitting in the grass at the Sweet Pea Festival in Bozeman, Montana. The band was Mick Sterling and Kevin Bowe with the Okemah Prophets. They played a good set, and I liked them enough to walk up to the stage and buy a copy of their live album “Doin’ It For the People.”

But I still believe in the glory of Saint Marie
Coming down
To shed her grace on me

It’s a good album with some great tracks. They do a cover of the “Cocaine Blues” that I prefer to Johnny Cash’s version. It was the album where I first heard “There Stands the Glass,” a terrific country song if ever there was one. But one song stood out more than any other. It’s an original. It has to be, because there is zero record of it anywhere except on this particular album. It’s called “Sault Ste. Marie,” and it’s the only reason I know how to correctly pronounce the name of that town (Soo Saint Marie).

From Galveston Bay all the way to Grand Marais
Highway signs whispering the way
Don’t matter where you’re bound,
They won’t let you turn around
Getting up and falling down right where you lay

The song is also to blame for why I went up to the upper peninsula of Michigan in the first place. It’s true, I had heard that the beaches were lovely. It’s true, I figured I could always go to Chicago another time. But honestly, I had to see Sault Ste. Marie. The song was a regular road trip anthem. And not the sunshine and good times sort of anthem. “Sault Ste. Marie” is the kind of song you play at night. You play it in the rain. You play it when the journey is long and the path is rough. “Sault Ste. Marie” is the song that convinces you to keep going when you’d rather just give up. I had to see the town that would inspire such a song.

And I still believe in the glory of Saint Marie
Coming down
To shed her grace on me

I arrived in Sault Set. Marie in the late afternoon. It was gray and cold and windy. The town is small, but not quaint. It’s a border town, but not the kind that attracts tourists. It’s the kind you imagine to be full of people looking to get out.

Boat Spectators

I asked the manager at the hotel what there was to see, and he recommended the locks. I spent some time in the locks museum, mostly to get out of the freezing weather. Near the river the wind was strong and bitterly cold – worse than anything I’d felt in months. I waited on the platform with the other tourists for the next big boat to come in. The locks at Sault Ste. Marie allow large ships to move between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, along St. Mary’s River. The boats are big and the locks are small, which means the ships move slow. It was easily an hour between the time we first saw the big ship come around the bend and when it began to lower into the locks. People took pictures. A few girls old enough to know better were giggling over their own photos and the phallic nature of the ship. I watched the flags flapping furiously in the wind. It was mildly interesting. It was terribly dreary. 

Flags

I’m the last of the true believers
In the past and the fallen leaders
Can’t let go even though I know
I been long since left behind,
Left for dead, and left for blind
Maybe I’ve lost my mind but I do not think so

And that’s why it was perfect. The song “Sault Ste. Marie” reminds me of the underlying sadness of the open road. The road is not a home. The road is not where you intend to be. Even when it’s about the journey and not the destination, the destination is always there in the distance. Sometimes the highway gets long and lonely and endless. Sometimes it’s dark, sometimes it rains. Sometimes it feels like your whole life has become a never-ending parade of the world’s most dismal gas stations. But that’s when you put on a song like “Sault Ste. Marie,” fling your arms out to the side, and tell yourself, “Yes I am here. Yes I am aching. Yes there are miles to go. Yes, yes, yes. And I will keep going, because at this moment, this sad, sorry town is exactly where I ought to be.”

And I still believe in the sorrow of Saint Marie
Coming down
To shed her grace on me

She’s gonna shed her grace on me

______________________

NOTE: An additional fact you should know is that Mick Sterling and Kevin Bowe are absolute dolls. Because the song isn’t well known, there was nowhere online for me to confirm that I had correctly transcribed the lyrics for this post. I emailed them and they responded the next day with the lyrics AND a couple bonus MP3s of the song, both in studio recordings and a sweet version by Three Dog Night with the London Philharmonic.

Check out them out: Mick SterlingKevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets