Flyover America: 10 (More) Songs for an American Road Trip

Travel Blog  •  Jenna Schnuer  •  04.29.09 | 4:32 PM ET

Photo by Anonymous Account via Flickr (Creative Commons)

While the invention of iTunes has made things far easier than the days when we had to go through stack and stacks of cassettes to create the perfect on-the-road mix tapes, there’s still an art to creating the perfect road-trip playlist.

It takes time, thought, a sense of humor, and a wide-ranging music collection in whatever digital format you prefer. It also needs a theme. It can be about a mood, a time of day, your love for hot dogs, or whatever. You don’t even have to announce the theme. You don’t have to name the playlist “hot dog music” but, to make it all hang together, the theme must at least be in your mind during the song selection process.

When Sophia suggested we each create a 10-song playlist perfect for a road trip—and with state or place names at the heart of the songs—I was all ooh, fun! until the pressure smacked me. You all turned into the the picky music-snob staff from High Fidelity. But I forged ahead, tossing beloved tunes out of the way in order to create what could be the best mix of all time (especially when combined with Sophia’s dazzling list of goodness). OK, it’s not the best of all time. But I dig it.

Mildly nervous and semi-sensitive being that I am, my temptation is to make apologies for my list or cheat and try to add things in but ... I won’t. Instead, I say: have at it. Comment away.

And, when you drive out into America, tunes ablazing, please remember: enjoy and behave. After all, you don’t want to end up singing the Folsom Prison Blues.

America (Simon & Garfunkel) There are a few reasons it’s on the list: 1) It’s an umbrella policy that eases some of the guilt of cutting so many state-named songs off my final choices. 2) It’s a damned good song. I have yet to find somebody who dislikes it. If that person exists, I have a feeling I wouldn’t want to know him. I definitely wouldn’t want to travel with him. Would you?

Oh, Atlanta (Alison Krauss & Union Station) There’s a line in it that sums up how I feel about so many of the places I’ve visited around America: “I hear you calling. I’m coming back to you one fine day.”

Stars Fell on Alabama (Billie Holiday. Wait, Frank Sinatra. No, it’s Billie’s version.) It’s the story of a perfect moment of beauty and joy in somebody’s life. It’s, I think, part of what we’re all looking for when we go out on the road. Oh and Billie’s voice? Yeah, talk about heavenly.

My Clinch Mountain Home (The Carter Family) It’s always good to remember where you came from—no matter where you’re going.

Rapid City, South Dakota (Kinky Friedman & The Texas Jewboys) Some people may dismiss Kinky Friedman as a bit of a novelty act. He’s not. While there are definitely some good knee-slappers (and plenty of reasons to take offense) in some of his songs, this one is just the story of a boy heading out on the road.

Bus to Baton Rouge (Lucinda Williams) If I had to choose just one album to take on the road, it would be Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” But, if we’re talking place names, “Bus to Baton Rouge” (from the album “Essence”) is the way to go. It isn’t the cheeriest of songs—it’s about going back to a home that was, more often than not, a sad place to be. But it’s beautiful.

Nashville Jumps (Cecil Grant) A great reminder that places are much more than their stereotype. Nashville may be the epicenter of country music, but that’s not all there is to it—and its past was far more varied, as well

Alaskan Nights (David Schwartz) Never heard of it? Well, it’s obscure in an odd way. It’s from the “Northern Exposure” soundtrack. The show kicked off my mad love for Alaska. The piece still makes me smile. (Seriously, the whole soundtrack is good fun. Give it a shot. It’s also a great housecleaning soundtrack.)

Thick in the South (Wynton Marsalis) This piece is one long hot sultry night (or, in this case, drive). It’s Louisiana or Alabama or wherever in August, and the car air conditioner is just barely holding on.

Jack & Neal/California Here I Come (Tom Waits) Tom Waits is a night in a town you’ve never visited before—slightly welcoming, slightly off-putting. He’s essential.

Ooh, got a little sad there at the end. This should lighten things up. Ladies and gentlemen, Simon & Garfunkel ...

Jenna Schnuer

Freelancer Jenna Schnuer writes about travel, food, culture, books, and life's quirky bits (and bites) for publications including American Way, National Geographic Traveler, Southern Living, and many others. She also co-writes Flyover America, a site filled with quieter stories from around the U.S. Send Jenna an email or, if you're so inclined, follow her on Twitter.

