Key to the Highway: A July 4th Playlist

July 4th Weekend  2020

I’m most sentimental about the two  greatest American holidays: Independence Day and Thanksgiving. I get downright maudlin over the machinations of the Continental Congress and the 13 delegations to it.

Let’s agree on this: whatever your political preference, it’s easy to say that this year everything’s a mess.

That doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the things that make our country great. My dad used to say we’re a restless people. I’d agree to a point, though, secretly, I think we all just like to bust out and feel free. So let’s celebrate with road and driving songs. I’ll feature a baker’s half dozen plus here, and post a longer Spotify playlist at the end.

It’s a long weekend. Be safe and have some fun.

Robert Johnson–Terraplane Blues

It’s always best to begin at the beginning. And even though the car in this classic blues song serves as a metaphor, the message couldn’t be more clear. “Mr. Highwayman, please don’t block the road,” Johnson moans. The man wants to go where he wants to go, and what living American doesn’t understand that feeling?

She & Him–Ridin’ in My Car

I’ve loved this song of teenage disappointment since I fist heard NRBQ‘s original way back in  1977. What’s not to like about a song where the only antidote to heartbreak is driving? Understandably, videos from that era are scarce and the lineup of the band hasn’t been the same in nigh on 30 years. This is as close as I could get, the improbably great She & Him with ‘Big’ Al Anderson, the man who wrote the song and sang it back in the day.

Kris Kristofferson-Me and Bobby McGee

There are any number of famous songs that got away from their creators and became inseparable from the performer who created the iconic version.  That doesn’t mean the author doesn’t retain the right to serve it up in its original form. And sometimes, that’s just as good as the better-known version, as Mr. K demonstrates here.

Wondering–Widespread Panic

Despite my inexplicable tolerance for a narrow swath of the Grateful Dead catalog and actual love for The Allman Brothers Band, I am not a jam band sort of guy, and Panic is definitely a jam band. This song is what you get when a producer convinces such a band to try for a hit. Maybe it’s because I first heard the song when I was driving a reverse commute, maybe I just have a thing for figuring out girls from behind the wheel, but when John Bell starts the second verse by singing “I’ve been driving..” I’m gone hook, line and sinker.

Steve Earle–Guitar Town

The eponymous hit from Steve‘s first album is only about a town secondarily. Actually, the guitar town is where he and the band came from. In the moment–and isn’t being free really just being in the moment?–he’s on the road loving the humming of “the steel belts on the asphalt.” That sound is either tedium or joy. I bet you can figure out which it is for me.


Joe Ely– Driving to the Poor House

In a fair world, Joe Ely would be a huge star and Toby Keith would be playing backyard barbeques. The cognoscenti, though, are well aware of Joe even if he does have enough first-hand experience to pen this tale of life on the road. The whining rock star road song (think Kid Rock’s “Only God Knows Why“) is a staple. Better, I think, to tell a tale, as Joe does,  of being one step ahead of the man because, true or not, aren’t we all?

Long White Cadillac–Miranda Lambert

If cars and driving play an outsized role in American popular song, some brands stood out more than others. Though I strive to avoid repetition, this roots-rock homage to
Mr. Hank puts a different spin on a classic auto brand, so much so that this song has become a sort of a modern country standard. To prove that point and demonstrate that a bad-attitude is not limited to boys and men, try this version of Dave Alvin‘s classic from Nashville’s own bad girl, Miranda Lambert. Sorry, I can’t put this on the playlist, it’s never been released.

Drive, She Said–Stan Ridgway

In both their film and written forms, I love American noir crime stories. The mood, the pace, the moral ambiguity, the vernacular that at once is familiar and yet all its own. Masterful stuff. Transport that to song and you’ve really impressed me. That’s what Stan Ridgway, the man behind the voice behind “Mexican Radio,” does here with this 1986 story song.

Here’s the link to the playlist. Have a happy Fourth. Stay safe. Care for each other–and yourself.



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