Music Playlist For A USA Road Trip

4 January 2015
Read Time: 5.8 mins

Once that big silver bird touches down in Los Angeles and you’ve collected your bags at the carousel, there’s no greater thrill than jumping in your hire car, plugging in your ‘programmed-at-home’ sat-nav device, and setting off into what Tom Petty once called ‘the great wide open’.

1. Route 66 by Nat King Cole


The only thing you cannot do without is a play list of tunes to accompany you on your journey. As you ride along Route 66, you have to cruise to Nat King Cole’s song of the same name. So, buckle up, put your foot on the gas and press play.

There’s over four million miles of highway in the USA and you won’t see all of it in your lifetime, but you can give it a red-hot go. The Southern-Pacific runs between San Diego [California] and Savannah [Georgia]. These twenty-two tracks will help you wile away those hours behind the wheel and only add to the experience.

2. Running Down A Dream by Tom Petty


With that LA morning sunshine in your eyes as you pull out of the LAX parking lot, let’s kick off with the aforementioned Mr Petty’s Running Down A Dream.

As guitarist Mike Campbell’s riff kicks in as you put the car into gear your adventure has begun. And how’s this for an opening lyric ‘It was a beautiful day/The sun beat down/I had the radio on/I was drivin.’’

3. Life In The Fast Lane by The Eagles


Einstein’s law of mix-tapes suggested that if you’re opening with a rocker, you have to follow it with one.

Rolling back a decade, and given the amount of highway you’ll be seeing, The Eagles’ Life In The Fast Lane is completely appropriate and it’s from the epic Hotel California LP which reflects the locale.

4. Born To Be Wild by Steppenwolf


Let’s keep the energy up and hit it with, arguably, the greatest driving song of all time, Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild.

Now think of Peter Fonda in Easy Rider as he throws his watch into the desert and rides off into the majesty of the unknown. The song is an ode to the road and freedom: which is exactly how you’re feeling as you clock up those holiday miles.

5. Southern Pacific by Neil Young


The road you’re currently on is the old US-80. That’s 3,000 miles of bitumen that’ll get you to Savannah. Known as the 'Southern Pacific', let’s hit play on Neil Young’s song of the same name from his 1981 album Re-Ac-Tor.

Here you get the guitar crunch of Crazy Horse and a whiff of new wave.

6. San Diego Serenade by Tom Waits


Travelling south you’ll arrive in San Diego.

You can apply this play list to anywhere you drive, but there’s a poignancy that fits with Tom Waits' 1974 piece San Diego Serenade from the album, The Heart Of Saturday Night.

7. Horse With No Name by America


Through the southwestern desert you wipe the dust off your windshield and take in ‘two days of sky’.

It’s hard not to play America’s Horse With No Name. But stay calm, you’re not Walter White and this isn’t the opening scene of Breaking Bad Season Two.

8. Get Back by The Beatles


The Beatles brought so much American music back to America, it seems fitting to drop them in the middle of this play list: especially when Get Back includes such memorable lines as “Jojo was a man who thought he was loner/But he knew it couldn’t last/Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona/For some California grass.”

9. By The Time I Get To Phoenix by Glen Campbell


Jimmy Webb remains one of the great American songwriters: Glen Campbell maintains the same stature as a singer. The artistic marriage that created By The Time I Get To Phoenix knows few peers. Press play and enjoy.

10. Take Me Home by John Denver


With the acoustic guitars riding high in the mix, it’s time to stay in cruise control as you glide through New Mexico to John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads.

Denver was born in Roswell, and the song criss-crosses the USA all the way to West Virginia.

More fine driving songs. Catherine Britt’s Driving Songs For A Journey Through The Country

Seeking the South's music capital? Must-See Memphis – Top 5 Attractions

11. Always A Friend by Alejandro Escovedo


Moving through Texas, it’s worth giving Alejandro Escovedo’s Always A Friend some airtime.

Described by no less a critic than Bruce Springsteen as a ‘great Texas songwriter’, you can opt for Escovedo’s own version or the one he cut live with the Boss.

