Photo credit: Kevin Snyder Photography
I’ve been a long-haul truck driver off and on since 1980. Music is essential for the two-day, 878.6-mile slog on The Dime (Interstate 10) through Texas or the 1,800-mile trip from New York to Denver. Below is a sliver from my Texas road-trip playlist. I’ve intentionally left out standards like Willie Nelson’s "On the Road" for being too obvious, though "Truckin’" by the Grateful Dead simply had to be there.
Enjoy, my friends, and watch the miles go by.
"Cross the Heartland" by Pat Metheny Group
It’s not often you get a jazz crowd jumping into the aisles and dancing, but this one does that. I once played basketball with Lyle Mays after a concert in Maine. He was tall, skinny, and competitive. All I could think of was that I might foul him and he’d jam his thumb and have to cancel the rest of the tour. The song quietly escalates between Metheny’s solos and Lyle’s (I’ll call him Lyle) rhythm until it hits that crescendo at 4:55. Watch your speedometer because if you’re paying attention to the music, you’re probably driving at 95 mph.
"Six to Four" by George Benson
This is a longish instrumental meant to be played in urban traffic with the windows up and the AC cranked creating a hermetic seal. In driving through the cityscape, the music provides a background to the unfolding scenes. My sealed truck is the theatre, the music is the film score, the frenetic activity I’m watching is the movie, and my windshield is the screen. Home video.
"Family Tradition" by Hank Williams Jr.
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Enough of high-blown seriousness here and time to loosen up. Good old Hank Jr. ties in his self-destructive nature with his impeccable American musical pedigree and a jolly fine little tune. The recurrent behavior patterns through generations has a little twinge of personal meaning too.
"Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond
I know, I know. It was a quick descent from Pat Metheny to Neil. String me up from a lamp post if you want, but Neil Diamond’s the real deal. He certainly paid his dues. He was in the Brill Building with Carole King, Paul Simon, Sonny Bono, and Neil Sedaka in the early 1960s. Driving down an empty highway, this song is sublime. Listening to 30,000 Red Sox fans blurt it out at Fenway Park constitutes a personal circle of hell. Context is everything.
"Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson
Sure MJ was a weirdo. Sooner or later everyone needs to figure out whether personal moral deficiencies are an important consideration in an artist or an artist’s work. There can be a certain sterility when an ethically immaculate artist plies his trade against a common reprobate. Compare J. S. Bach against Mozart or Thomas Mann with Norman Mailer and you’ll understand what I mean. For my part, I don’t much care about behavior in compiling my set list. If I did, there’d be a lot of Pat Boone and Donny Osmond.
"Wagon Wheel" by Old Crow Medicine Show
I came late to this, having only heard it in the last year or two, so I’ve been spared the song’s rise and fall. Only recently have I learned that this song has become the acoustic musician’s version of "Freebird" and certain high falutin’ strummers now refuse to play it. That’s too bad. This song too has solid antecedents having Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup and Bob Dylan as builders of the melody and lyrics.
"Bertha" by Grateful Dead
Everyone complains that the Grateful Dead vocals are frequently off-key. As a veteran of 77 GD shows, I’ll offer that the melodic errors don’t annoy me as much as the lyric butchering. To give the guys credit, some of these songs are hard to sing. Strange keys, minor chords, and non-standard tempo make great songs like "Uncle John’s Band" and "Jack Straw" hard to pull off at your local karaoke bar. "Bertha" is just reachable for a guy like me, and if I’m alone and driving, at least I have the ease of knowing I’m not at Madison Square Garden getting reviewed by the New York Times
"Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits
There aren’t a lot of songs out there about hard work and even fewer about movers. When Knopfler recognizes us, well, we’ll take that as an anthem. “We gotta move these refrigerators, we gotta move these color TVs.” Nuff said.
"American Girl" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
A trademark of Tom Petty’s is an intentional inconsistency between lyrics and melody. The tune is about triumph and the lyrics about suicide. Petty has that poetic genius where in just two stanzas he created a whole world and then shattered it. The triumphal music serves to either bolster the complicated meaning or just let a casual listener enjoy it without knowing how dark this song really is. I think Tom likes his musical jokes. It must be fun to be the smartest guy in the room while looking to be the dumbest.
"Graceland" by Paul Simon
All truck drivers know this story. It’s the story of hitting the road to forget responsibilities, lapses in judgment or behavior, or an attempt to make amends. In addition to that, there’s the hope of finding, if not absolution, then at least acceptance. “I’ve reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.” It’s the place where whatever we’ve done will be forgiven. I’m particularly partial to the Willie Nelson version.
"Moondance" by Van Morrison
One should always make some time in life for a little romance. This song is simply perfect.
"Truckin’" by Grateful Dead
Like so many of the songs on this playlist, it’s the bass line that transmits the sense of motion requisite to any self-respecting road song. To those skeptical that the universe has a plan, look no further than the fact that the ultimate American road band wrote and performed the ultimate American road song. Rest in peace.
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grew up in Connecticut and now lives in Colorado. He started working as a long-haul trucker in 1980. The Long Haul
is his first book.