36 Comments for Flyover America: 10 (More) Songs for an American Road Trip

Sophia Dembling 04.29.09 | 5:48 PM ET

Nothing mockable here, my dear. And, after all, if our lovely readers didn’t mock me for Mac Davis and Shelley West, then they are clearly exceedingly nice people and we have nothing to fear.

And yes, America may be among the most beautiful and poignant songs of all time. Thanks for the video. I love all Simon & Garfunkel albums for nighttime driving in particular.

Jenna Schnuer 04.29.09 | 9:35 PM ET

Thanks lady. Are we the only two people in America who don’t get beat up for posting a top 10 list? Can we possibly be that good and right? Come on people!

Chris 04.29.09 | 9:42 PM ET

I can’t mock either of you because “Mexican Radio” by Wall of Voodoo is on my official road trip CD. :-)

Jenna Schnuer 04.29.09 | 9:45 PM ET

That is a very brave thing to admit in public. Lucky you that no last names are required, eh? ;-)

On a separate note—so not nice of you to plant that earworm in my head.

Jodi 04.29.09 | 10:06 PM ET

Two that always go through my head when I travel to particular places:

I Love LA, by Randy Newman


Dirty Water, by the Standells.

Chris 04.29.09 | 10:34 PM ET

I will be singing Mexican Radio for the rest of the night too, don’t worry.

I Love LA made me think of another good one: “Hell Looks a Lot Like LA” by Less Than Jake. It seems like you may have already been introduced to another LTJ classic, “Never Going Back to New Jersey” in a previous post.

Gwen 04.29.09 | 10:48 PM ET

I love your list, but would have to add Sweet Home Alabama (Skynyrd; obvious, but still a great song and a crowd pleaser); and 2) Thunder Road (The Boss; because it is one of the Best. Songs. Ever.) I’d probably throw in a bit of old-school hip-hop—Joy and Pain (Rob Base), Wild Thing (Tone Loc), Now that We Found Love (Heavy D), and anything by En Vogue. Because you need some tunes for dancing in your seat as you drive.

Gwen 04.29.09 | 10:50 PM ET

Oh…and you need a little JT in there, too. Mexico, Steamroller, How Sweet It Is. And some Motown. And how about American PIe?

Okay, at this rate, my road trip is going to need to be Jersey to Seattle to fit it all in. :)


Jenna Schnuer 04.29.09 | 10:54 PM ET

Ah, but we had some loose rules keeping us in line—had to have a state or place name in the song title or in the core of the song and, since it’s Flyover America, had to be about someplace in the U.S. but no LA or NYC. My plain old road trip list would look different—though some of these would still be on it.

As for American Pie, S&G claimed my all-America spot. I lurve them.

Chris 04.29.09 | 10:59 PM ET

Since I already threw out Mexican Radio, I can also add “I Can’t Drive 55” by Sammy Hagar to the slightly embarrassing list (ok, I guess that’s LA so it doesn’t follow the rules). He should’ve done a Canadian mix called I Can’t Drive 95.

Sophia Dembling 04.29.09 | 11:05 PM ET

Ooh, I definitely like the spirit of “I Can’t Drive 55.”

There must be some Motown that would fit the bill…

Jenna Schnuer 04.29.09 | 11:05 PM ET

Chris—I was about to say I was worried about you but realized that would be unfair. When I’m not listening to the kinds of stuff listed above, I spend A LOT of time listening to 80s music. But that’s a discussion for a different blog.

Gwen—I’m building a new no-rules list for myself. All of yours (ok, maybe not Wild Thing) are going straight onto it….

Sophia Dembling 04.29.09 | 11:07 PM ET

My no-rules list would include “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash. For city driving.

Jenna Schnuer 04.29.09 | 11:08 PM ET

I need to look into the Motown issue. How could I have missed it? Hmmm. Thanks for pointing it out Gwen.

Lists! The fun! The pain!

Sophia Dembling 04.29.09 | 11:47 PM ET

Oh yeah, and Car Wash. LOVE Car Wash. (The song and the movie) And Low Rider. Go ahead, commence mocking.

Kathryn 04.30.09 | 12:21 AM ET

OK, I’m going to try and follow the rules, and add a few from my library. I’ll have to make this a playlist and download some of yours. (How do I not know that Waits song… I thought I had all of his stuff!)

