America is often considered a place that lacks originality. It is a melting pot, and therefore much American culture has been copied or adapted from some other culture. However, nothing seems more American than a good old-fashioned road trip: pack a suitcase, fill up the tank, crank up some good music, and hit the highway
It was on one such road trip that my husband and I started thinking about the topic of this post: American music. That is, what are some artists, albums, or songs, that capture the feeling of life in America? So much American-made music is sappy love songs, overdramatic power ballads, or factory-fresh bubble gum confections. I don’t want to listen to any of those while I am driving through the small towns, scenic byways, and endless interstate highways that represent life in America. Because really, America is so much more than suburbs full of cookie cutter houses and shopping malls.
With that in mind, I’d like to share some of my favorite American music, listed below by artist. This list could also be called “Great American Road Trip Music” because these are songs that match the mood of America’s many and varied landscapes. Feel free to add your own favorite American songs in the comments section. I find this an interesting topic to discuss.
- John Mellencamp – especially back when he was still “Cougar” – I mean, nothing captures small-town American life more than “Little Pink Houses,” “Jack and Diane,” “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” and “Small Town.” A small sampling of lyrics: “There’s a black man with a black cat living in a black neighborhood. He’s got an interstate running through his front yard.” (so true, how the interstates took over people’s yards)
- Tom Petty – Remember when Tom Cruise was driving down the freeway in Jerry Maguire singing “Free Fallin'” at the top of his lungs? That song is such fun to sing along to. Some more “American” lyrics: “She’s a good girl, she loves her mama, loves Jesus, and America, too.” Interestingly, Tom Petty also mentions “there’s a freeway runnin’ through the yard.” The price of progress seems to be a recurring theme in American music. Another that comes to mind is “You pave paradise to put up a parking lot.” There’s so much natural beauty in America that you hate to see it all cut down and paved over for roads and malls. Anyway, Tom Petty has lots of songs about the American experience. Another that comes to mind is “Into the Great Wide Open.”
- Counting Crows – This band’s sound is very gritty, yet their music also has a comfort-factor to it. I can identify with the rural landscape described in “Omaha” – “run past the heather and down to the old road” – it reminds me of my childhood days roaming around the countryside near my house. Another great song of theirs is “Raining in Baltimore,” which is partly about the distance that can separate loved ones in this large country of ours, and the feelings of isolation and monotony that can lead to: “I need a phone call, I need a plane ride, I need a sunburn, I need a raincoat… Three thousand five hundred miles away, but what would you change if you could?”
- R.E.M. – I’m thinking particularly of Automatic for the People. The first song on the album, “Drive,” seems to be about the random and carefree driving around that American teenagers do. I used to do that. Of course, that was before gas was $3.50+ a gallon! “Nightswimming” and “Find the River” are other great songs from that album.
- Simon & Garfunkel – They represent another generation of American music, but many of their lyrics still hold true. For example, in “America” they sing about people searching the country for something: “Kathy, I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh, Michigan seems like a dream to me now. It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw, I’ve gone to look for America.” Another good example is “Homeward Bound.” Although it is specifically about a traveling musician, the lyrics also apply well to anyone who travels a lot or drives a long way to get back home: “And each town looks the same to me the movies and the factories, and every stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be homeward bound.”
- James Taylor – Another classic artist, James Taylor has many songs that reflect the spirit of America. One of my favorites is “Carolina in My Mind” (In my mind I’m goin’ to Carolina. Can’t you see the sunshine, can’t you just feel the moonshine. Maybe just like a friend of mine, it hit me from behind.
Yes, I’m goin’ to Carolina in my mind.”)
- Elizabethtown soundtrack, Vols. I & II – Unlike most people, I loved this movie, and I also thought the soundtrack was excellent. It is full of music that fits my idea of American, more for the sound than the lyrics in this case. It is fitting that many of these songs were featured during Orlando Bloom’s road trip during the movie.
I’m sure I could continue listing songs forever, but I will stop here. The songs I listed above are the ones that best fit my idea of music that reflects America.