Music and automobiles go together like oil and engines. In fact, an argument can be made that music is more indispensable to the driving experience. If you’re on a road trip with friends and you suspect you’re low on oil, you can simply pull into a service station. If you’re low on good music, and there isn’t a store for miles, you’re going to have one ugly scene on your hands.
There is no better time to mix music and motoring than the summer. The sun, warm temperatures and lots of either free time (if you’re a student or slacker) or vacation days (if you’re a working stiff) combine to create an environment of mindless frivolity and no-strings-attached recreation.
But choosing just the right songs to blast on the car stereo while singing along at high decibels is serious business. You want selections that are sing-along friendly. You need songs that capture the essence of what it means to cruise around without a care in the world. It would also help if you had a full tank of gas and your registration and insurance were all paid up, but first things first.
What follows is a playlist for the summer road warrior. These songs were chosen because each has a unique connection to the American driving experience. They are varied in their content, their musical styles and their eras. But when you cue up these modern classics and hit the asphalt, you will feel like you’re behind the wheel of the finest driving machine on the planet surrounded by the coolest people on earth, even if you’re really operating a ’92 Pontiac and riding with your knucklehead friends:
“I’VE BEEN EVERYWHERE” by Johnny Cash
You don’t have to drive an 18-wheeler or own a CB radio to appreciate the nomadic sentiments expressed in this lively foot-tapper by the Man in Black. Here’s just a sample of some of the places he’s been: “Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota, Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma, Tampa, Panama, Mattua, LaPaloma, Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo, Tocapillo, Pocotello, Amperdillo.” Try to keep up and it might wear you out. You’d be wise to sing along with a verse, pull into a truck stop for some greasy eggs and burnt toast, sing another verse, make another stop, etc.
“SHERRY DARLING” by Bruce Springsteen
This appears on the 1980 album “The River” and it’s Bruce’s way of letting off a little steam when his girlfriend’s overbearing mother forgets that she’s a guest in his car. A sample: “Your mama’s yappin’ in the backseat, tell her to push over and move them big feet.” Certainly, it’s a sentiment shared by millions. He lays down the law in the chorus: “You can tell her there’s a hot sun beatin’ on the blacktop, she keeps talkin’ she’ll be walkin’ that last block.” If you ever find yourself in a car quarreling with the mother of your significant other, play this loud and maybe she’ll get the hint.
“THE ROAD AND THE SKY” by Jackson Browne
Usually you do not associate Jackson with lively rockers. You associate him with melancholy ballads that you play while lying in a fetal position after a breakup. But this is an energetic car tune from the “Late for the Sky” release that breaks the Browne stereotype and makes you think that occasionally he had some fun on four wheels while still maintaining his thoughtful and philosophical image. He tells his lady: “When we come to the place where the road and the sky collide, throw me over the edge and let my spirit glide, they told me I was gonna have to work for a living but all I want to do is ride, I don’t care where we’re going from here, honey you decide.” Hmm. Not work for a living, but simply ride. Now there’s an idea whose time has come.
“HITCH HIKE” by Marvin Gaye
What happens when your girl leaves you and you go track her down? In some cases, you get slapped with a restraining order. But Marvin’s love is pure. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much money, so he decides to hitch hike. His trek in this bouncy sing-along takes him first to Chicago, then later St. Louis and Los Angeles, which makes you think that either the girl can’t hold a job, or she’s really trying to get away from Marvin. Clearly, he is determined: “I’m gonna find that girl if I have to hitch hike around the world.” This 1963 hit, covered later by both Martha Reeves & the Vandellas and the Rolling Stones, mentions the phrase “hitch hike” 46 times, so you won’t have to remember many lyrics.
“ROUTE 66” by the Rolling StonesThe highway stretched 2,250 miles, from Chicago to Los Angeles, until 1985 when Congress, in its finite wisdom, decided to decertify it and change its name to the more generic and inconsequential Interstate 40. Well before that, a songwriter named Bobby Troup Jr. decided he liked the rich and amazing slice of Americana that Route 66 cut for the world to see, so he wrote this song. Nat King Cole recorded it first, and it has been covered by many, from Bing Crosby to Depeche Mode. The Stones don’t necessarily own it, but it’s one of the classic oldie covers they’re most famous for. “If you get hip to this kind of trip, and go take that California trip, get your kicks on Route 66.” This song can be sung at the top of one’s lungs on any major thoroughfare.
“TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS” by John Denver
You may think to yourself, “I live in the inner city. Why would I sing a song about country roads?” Well, use your imagination. When Denver recorded this, he had never been to West Virginia, which is where he wanted us all to think he longed for. And the two songwriters, Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, wrote it while driving to Maryland and had never been to West Virginia either. This may be a little too clean-cut and cornball for many tastes, but it’s easy to sing, it’s likely to come on the radio in many parts of the country, and this might be a good time for you to put aside your cynical attitude and embrace the joy of returning home, even if it’s an imaginary place that you’ve never been to.
“TRAFFIC JAM” by James Taylor
You didn’t think you’d get through this without being stuck in traffic, did you? At least half of the people in the U.S., when stuck in serious parking-lot traffic, mumble this song under their breath. Who can forget these immortal words: “Damn this traffic jam, how I hate to be late, it hurts my motor to go so slow, damn this traffic jam, time I get home my supper be cold.” Now, there’s a difference between motorists singing it on their own, and some insufferable news guy on the radio prompting them by using it as a lead-in to his traffic report. The former is a natural phenomenon, the latter calls for a fine by the FCC for a lack of imagination.
“SURFIN’ USA” by the Beach Boys
It’s really unforgivable to listen to this in a car unless you’re riding in a convertible. It would be like watching “Lawrence of Arabia” on an airplane. In fact, last month the Chrysler Group did an online survey and “Surfin’ USA” was voted the best song to cruise to while driving with the top down by a whopping 67 percent of respondents. The first pressings of this 1963 release listed Brian Wilson and Mike Love as writers. But Chuck Berry felt “Surfin’ USA” was a ripoff of his “Sweet Little Sixteen” and threatened a lawsuit. Consequently, all future pressings listed Berry as sole writer.
“ROAD TO NOWHERE” by the Talking HeadsIt’s become a cliché that men get lost while driving and refuse to take directions. Personally, I think it’s a little insulting. I’ve known a few women in my day who insist they know where they’re going, but it turns out they really don’t. So we’re all in this together, folks. The Talking Heads understand: “We’re on a road to nowhere, come on inside, takin’ that ride to nowhere, we’ll take that ride.” All right, so David Byrne & Co. probably are referring to something more spiritual. Still, the next time you’re on a busy highway in an unfamiliar area and you realize you just missed a turnoff and the next one isn’t for several miles, tell me this song doesn’t resonate.
“HIT THE ROAD, JACK” by Ray Charles
Technically, this isn’t a song about driving, but rather, being driven out of somebody’s life: “Old woman, old woman, oh you treat me so mean, you’re the meanest old woman that I ever have seen.” But the song, released in 1961, has many usages for the modern motorist. Say you’re in a car full of friends and you want to yell at somebody who just cut you off: “Hit the road, Jack! And don’t cha come back no more, no more, no more, no more.” Or a menacing truck driver is being arrested by the state police: “Hit, the road, Jack! …” etc. This was actually written by Ray’s friend Percy Mayfield, a singer who cut back his touring after being involved in a bad car accident. So while you’re screaming, “Hit the road, Jack!” make sure to obey the speed limit and keep your eyes on the road.
Michael Ventre is a Los Angeles-based writer and a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.