10 Best Route 66 Road Songs

on May 6, 2012

Route 66 (written by Bobby Troup)

Asleep At The Wheel -- from the album Wheelin’ and Dealin’ Let’s start with the king daddy of them all. This is the song that launched a thousand ships, as it were. Originally recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946, it was written by Bobby Troup during a trip west to L.A. with his then-wife, Cynthia, reportedly after she whispered in his ear “get your kicks on Route 66” It is a musical road map that achieves an almost impossible feat. It lists the name of the landmarks in geographical order while maintaining an infectious rhyming scheme. Everyone has recorded “Route 66.” The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Depeche Mode, Brian Setzer, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Mayer. So why this version? Well, it is not just because I play with Asleep At The Wheel. (I didn’t even play on this version.) It is such a cool groove and different approach that it somehow trumps all the others. It has a propulsion, from Floyd Domino’s boogie-woogie piano line and Tony Ganier’s bass, that makes a perfect driving song. This song should always start your trip.

I Love L.A. (written by Randy Newman)

Randy Newman -- from the album Trouble In Paradise Remember the ‘84 Olympics? I do. I saw the torch run by. I saw Carl Lewis run. I was 23 years old and I had my whole life ahead of me. And “I Love L.A.” was my song that summer. Is there a better song about L.A.? Is there a better melding of melody and lyrics to describe driving around that traffic-clogged, smog-chocked den of sin we know as the City Of Angels? Short answer: No. What I find interesting is that Randy Newman has written some of the greatest songs ever, but until “We Belong Together” (the closing theme to Toy Story 3), he has written nothing like this song. The fact that this uplifting anthem is written by one of the most caustic-witted writers ever is cause enough for me to rejoice, but the fact that it brings back memories of that time in my life make it one of my all-time feel-good jams.

Used To Be (written by Bob Wiles and Tom Skinner)

The Red Dirt Rangers -- from the album The Songs Of Route 66: Music From The All-American Highway When I came up with the idea of assembling my first Route 66 compilation CD, this is the first song I thought of. Performed by The Red Dirt Rangers (there are a couple other versions out there), it is possibly the quintessential song about the condition of Route 66 in the 1990’s. Written by two Tulsa-area boys about a stretch of the road near Kellyville, Okla., the song manages to tell the tale of a town that has died while keeping you tapping your toes and somehow not worried about the inhabitants of this forgotten burg. They sing about the motel that is no more, the cotton gin long since shut down, the dance hall that is now only a slab of concrete. Yet somehow there is hope. The listener just keeps pressing the gas in hopes that the next town has fared better and that the memories of the one in the rear-view will live on.

King Of The Road (written by Roger Miller)

Roger Miller -- from the album Golden Hits OK, OK, this is not a driving song. But let’s not be snobby about who travels old Route 66. The tale of the hobo, or the migrant farm worker, or the dust bowl refugees, are as pure 66 as the image of the Corvette and the soda shop. This 1965 Roger Miller classic has got to be one of the most lighthearted hobo songs I know, which makes it perfect for driving, or even wishing you were driving. The narrator somehow spins a tale of drifting that sounds so good that somehow when you hear this song, you want to be jobless, homeless and family-less. Weird, huh?

No Particular Place To Go (written by Chuck Berry)

Chuck Berry -- from the album The Anthology Now let’s talk classic ‘60s. The sound of this record is through and through Route 66. The type of sound that all those retro diner places have pumping through their sound systems as we eat Dagwoods, slurp shakes and look at pictures of James Dean. You just gotta have one of these tunes on your mix as you cruise the 66, and it might as well be this one. Chuck Berry recorded a few car songs (“Maybellene,” for sure) but this one is my favorite to ride around with. The groovy shuffle and Chuck’s dead-on and humorous rhyming scheme makes this one of the all-time greats for taking on the road--especially if I have no particular place to go.

