There are 50 different states that make up our country, and I’m always disappointed to read surveys that say many Americans haven’t traveled to more than 10 or 12 of them. That’s a sad commentary on our provincialism, in my view, and it speaks to an underlying need to spread our wings and leave our home town/state more often.
I’m proud to report I’ve been to 43 of the 50 states. (“Visiting a state,” according to my rules, means you’ve slept at least one night within its borders. If you merely drove across it and maybe stopped for a meal, sorry, that doesn’t count.)
This week, I have sojourned from California to Georgia, where I’m attending a wedding this weekend, then returning to Cali before heading to Hawaii for a week of vacation, then back to Cali for a few days before heading to Ohio to visit family and friends.
All this interstate travel got me thinking about how popular music has offered up quite a collection of songs about U.S. states.
I’m guessing there must be a couple hundred songs about California, and I’ve already written a blog entry about some of them. There are probably a thousand tunes about New York, and I intend to take a look at those very soon in a separate essay (although, truth be told, most of those are more about New York City than New York State).
But what about the other 48 states? It seems like a good time to explore the songs that feature titles and/or lyrics that focus on some of the states in the union that don’t enjoy celebrity status. There isn’t space to cover them all, but I’ve identified 25 songs — some well-known, some not — about 25 U.S. states that I think are worthy of your attention.
Let’s head on out and discover America!
“Montana,” Frank Zappa, 1973
This funny, quirky song from one of rock’s true iconoclasts appears on his 1973 LP “Overnight Sensation.” People weren’t sure what to make of lyrics like, “Moving to Montana soon, gonna be a dental floss tycoon, yes I am…” Combined with an unusual multi-part arrangement and the “Yippy-ty-o-ty-ay” cliched cowboy ending, “Montana” became one of Zappa’s best loved tracks among casual fans.
“Kentucky Woman,” Deep Purple, 1968
One of Neil Diamond’s modest (#22) mid-’60s singles was then re-recorded in a hard rock arrangement by British heavy metal pioneers Deep Purple in 1968 and managed to sneak it on the charts as the B-side of their #4 smash “Hush.” The lyrics sing the praises of a woman Diamond knew from Louisville: “She shines with her own kind of light, and a day that’s all wrong looks all right, and I love her, God knows I love her, Kentucky woman…”
“Jersey Girl,” Tom Waits, 1980
“This is my first experiment with using ‘sha-la-la’ in a song,” noted Waits wryly, better known for earthy, raw blues/jazz compositions. Waits was a New York guy who was dating (and eventually married) a girl from Jersey, and came up with this great song to describe the dynamic between the two. Bruce Springsteen has a popular version of Waits’ song on his “Live 1975-1985” CD collection.
“Arizona,” Mark Lindsay, 1970
Written by Kenny Young, previously known for composing the Drifters’ hit “Under the Boardwalk,” this tune was not really about the state of Arizona but about a hippie girl named Arizona who “was acting like a teenybopper runaway child.” The recording by Mark Lindsay, former lead singer of the ’60s pop band Paul Revere and the Raiders, reached #10 in the US in 1970.
“Private Idaho,” B-52’s, 1980
From Athens, Georgia, came the B-52’s, the new wave/post-punk sensation known best for the punky “Rock Lobster” and later hits like “Love Shack” and “Roam.” On their second LP was this curious tune about isolation, loosely based on an old “Twilight Zone” episode: “You’re living in your own private Idaho, underground like a wild potato…” Idahoans didn’t exactly embrace it because the lyrics advised, “Get out of that state…”
“Indiana Wants Me,” R. Dean Taylor, 1970
Toronto-born Taylor had his only big commercial success with this self-written tune about a guy who murdered a man for insulting his woman, then went on the lam from the Indiana authorities. The police sirens included on the recording caused some controversy — when drivers heard the song on the car radio, they thought they were being pulled over by police. It reached the Top Five in the US, the UK and Canada.
“Louisiana Blues,” Paul Rodgers, 1993
Rodgers, the powerful vocalist of Free and Bad Company, put together a stellar group of guest guitarists to each play a track on his “Muddy Water Blues” 1993 CD tribute to the legendary guitarist. Trevor Rabin, who was Yes’s guitarist during their 1980s period, provided some tasty licks on Waters’ gritty “Louisiana Blues,” a tale of trouble in New Orleans and a definite highlight of the hugely underrated album.
“Mary, Queen of Arkansas,” Bruce Springsteen, 1973
The Boss was still a nobody in 1972 when he recorded his debut LP, “Greetings From Asbury Park,” filled with acoustic-based songs overflowing with story-songs with too many words. One of the deepest album tracks was this sparse, rather bleak song about a girl from the Ozarks who “can hold me so tight but love me so loose.” After his heyday rocking with the E Street Band, Springsteen returned to this kind of song 20 years later.
“Midnight Train to Georgia,” Gladys Knight and the Pips, 1970
Singer-songwriter Jim Weatherly of Mississippi wrote this great tune about a man who had gone to Los Angeles in search of stardom but decided he wanted to return to the simpler place and time in the world he’d left behind in Georgia. Atlanta-born Gladys Knight, upon hearing Weatherly’s demo, fell in love with it immediately, and turned it into a #1 hit in 1973.
“Texas Flood,” Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1983
Bluesman Larry Davis wrote and recorded this superb slow blues tune in 1958, later re-recorded by other artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, who made it the title song of his 1983 debut. Davis, who wrote the song in California, used the news of a flood in Texas as a metaphor for his troubled relationship with his girl: “I’m going back home to stay, where there’s no floods or tornadoes, and baby, the sun shines every day…”
“Sweet Virginia,” Rolling Stones, 1972
From the band’s epic double LP “Exile on Main Street” comes this loose, Gram Parsons-inspired country tune that could be about the state, but is more likely about a woman from Virginia horse country who needs to “scrape the shit right off your shoes.” Much as they had in their earlier “Wild Horses,” the Jagger-Richards songwriting duo tipped their hats to American country music traditions in the midst of their bluesy rock ‘n roll format.
