“King of the Road” was a family-reunion favorite song of the road. It’s one of Roger Miller’s best performances on record, loose but smooth—a hobo’s song of life as a town-to-town drifter. It was Miller’s biggest hit, getting to #4 on the Billboard pop charts in ’65. Roger Miller was an Okie, like my family, so he was OK.
My job at our family reunions was to play guitar and lead the singing. My aunts and uncles loved to sing together, and I looked forward to making my annual contribution to the festivities. I didn’t fish or ski, didn’t play golf or horseshoes, wasn’t an outdoorsy guy like most everyone else in the family. But I could play requests, find keys, keep the music going. There were lots of “quota songs” that popped up repeatedly at these gatherings, songs everyone knew and loved but that I’d had my fill of long ago—“Margaritaville,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “The City of New Orleans.” All good songs, just overfamiliar. I could enjoy playing them for my relatives, though, in the spirit of kinship. I just wouldn’t choose to play them on a CD in the privacy of my home.
Another song of the road that always wound up on the reunion playlist was John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Really not a bad song at all, and much loved by those of a certain age—about my age and up—but I have definitely met my lifetime quota on it.
When I play the senior centers, I mostly stick with the ‘30s-era swingy-thingies, like “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “As Time Goes By, and “Blue Skies,” and the old-folks-at-the-home generally know and love them. But when I ask whether they have any requests, it’s often a song not from the ‘30s but from the ‘70s. Yes, sad to say: Seventies music is now music for people in their seventies.
“Take Me Home, Country Roads” is often asked for, and the whole time I’m playing it for them, I’m thinking, “You know, these people in here are not that much older than I am; they listened to John Denver, Stevie Wonder, and maybe even Bad Company, just like I did.” It’s a sobering thought. So I tend to stick with the Ellington and Gershwin stuff. Timeless, right?
I was drawn to the eerie mood of Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” whenever I heard it on the radio as a young lad. The harmonica and the pulsing bass line set the ominous tone, and the falsetto vocal of Blind Owl Wilson complemented the instruments just right. It was years later that I got the same eerie feeling, and a sense of déjà vu, hearing Floyd Jones’s 1951 song “Dark Road.” I didn’t immediately associate the two songs, but read later that Wilson drew from “Dark Road” to come up with “On the Road Again.” Jones, who’s credited as a co-writer on the Heat song, had derived his song from “Big Road Blues” by Tommy Johnson, which I only heard (and loved) for the first time recently, 86 years after it was recorded. Tommy also wrote “Canned Heat Blues,” which gave the blues-rock group its name.
An additional Canned Heat road-song hit, “Goin’ Up the Country,” was borrowed from an old acoustic blues song. “Bull Doze Blues,” recorded by Henry Thomas in 1928, had the same guitar rhythm and flute part to back the same melody. The Beale Street Sheiks (Frank Stokes and Dan Sane) had recorded a similar song in 1927, about being “Beale Street Bound.” In one verse, Stokes sings, “I’m goin’, I’m goin’, what you want me to bring you back?” Al Wilson, forty years later, sings, “I’m goin’, I’m goin” where the water tastes like wine.” The blues is a borrowing style, but all pop music borrows to varying degrees from roots predecessors. There’s truly nothing new under the sun—but there continue to be delightful mergings and mutations.
“Hit the Road, Jack” is on the short list of songs I’ve listened to and performed the most without getting tired of them. I loved Ray Charles’ #1 hit from 1961 the first time I heard it on the radio, and I still enjoy it. The song was written by Percy Mayfield, a singer/songwriter who’s not very well-known for anything else (and, really, not known by most as the writer of “Hit the Road, Jack”). Mayfield did have a few fine R&B hits in the fifties and sixties. The first, “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” from 1950, is a Grammy Hall of Famer. His last, “River’s Invitation,” from 1963, is another favorite of mine. What the river’s inviting poor Percy, who’s lost his lover, to do is to jump in and stay. The late, great Joe Cocker has memorably recorded the song. The Double Six of Paris Sing Ray Charles features the vocal group applying English, French, scat, and vocalese to the hits of Ray Charles, including “Hit the Road, Jack.” (Jacques?)
Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” like many songs of the road, is about the life of a touring music artist. When Willie sings “The life I love is makin’ music with my friends / And I can’t wait to get on the road again,” we know he really means it. He has spent so much of his eighty-plus years traveling from venue to venue that it probably tears at him even still to stay tethered to his ranch for any extended amount of time.
Running on Empty is Jackson Browne’s concept album of the road tour. Its songs are not only mostly about life on the road as a musician, but they were all recorded live—on stage, backstage, or in hotel rooms after the shows. “Running on Empty” and “The Load-Out/Stay” were both hits, and the 1977 album was his top seller. They say that this one’s among the least favorite of Browne fans; it’s the only one I ever listen to.
Honorable Mention: Bruce Springsteen opened his breakout 1975 album Born to Run with “Thunder Road.” But actor Robert Mitchum co-wrote and sang his own “Ballad of Thunder Road” for the movie Thunder Road, which he also starred in in 1958. Mitchum’s song hit the pop charts twice, in 1958 and 1962. It’s a much lighter creative endeavor than his menacing acting turns in the great Cape Fear and The Night of the Hunter.
Amazing Jimmy (“There’s no such thing as a bad song”) Candidate: I picked up a 45 of “Hit the Road, Jack,” performed by Connie Eaton and Dave Peel, that’s bad enough to help me to understand just how lucky Percy Mayfield was to have gotten the song to Ray Charles.
There are miles and miles of great road songs. Which ones beckon you?