Somewhere last night, a child was born while his dad was at a gig. A wife worried at home, anxious about her husband on the road. A teenage boy looked into the stands to see if his father had managed to get to the big game. A daughter wished she could introduce her mom to her new boyfriend.
It’s not surprising that the world of music is filled with “road songs.” The story of America is the story of packing up to go somewhere, to follow the path to somewhere else. It’s in our cultural DNA. Our songs, like so many of the people who settled in this country, are shaped by travel and by adapting to where they arrive. So are our instruments, some of which trace their origins to Ancient Greece, Rome, and, especially, Africa. The particular music that forms the core of bluegrass has its origins in music that came over on those earliest sailing vessels, planted itself in our soil, and then, always moving westward, blossomed into songs of home, loss, adventure, risk, and the glories of the road, flavored by local conditions.
One of the most haunting, and, for me, persistent of all road songs is "The Highwayman," sung by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. It remains a constant reminder of the adventure of the road, and its connection to the past and the future.
From the iconic to the prosaic, the road is a feature of life, a way to suggest progress, find something new, or just head “down the road” because that’s where the next opportunity is. For folks living on the farm up in the mountains of Appalachia, being headed down the road could just be going to find a pretty girl named Pearly Blue, who Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs memorialized in this clip:
But the road is always fraught with the possibility of loss, separation, or even infidelity. Sit in on any jam at a festival, a parking lot, or a back porch and you’ll hear someone kick off this song that’s in the vocabulary of every bluegrass picker. It’s beloved because it’s easy to sing and captures the sense of loss as well as the possibility of a better future, somewhere. Again, Flatt & Scruggs recorded it in the '50s, but everyone sings it, and it’s always more than a little bit sad as we all look down the “rough and rocky” road.
In the “Rocky Road Blues,” Bill Monroe sings of the dangers of the road as a metaphor for life and its dangers as well as its joys. A comment on this video on YouTube highlights how it points the way toward “rockabilly,” just a few miles down the road itself. Stories of Bill Monroe, told by the legions of people who still remember the Father of Bluegrass Music, almost always feature him on the road. He was a creature of the road, first moving from the hardscrabble farm in Rosine, KY, where he was born, to the burgeoning industrial centers in northern Indiana, where he began his search for the sound that would make him famous. Stories of Bill Monroe are stories of barnstorming, enticing an audience to his performances by challenging the local baseball team to a pickup game the afternoon before the show, riding the bus from small town to small town throughout the South, to fame, if not fortune, at the the Grand Ole Opry, at Newport Folk Festival, and in hundreds of songs still sung from the stage and around the campfire. While you listen to the song, read the comments below it on YouTube for a little more background. You can hear the pain and the promise of the road in this song:
The road can be a place, a journey, or a metaphor. In this song, The Gibson Brothers glorify the road, or is there something more there? The song embodies the sensual appeal of the road, its allure, its freedom. The Open Road is filled with possibilities and promise as it reaches out from beyond where we are to where we might be. Here’s a performance from the Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival only a year or two ago.
One of my favorites, here in a performance listed as Austin City Limits, but more likely South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, TX, Robert Earl Keen sings “The Road Goes On Forever and the Party Never Ends.” Unusual for country music these days, this version features banjo great Danny Barnes, winner of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Bluegrass and Banjo, in an extended solo. This long song captures much of the excitement and risk of the road as well as highlighting some terrific musicianship.
Antje Duvekot, born in Heidelberg, Germany, has traveled quite a road herself. She came to America as a young teenager, settling in Delaware, where she early showed her eagerness to perform. She’s won numerous prizes across a variety of folk, Americana, and rock genres, winning the grand prize in the rock category at the prestigious John Lennon Songwriting Contest established by Yoko Ono, while attracting relatively little public attention. But she has released eight albums since 2002. Here, Duvekot sings one of her haunting road songs, called “Long Way.”
Perhaps everyone who listens to bluegrass and country music has a favorite road song. The road carries such strong resonance in America that there’s even a road song that many motor homes use on their air horns. It’s become Willie Nelson’s signature song, the one that no audience will allow him to leave the stage without his having sung it.
I know I’ve missed many more road songs than I’ve included. What is your favorite road song? Why don’t you link to some of them in the comments below or on my Facebook page?