The Bad Roads Of Oklahoma (written by Susan Herndon)

Susan Herndon -- from the album All Fall Down A couple years ago I got a call to play drums on a CD for a girl singer I had never heard of. Her name was Susan Herndon. The musicians were all top shelf and we spent a couple days cutting some really wonderful material. The last song we recorded was this one. I must confess, I had a hard time finding the right groove to play and, as we drummers often joke, “That damn metronome kept slowing down!” All this kept me from really hearing what the song was about. Flash forward to about six months later, when I received a copy of the CD from Susan in the mail. It is really a great record (you should buy the whole darn thing), but that last song on it, the last one we recorded, and the one I couldn’t really hear, now absolutely floored me. It’s the story of a journey home to Tulsa from Texas and the thoughts going through the driver’s head. It’s the song you hear when you turn OFF the radio, and it is a doozy.

Take It Easy (written by Glen Frey and Jackson Browne)

Eagles -- from the album Eagles Hey, what can you say about the obvious? Sure, everyone and their grandma knows this song. Great grove. Harmonies that transport. A guitar solo that the entire world can sing along with. But does the guy playing air guitar to this song at his local karaoke joint know that Winslow, Ariz., where Glen Frey is “standing on the corner,” is right smack dab on Route 66? Well, it is! That proud little town has actually erected a statue to the song and the band and everything else to commemorate their place in rock and roll history. This is a very Route 66 thing to do. The little Arizona town had a song written about them, so in order to attract people to come there, they have built a place where tourists came get their picture taken while standing on the corner in Winslow, Ariz. I did the same thing with my brother back in 1983 before there was statue. I’m all for it. And I’m all for the Eagles, too.

The Fields, The Sky (written by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays)

Pat Metheny Group -- From the album Travels Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays have long for me been a magical musical combination. I have seen them live at least six times and have bought at least a dozen records they have recorded. My all-time favorite road album comes from their Pat Metheny Group, Travels. Comprised of all live recordings, this CD (and tape) has outlasted at least three stereos, five Walkmans (and other personal listening devices) and easily as many vehicles. This track from that CD evokes for me driving through the plains of America: space and openness and more space and openness. It’s rain on the windshield and the smell of fresh cut hay (if I may paraphrase The Red Dirt Rangers). It is heartbreak and optimism all rolled into one.

Chicago (written by Sufjan Stevens)

Sufjan Stevens -- from the album Illinoise There are lots of songs about Chicago, the traditional starting place for the grand Route 66 journey (and for Bobby Troup’s song). But for road songs, this one is my fave. I had never heard of Sufjan Stevens before I heard this song on the radio. It was the first time I went home and downloaded a record from simply hearing it on the radio. And for a crusty old guy, this is saying something. It was such a great song to hear--it seemed to just jump out of my speakers--that I just ran to my computer and bought the whole record. It starts slow and unassuming. As the artist adds instruments and colors, the song builds to a mighty crescendo. If the melody changes at all it is only slightly as the theme repeats over and over and in doing so transports you to another place. It is a road trip unto itself.

Theme From Route 66 (written by Nelson Riddle)

The Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra -- from the album The Best Of Nelson Riddle The Route 66 TV series had very little to do with Route 66. Most of its episodes took places in towns far off the Mother Road. It was a cool name and there were some young guys driving a cool car. But the music was a whole ‘nother thing. The theme song to this TV show is easily as enduring, and possibly more so, than Bobby Troup’s original ode to the road. And it achieves this without a single word. From the opening bass line and cymbal rhythm to its great orchestral final triplet figures, this instrumental develops itself into one the greatest drive-to songs ever recorded. The strings are the tires humming along the road; the piano figure is the world you are passing by; the horns are the towns you are leaving behind. It is the ‘50s and the ‘60’s and a world of possibilities. When I get to heaven and ever meet up with Nelson Riddle, I am going to personally thank him for this song and for making my road trips so much cooler.