12. It's So Easy by Buddy Holly


As you motor through Texas you might well pass the Buddy Holly monument in Lubbock. It’s hard to choose one Holly track.

But, you’re in holiday mode, so we’ll go for It’s So Easy. If you can’t find his original, Linda Ronstadt recorded a terrific cover.

13. Tush by ZZ Top


As you’re rolling through Texas it’s impossible not to hear ZZ Top’s Dusty Hill singing ‘Dallas Texas/Hollywood’ in your head.

So, why not play it on your hire car stereo? A class twelve-bar in the key of ‘G’, it’s, Tush… and if you’re not careful it could lead to a speeding ticket.

14. Johnny B Goode by Chuck Berry


While we’re talking twelve-bar, it’s time for the ‘great American poet’ Chuck Berry [one of the father’s of rock and roll] and his timeless Johnny B. Goode.

The song embodies the American dream as Johnny sets out to conquer the USA from his home ‘down in Louisiana’.

15. Bonny And Clyde by Serge Gainsbourg


Bonnie & Clyde met their fate in Louisiana: so we’ve snuck in Serge Gainsbourg’s song of the same name, which he sings with Brigitte Bardot.

It’s a curve ball after all of this classic Americana, but it’s as hypnotic as the highway ahead.

16. On Guilded Splinters by Dr John


It’s impossible not to think of New Orleans when you’re talking about American music.

A man synonymous with that city is Dr John. When his finger was injured by a gunshot, he swapped guitar for piano.

Inspired by Professor Longhair, he became an LA session player, an enigma and, eventually, a Hall Of Fame-r. His 1968 album Gris-Gris inspired John Lennon to write Come Together. I Walk On Guilded Splinters was later covered by everyone from Paul Weller to Cher.

17. The Thrill Is Gone by BB King


By you time you hit the Mississippi you’ll be steeped in the music that helped define America in the 20th Century. Jazz, blues, rock and roll, country and gospel all run deep in this part of the world.

The Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame in Clinton honours a virtual ‘Who’s Who’ of American greats. When it comes to the blues it’s hard not to think of Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, Howlin’ Wolf and Charlie Patton.

Here we’ll go for the ‘King of the Blues’, BB King and his classic The Thrill Is Gone.

18. Suspicious Minds by Elvis Presley


The undisputed King Of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, hailed from Tupelo.

Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock and Teddy Bear are wonderful driving songs from the 1950’s, but we’re opting for Suspicious Minds…the long version, cut live, at his Aloha From Hawaii concert … ‘I’m caught in a trap…

19. Mississippi Girl by Faith Hill


One of the current Queens of Country, Faith Hill, is from this part of the world. So, while the King cools his heels, we’ll roll into her USA #1 Country hit, Mississippi Girl.

20. Hey Good Lookin by Hank Williams


Still on a country bent, the Hank Williams’ memorial is in Montgomery Alabama.

One of the godfathers of modern country, it seems fitting to celebrate Hank as you drive through town with his signature tune, Hey Good Lookin’. The songs are short and sweet so why not give Move It On Over a play while you’re at it?

For a change of pace, we’re celebrating a couple of influential bands that came out of Georgia.

21. Rock Lobster by The B52s


The B52’s virtually defined new wave, and Rock Lobster is a great tune to drive [and sing along] to.

22. Electrolite by R.E.M.


R.E.M. came out of a town called Athens, and, while it’s hard to pick favourites, it’s worth investigating the relatively lesser-known Electrolite from New Adventures In Hi-Fi.

23. Georgia On My Mind by Ray Charles


Now you’re in the home straight and there’s no finer Ray Charles song than Georgia On My Mind.

It’s a good time to wind down the window, reflect on the road and let this masterpiece wash over you.

Sean Sennett

Sean Sennett is a Brisbane based writer. He has interviewed everyone from Bono to Paul McCartney and many artists in between. His work has been widely published both in Australia and overseas.