Going to California, Led Zeppelin
Anchorage, Michelle Shocked (before she was born again)
California Stars, Billy Bragg and Wilco
Erie Canal, Bruce Springstein version
El Paso, Marty Robbins (if I’ve never made you listen to Gunfighter Ballads…I will on the next road trip!)
Walking in Memphis, Marc Cohn
Blame it on the Tetons, Modest Mouse
James River Blues, Old Crow Medicine Show

Jenna Schnuer 04.30.09 | 12:26 AM ET

Ooh, nice additions to the list. The only one I’ll squabble over is Walking in Memphis—I always want to like it but it just kind of gets on my nerves. I can’t figure out the why of it. And I love Marty Robbins! Oh the things you learn about friends when they post comments on your blog posts. World Hum, bringing friends together one comment at a time.

Sophia Dembling 04.30.09 | 12:49 AM ET

Marty Robbins is the list overlap—we ran the numbers on him on my list, too. I find El Paso a little irritating, but I love Devil Woman.

Jenna Schnuer 04.30.09 | 12:54 AM ET

Don’t you have a t-shirt that says Devil Woman? If not, you should (and I mean that in a nice way).

Jim 04.30.09 | 11:02 AM ET

Great list.

One I’d campaign for list is Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land.” Although the title isn’t a place, the song names a lot of places. The same goes for Springsteen’s “The Promised Land,” which ends up on every road trip CD/playlist as a matter of principle. Peter Wolf’s “Nothing But the Wheel” runs a close second (“Staying clear of the interstate, I’m seeking out those old two lanes just trying to explain the way I feel.”)

A few to consider:
Conor Oberst’s “Moab,” the centerpiece of my playlist for a Utah trip last summer. “There’s nothing that the road cannot heal.”
Hem’s version of “Rainy Night in Georgia.”
Josh Ritter’s “Harrisburg.”
Jeff Black’s “Birmingham Road.”
The Band’s “Back to Memphis.”
Alejandro Escovedo’s “Arizona.” Have another drink on me…
Arlo’s “City of New Orleans.”
Greg Trooper’s excellent “Twenty Two Miles to Bristol.”
B-52’s “Private Idaho.”
Blue Rodeo’s “Florida.”
Dylan (and Sheryl Crow’s) “Mississippi.”
Springsteen’s version of “Viva Las Vegas.” (There’s also “Youngstown”)
Greg Brown’s languid “Eugene.”
Carrie Newcomer’s “Moon Over Tucson.”
CCR’s “Lodi.”
Dave Alvin’s “Abilene.”

frankie 04.30.09 | 12:29 PM ET

Golden Earring ‘s Radar Love     “I’ve been drivin all night my hand’s wet on the wheel”

pam 04.30.09 | 12:53 PM ET

Forgive me, Flyover Nation, for I have sinned.

The Doors. LA Woman. Dare you not to turn it up while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway.

Jim Benning 04.30.09 | 4:09 PM ET

Great eclectic list!

I could listen to Allison Krauss for a good couple of hundred miles before even changing artists.

Jenna Schnuer 04.30.09 | 4:16 PM ET

Jim 1—Great list. I am so ashamed over leaving Private Idaho off the list! I’m starting to think that, in addition to going on a cross-country bus trip together (like I suggested in Sophia’s list comment section), we should also open a travel music compilation service. At the very least, we would all have fun sitting around talking this stuff over and over and over.

Frankie—I’ll take a listen.

Pam—You are forgiven. It was a sin worth risking.

Jim 2—She’s one of my favorites as well. Crazy Like Me is just absolutely positively one of my favorite songs ever. (No comments on that one from the people I know, please.)

charles 05.01.09 | 8:42 AM ET

Songs are indelibly etched into personal experience:

Bob Segers’ ‘Roll Me Away’ gassing up in Nebraska
Dylan’s Desolation Row traveling down a sad road, in a chair, staring.
Allman Brothers ‘Ramblin Man’, anywhere, anytime, when I was twenty-five.
Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘America’ sitting in my dorm in awe of what the future has in store (Thanks for that reminder, Jenna.)
Peter Paul and Mary’s ‘Early Morning Rain’ getting off a plane in Providence
Emily Lou Harris’s ‘Wheels’ after leaving a girlfriend
Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik on a train to Salzburg
Sinatra’s ‘Autumn in New York,’ glittering clouds and shimmering clouds in canyons of steel
Nat Cole’s version of ‘Route 66’ on any open road
Jim Croce’s ‘It Doesn’t Have to be that Way’ driving home to my love on a snowy Christmas Eve
Stones, ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, driving to Denver, seeing the Rockies for the first time

And too many more to mention.  Great songs above…Hem’s Rainy Night…and remember Brook Benton’s cut.  And yeah, Alison Krause.

