Don’t Forget the Music! Every Trip Needs a Soundtrack

I wish I could remember the exact quote and its source, but I recall reading a passage about someone who saw the Grand Canyon for the very first time and was of course overwhelmed by the sight of it, but couldn’t help but feel that something was missing about the experience. And then they realized that what was lacking was MUSIC. Prior to visiting the actual place, this person had seen many documentaries about the canyon and the images were backed by a swelling soundtrack that was missing at the canyon itself. I have always been amused by that story, because for me, music has always been something that enhances my travel experiences; however, for me it has to be just the RIGHT music for the place.

As soon as I hop in my Fiat 500 rental car and drive off from the airport in Rome or Venice, the only thing that I want to listen to is my favorite Italian music, either on Radio Italia, which plays only Italian music 24/7, or on one of the many CDs I pack in my luggage for such a trip. Music is an important part of any culture and it seems to me that listening to songs being sung in Italian and becoming familiar with some of the artists that are most popular gives me more insight into Italy and its people. Over many visits to Italy I have amassed an impressive collection of music and attended several concerts by Italian artists. So now, whether I’m driving the autostrada at breakneck speeds, fighting traffic on the clogged arteries of Rome or Milan, or ambling through the Tuscan countryside the familiar voices of artists like Eros Ramazzotti, Giorgia, Laura Pausini and Tiziano Ferro make me feel like I have an old friend in the car with me and give me that sense of familiarity and “home.”

Similarly, when I am on any of the Hawaiian islands it’s time to break out the Hawaiian music CDs. In a place with such a gentle spirit, and where things like the breeze through the trees, the sound of lapping waves or the sight of a glowing sunset seem to be the most important things in life, the exquisite voices of singers like Amy Hanaiali’i and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole or the amazing guitar work and harmonies of a group like Hapa are the things that should naturally accompany them. And again, hearing songs sung in the Hawaiian language or listening to lyrics describing the history of the islands and the struggles of their people adds an element to the journey that would be lost otherwise.

Aside from a reliable car and a full gas tank, a music playlist is one of the most important things to me when I plan one of my cross-country road trips. The weeklong trip from California to Massachusetts would simply not be the same without my painstakingly prepared soundtracks. Leaving California and crossing the vast emptiness of Nevada calls for songs like the Dixie Chicks’ Wide Open Spaces, Wheels by Restless Heart, Any Way the Wind Blows by Southern Pacific, or Don’t Fence Me In, an old standard that has recently had new life pumped into it by The Killers. Another great road-trip song is Heads Carolina, Tails California  by Jo Dee Messina, with the perfect line, “We can go four hundred miles before we stop for gas. We can drive for a day and then we’ll take a look at the map…” One of my favorite traveling songs is an obscure tune by Michael Martin Murphy called Pilgrims on the Way (Matthew’s Song). It does indeed feel like MY song, as Murphy recounts images of the sights and sounds he encounters in his travels across the country. In the chorus he repeats the phrase, “You don’t know me, but I know you…you could love me, I could love you…”, which for me captures that feeling of passing through as an unnoticed stranger and yet feeling a connection to all the people I meet and observe along the way. Murphy also does a great version of the old favorite Route 66, and how could any cross country drive be complete without that song on the playlist?

When I hit the stunning red rock country of Utah and Arizona I switch gears to Native American music. A very good compilation of this music can be found in the Voices Across the Canyon series of CDs, which feature artists like Joanne Shenandoah, R. Carlos Nakai, and William Eaton. I particularly recommend Volumes I and II. Listening to the native flutes, resounding chants and drums, or getting lost in beautiful voices singing in languages I cannot hope to comprehend truly transports me to another time and place. Sometimes as I cross this desolate but gorgeous land, I almost feel as if playing this music is an appeal to the spirits of those who lived in this land so long ago and is granting me safe passage for acknowledging them.

In my musical archives I have countless songs by various artists about cities and states: Lights of Albuquerque (Jim Glaser), Back to Santa Fe (CeeCee Chapman), Santa Fe (Bellamy Brothers), Little Rock (Colin Raye), Amarillo by Morning  and I Can Still Make Cheyenne (George Strait), Tulsa and Boogie Back to Texas (Asleep at the Wheel), Too Much Texas (Rhett Akins), Meet Me in Montana (Dan Seals & Marie Osmond), Walking in Memphis (Marc Cohn), Calling Baton Rouge (Garth Brooks), Tennessee Homesick Blues (Dolly Parton), Kansas City Lights (Steve Wariner), Louisville (Jann Browne), and Georgia on my Mind (Ray Charles). I find that in general, country music makes the perfect soundtrack for large sections of the Midwest and South, with songs by artists like Steve Earle, Martina McBride, Pam Tillis, and Carrie Underwood seeming to give you a glimpse into the lives, struggles and hopes of the people whose homes you pass as you drive the interstate.

As I get closer to New England, it’s the music of Bruce Springsteen that I listen to across Pennsylvania and New Jersey, with his songs like Streets of Philadelphia, Atlantic City, My Hometown, Born to Run and The River perfectly capturing the sadness and desperation of life in old steel towns that seem to have been left behind. Blondie takes over as I approach New York City… a drive along the rusty relic called the Pulaski Skyway would simply not be the same without hearing Union City Blue, Dreaming, Shayla, or Here’s Looking at You as the NY City skyline looms ahead. And finally, when I am within a few hours of my destination, the place where I grew up and that I still think of as “home”, Bon Jovi and Jennifer Nettles’ Who Says You Can’t Go Home, The Dirt Band’s Home Again in My Heart, Dave Loggins’ Please Come to Boston, and the BeeGees’ Massachusetts take me across the finish line.

Once back in New England, driving the roads that I have known all my life, the music that has typically brings me comfort and has ever since the 1970s is by Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks. I have often joked that their music is like a soundtrack of my life. Gypsy is pretty much my theme song, and as I drive the back roads down to my favorite beach, songs like Silver Springs, Over and Over, and Storms will almost certainly be playing. On a brisk autumn night, with a full moon peaking out from behind bare tree branches and ominous clouds, Rhiannon, a song about a witch from Welsh mythology, takes me to a whole other place.  

I sometimes wonder whether I’m alone in this near obsession to match music with place. Perhaps some of you reading this will recognize your own attempts to create that unique soundtrack or playlist to set the mood for your travels, or maybe I’ve planted a seed that you’ll explore on your next trip. If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear comments from some of you regarding what songs make up your own special playlists and how or why they are so significant to you. In fact, after reading this post, my friend Vicki reminded me of another benefit of making a connection between your travels and music: once you return home, all you need to do is play the music you took on your trip and the memories and emotions you felt when you were there will come rushing back and will transport you to that time and place. It’s the next best thing to being there!

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