Travel is like vermouth. Just about everything mixes well with it.
Food and travel go together like Penn and Teller. Photography and travel are like Batman and Robin. And music and travel together are Blake and Miranda singing Lennon and McCartney like they’re Simon and Garfunkel. In the world of travel, nothing beats a pair of aces.
Whether it’s cranking tunes with the windows down or plugging in and tuning out the airport world, music enhances travel, makes the sunsets richer, the flights smoother, the waits more bearable, the beer more delicious, and the drives more memorable.
The right music, that is. The right music differs for everyone, and some people’s idea of “right” defies categorization.
I’d like to think that my ideas of the right music come down squarely on the side of eclectism, but ask me to list my top 15 traveling songs and the spectrum narrows quite a lot.
My top 15 are mostly pretty straightforward roots-rock with a few forays into the ditches, an impression reinforced by the songs that just missed making this list – John Fogerty’s “Rockin’ All Over The World,” John Hiatt’s “Slow Turning,” and the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “Revolutionary Ways. ”
Eclectic or not, see how long you can hang with my 15 essential traveling songs.
- Carlene Carter and Dave Edmunds, “Baby Ride Easy”: A little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, a little bit British New Wave, and a little bit Cash-and-(June) Carter Appalachia. An imaginative pairing-off of trucker and waitress, matador and senorita, and president and first lady. The perfect song. (Do not confuse this with the recently unearthed Johnny-and-June version, which can benevolently be described as something less than the perfect song.)
- Johnnie Allan, “Promised Land”: The first swamp-pop superhit takes some of the racial edge off of Chuck Berry’s chronicle of a tortuous cross-country journey (put in a traveling context here), but the driving beat mixed with Cajun accordion and a pinch of New Orleans makes for a better song.
- Ry Cooder, “Do Re Mi” (from Show Time): Cooder’s cut a couple of versions of Woody Guthrie’s Grapes of Wrath story, but this version from Ry’s first live album edges out the recent (but still vital) take from Live In San Francisco. John Mellencamp’s fiddle-and-dobro version from Folkways: A Vision Shared is a respectable runner-up.
- Bruce Springsteen, “Viva Las Vegas”: A staple of the Boss’ live shows for years, the studio version finds a diamond in Elvis’ latin-tinged chunk of coal. Honorable mention: Springsteen’s transcendent take on Warren Zevon’s “My Ride’s Here” from the posthumous tribute album Enjoy Every Sandwich.
- Asleep at the Wheel, “Route 66”: Ray Benson and the gang find that this classic’s sweet spot is a beat-me-daddy-eight-to-the-bar boogie, halfway between the laid-back swing of Nat King Cole and the revved-up punkabilly of the Rolling Stones.
- Peter Case, “Travelin’ Light”: Los Lobos supplies the punch in this underappreciated gem off of the former Plimsoul’s The Man With the Blue Post-Modern Impressionistic Guitar.
- Phil Cunningham, “The Wedding“: I was staying with the jaw-dropping Celtic accordionist/keyboardist on the Isle of Skye and heard him put the finishing touches on this atmospheric ballad just before the eponymous event. The perfect blend of song, time, and place.
- Dawes, “When My Time Comes”: No other contemporary band mines the rich genre of California country-rock to better effect, and this anthemic rocker channels Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Mumford & Sons, and the Call’s classic “Let The Day Begin.” Top-down Pacific Coast Highway music at its best.
- Ruth Brown, “As Long As I’m Moving”: The verses make sense only in that alternate universe of the blues cliche, but the chorus is perfect and Miss Rhythm doesn’t miss a lick. And get ready — here comes that sax break.
- Paul Simon, “Boy In The Bubble”: All of the glorious possibilities of world music are delivered in this song’s first 16 bars. This song, the first track off of Simon’s epochal Graceland album, absolutely blew out of speakers in 1986, and time hasn’t diminished this song’s power. First runner-up goes not to the album’s eponymous track but to “The Obvious Child” from the followup, The Rhythm of the Saints.
- Van Morrison, “Caravan” (from the Band’s The Last Waltz): Garth Hudson, Levon Helm & Co. strip away the quirky clunkiness of the original and reveal the gauzy tale of a gypsy girl in all its horn-driven glory. And Van the Man lays out.
- Randy Scruggs (with John Prine), “City of New Orleans”: You have to go some to outdo Arlo Guthrie’s near-definitive version, but Prine had 30-plus more years to get this right, and Scruggs et al. provide sympathetic accompaniment. Forever and always the best train song ever written.
- Georgia Satellites, “Dan Takes Five”: People fall into two camps regarding the Satellites: They either love them or have never heard of them. This, the last song from their last (and best) album, tromps the accelerator to the floor, snaps your head back, goes for three straight minutes at 90 miles an hour, and doesn’t slow down ‘til the very, very end.
- Toots and the Maytals, “Funky Kingston”: Reggae iconoclast that I am, I prefer the Maytals’ harder edge and chewier rhythm to the smoothness and melodicism of the Marley and the Wailers. This eponymous track from T&TM’s best album hangs in the minor key forever, but proves that Toots Hibbert could sing the alphabet and make it sound soulful.
- Kirsty MacColl, “He’s On The Beach“: The second-best songwriter to come out of the British New Wave, MacColl could write a song about practically anything and hang a power-pop hook on it the size of Buckingham Palace. Case in point: This simple song about a U.K. expat in Australia sounds huge.
Wherever in the world you happen to be heading, music makes the trip better. We’ll tell you more along the way; in the meantime; what’s your 15-song traveling playlist? Share it with us. Drop us a line at Marketing@BHTP.com and tell us. If it’s good, we’ll publish it. If it’s really good, we’ll pay you.
In the meantime, happy traveling … and listening.
Kit Kiefer is the author of They Called It Rock: The Goldmine Oral History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.