kerry dexter 05.01.09 | 10:16 AM ET

@jim, Carrie Newcomer anything—I don’t suppose the Geography of Light qualifies as a place, but still…
Detroit City—many
By the Rio Grande—Tish Hinojosa
Hill of Alabam—Claire Lynch, Kathy Mattea
Leavin’ West Virginia—Kathy Mattea
Kennesaw Line—Claire Lynch
All American Bluegrass Girl—Rhonda Vincent (has Missouri and a bunch of other places)
Kentucky Borderline—Rhonda Vincent
Leaving Cottondale—Alison Brown
Tennessee Mountain Home—Dolly Parton
Red Dirt Girl—Emmylou Harris (road trip through Alabama)
Kentucky—Gail Davies

Jenna Schnuer 05.01.09 | 4:16 PM ET

Charles and Kerry—Thanks for chiming in. Great lists. Charles, you made me want to create an experience/memory-driven list.

Now, speaking of lists, what other kinds of U.S. travel-related lists would you like to see? I’ve got some ideas for future pieces but am always up for suggestions.

charles 05.01.09 | 4:30 PM ET

How about top ten bars for indigenous alcohol—is there such a thing?—like a pint of Guinness in Dublin, or slivovitz in Vienna, etc.  Name the city, the bar and the drink.

As for an experience/memory driven list I once heard NIkki Federman of Russ and Daughters say that food was central to all of her experiences.  Most or many of us, however, I think would say music was central to many of our experiences.  So about songs that remind one of disastrous relationships?  Only kidding.

Jenna Schnuer 05.01.09 | 4:38 PM ET

Thanks Charles. Since we focus on U.S. only here on the Flyover America portion of the World Hum blog, it’d be a little less indigenous, a little more….something but…something fun. I wrote a post a while back about one of my favorite place-related drink experiences (drank a Presbyterian while watching the Peabody ducks do their fountain thing in Memphis) but a list would be a great way to revisit the drinks topic.

As for Russ and Daughters—great, now I want lox. You buying?

charles 05.01.09 | 5:59 PM ET

Russ and D for the best Irish Salmon amongst three million other choices..  As for me buying, I look like the schnook, Schnuer, don’t I?  Okay, so I am.

How about the ten best old bars in NYC, that’s only been done about sixty-thousand times. 

And speaking of drink related experiences these folks have a nice site:

How about unique bars: prisons converted into bars, which reminds me of the ‘76 House in Tappan, NY, where Major Andre was held.  And I know you only want American, but there must be places like Dick Macks’ in Dingle, Ireland, where you can get your boots repaired on the left side, drink at the bar on the right side, and explore the chaos in the middle.    Must be a place/s like that in the States.

Jenna Schnuer 05.01.09 | 6:07 PM ET

First, to the schnook question: as I’m not sure if you’re a Charles I know (but I don’t think you are), I cannot comment on your schnookiness. So you’re safe there.

And the converted spaces list is a good idea—I’ve got some favorites so look for it coming soon(ish). I may need to expand it beyond bars—or not. That’ll be the big surprise finish.

And, Sir Charles, I hope you’ll return to Flyover America again and again. Your voice has been a fun addition to the ongoing conversation Sophia and I have with readers. And, of course, all schnooks welcome (not that I’m saying you are or not).

Chris 05.02.09 | 6:35 PM ET

Top Ten Geek Travel Destinations! Like the UFO museum in Roswell, NM or the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL.

kerry dexter 05.02.09 | 6:55 PM ET

there are a couple of prisons that have been converted into…hotels.  I think one’s in Massachusetts.
I once stayed in a B&b that had been a convent. been to a music venue which used to be a sewing factory and the seats there are pews from and old church.  also know two music venues which used to be firehouses, and another—in Canada—which still is both. artists’ dressing room is also where fire people store their outfits and gear, and artists walk past firetrucks to get into venue. but, as I said, Canada. and in Ireland, a bank which is now a nightclub.
by the way, songs of places got me thinking about Canadian ones, did a whole post about that over at Music Road, come check it out if you’d like. got me thinking about Ireland and Scotland now,  both of which I’ll have to do by region, I think…

Jenna Schnuer 05.02.09 | 6:57 PM ET

Yup, definitely in Mass—the Liberty Hotel is, flat-out, one of my all-time favorite hotels. I revised a Boston guidebook last year and was lucky enough to stay at the Liberty during my research. And I’ll definitely check out Music Road—is it

kerry dexter 05.06.09 | 4:42 PM ET

com on over. it’s

Radio Advertisement 05.26.09 | 2:42 AM ET

i am coming kerry.

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