Great road trips require three things: a great road, a great car, and excellent road music. We already have the first – Route 66, the Mother Road! – and we can’t help you with the vehicle (muscle car, Mustang, or Mini – that’s up to you), but road music is another matter.
It’s gone cloudy and cool now here in Chicago at dinnertime, but earlier today the sunny weather was a whisper of spring. Not a promise yet, mind you, just a hint. The kind of mild, windless day that, despite temperatures in the low-to-mid 40s F., makes you want to roll out that road car (as opposed to the commuter car or family van) and go Somewhere. And that always makes me think of Nelson Riddle’s great theme for the Route 66 TV series. The show itself got a bit dated-looking over the intervening years; it’s obvious now that it’s a period piece, if only from the black-and-white episodes. But the theme song … oh my, that one’s timeless. Makes you feel like moving. And so we have a jazz trio rendition for you, courtesy of Martin Denny.
But wait: one good road song deserves another, and your road trip playlist ideally should be more diverse than just 6,600 versions of the Bobby Troup anthem or 66 reissues of Nelson Riddle. Even when the theme is a bossa-nova-styled take that seems highly appropriate for cruising through Pasadena or Santa Monica. There are plenty of road music compilations that veer toward the obvious, either rock based (e.g., “Bad To The Bone,” Springsteen doing “Pink Cadillac,” Brian Setzer’s hot guitar, Chuck Berry singing “Maybelline,” etc.), country-and-blues inflected, movie-themed or classical, or car-and-surfing music (Jan & Dean, Dick Dale’s guitar, The Beach Boys with “Fun, Fun, Fun” – hey, I was that girl who sneaked out to the car to go cruisin’). But for me, road music is all about the rhythm, which leads my music tastes much further afield. And just as good swing dance music has that locomotive rhythm that lets you swing-out properly, traveling music has its own rhythms, and they vary sometimes.
You need music that reminds you of wheels turning, without being overly obvious. Riddle’s theme is the place to start, but don’t end there. One of Pat Metheny’s earliest albums, American Garage (1979), comes to mind, and for good reason: he’s a Missouri boy, and he knows how to write music that makes you feel the waving of the prairie wildflowers and the rolling of the hills as you pass by. That goes for Illinois, too: you want something that feels right when you’re traveling through the prairie from Wilmington toward Springfield. Metheny’s song “Airstream” has that feel of a leisurely tour through warm, sunny fields in early summer. Other tracks on the album such as “(Cross The) Heartland” work, too. Same goes for the faster driving rhythm of “New Chautauqua.” This very album American Garage, in fact, is what made me fall in love with Metheny’s music during the early 1980s: there was something about it that I recognized on a semi-conscious level. Metheny tracks still form one of my favorite driving-music playlists, especially for day-long drives. They definitely convey the feeling of movement with a dreamlike sensibility.
Another example is found in today’s bonus video, with the British jazz-and-crossover artist Jamie Cullum doing his song “Wheels” from the 2009 album The Pursuit, his fifth. Cullum’s alternately bendable and gravelly voice seems very popular over the last decade with film music directors, as it lends itself to many different styles. It’s his voice singing over the closing credits of the 2009 Clint Eastwood film Gran Torino, however – in a film named for a muscle car, no less – that really wows. Cullum, who has a killer way with a ballad, wrote the song for the film and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for it (even though Eastwood, his musician son Kyle and Kyle’s writing partner, Michael Stevens all got credited on it, the main contribution was Cullum’s). The closing scene of an empty road along Lake St. Clair gradually filling with traffic gives us a visual of movement that nonetheless leaves the viewer behind, and music that moves us in that other sense, especially given the ‘twist’ ending of the film. Cullum’s voice is haunting. This, too, is road music, but of a quieter, sadder, more thoughtful sort.
So we’ll give you “Wheels” for your playlist instead. Be sure to also check out Cullum’s tracks “Edge of Something,” “You’re Not The Only One” and “When I Get Famous” from his 2013 album Momentum, which also feel right for a cruising playlist. But decide that for yourself. This particular video, BTW, has some lovely visuals. Enjoy.
Until next time,
your own DJ SweetMarie