“Far Alaska,” Jethro Tull, 1999
The British rock group’s 20th and final album of new studio material included this inventive piece that, as usual, featured Ian Anderson’s flute and vocals and a stop-start mix of tempos. Anderson’s lyrics speak of “placing people in their dreamscape with fantasies of foreign fields” as they fly off to distant points on the planet, “from far Alaska, down to Rio in the Carnival, to Norwegian fjords…”
“(North) Carolina in My Mind,” James Taylor, 1969
Taylor began his career in London on The Beatles’ new Apple Records label, and while recording his debut album there, he found himself homesick for the tranquil, rural hillsides of his youth in the Carolinas, and wrote about it in this classic. His original recording features Paul McCartney on bass and a female chorus; James then re-recorded the song in 1976 for his “Greatest Hits” LP, which is the version most people know best.
“(South) Carolina Day,” Livingston Taylor, 1970
James’ younger brother has also been a prolific singer-songwriter in his own right, even if most people aren’t aware of him. His first LP, which came out on the tails of his brother’s “Sweet Baby James” album, includes this catchy singalong that fondly recalls family, friends and memories of places from the Taylor family’s past, growing up in the rural Carolina hills: “Then, my friend, you’re in a Carolina day…”
“Going to Maine,” The Mountain Goats, 1999
This California-based 1990s indie folk group, led by singer-songwriter John Darnielle, have recorded a series of songs about various locales from Bogota and Queens to Reykjavik and Catalina, and they finally got around to Maine in 1999. The lyrics view Maine as a great place for a cheating couple to flee to: “You and me are in a lot of trouble… Let’s go to Maine out on the East Coast, let’s go to Maine right now, let’s hop on the plane, let’s get out of here…”
“Illinois,” Dan Fogelberg, 1974
This sensitive singer-songwriter, who scored several big hits in the late ’70s/early ’80s, was born in Peoria, and after a spell in Southern California nurturing his career as a recording artist, he longed for the familiar surroundings of his home state: “My mind goes running three thousand miles east, I miss the harvest but I won’t miss the feast… Illinois, I’m your boy…” The song appears on his breakthrough LP “Souvenirs” in 1974.
“Mississippi Queen,” Mountain, 1970
Drummer Corky Laing and guitarist Leslie West collaborated to write Mountain’s early ’70s rock classic, with lyrics that referred to “Mississippi Queen” as both the famous steamboat and a woman on board. Their producer required so many takes to get it right that Laing started using a cowbell to count it off, which ended up remaining in the released version.
“Colorado,” Stephen Stills & Manassas, 1972
This tune, filled with pedal steel guitars and sweet harmonies, is a highlight of the fine double LP Stills recorded with his group Manassas following the initial disbanding of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Stills has always loved the Rockies, and these lyrics refer to women on the East and West coasts (presumably former lovers Judy Collins and Rita Coolidge) who declined to move with him to Colorado to keep their relationships alive.
“Mainline Florida,” Eric Clapton, 1974
Following a harrowing couple of years in the depths of heroin addiction, Eric Clapton got clean and headed for Miami to record his mid-’70s comeback LP, “461 Ocean Boulevard,” which was the address of the house he rented there during recording sessions Appropriately, and a bit euphemistically, the album closes with “Mainline Florida,” a gutsy rocker by Clapton’s guitarist bandmate George Terry.
“Alabama,” Neil Young, 1971
As he read about the historical injustices perpetrated on blacks in the South, Young turned his anger into song lyrics, first in the bitter diatribe “Southern Man” on 1970’s “After the Gold Rush,” and then a second time on this track with his temporary group The Stray Gators on the #1 album “Harvest” in 1971. Good old boys Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t take kindly to these songs, and responded in their hit “Sweet Home Alabama.”
“Massachusetts,” The Bee Gees, 1967
Australians Robin, Maurice and Barry Gibb co-wrote this piece in a hotel room in New York, having never even been to Massachusetts at that point. It was written as an answer to the “let’s all go to San Francisco” trend at the time. “We just liked the sound of the name,” said Robin. They intended to give it to the New Seekers but ended up recording it themselves. It went to #1 in five countries, and #11 in the US.
“Oklahoma Boy,” Lazarus, 1973
Lazarus was a trio from Texas led by singer-songwriter Bill Hughes, who wrote gorgeous melodies carried by acoustic guitars, piano, and three-part harmonies. They never got the accolades they deserved, but their music is still available if you look hard enough. On their “A Fool’s Paradise” LP in 1973, member Carl Keesee sang the lead on this straight country song about being a simple boy from Oklahoma.
“Hawaii Five-0,” The Ventures, 1969
Among the many film scores and television theme music Morton Stevens wrote in the 1960s was this iconic theme song from the popular ’70s detective series starring Jack Lord as Detective Steve “Book him, Dano!” McGarrett of the Honolulu Police. The song won an Emmy and became a big #4 hit for the instrumental band The Ventures, also known for their hugely influential million-selling hit “Walk, Don’t Run” from 1960.
“Ohio,” CSNY, 1970
The shooting of four students by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University in May 1970 has forever branded The Buckeye State, thanks in large part to CSN&Y’s incendiary single. Neil Young and David Crosby created the song after seeing the infamous Life Magazine photos of the event, and CSN&Y recorded it and released it only three weeks after it occurred. It still packs a wallop today.
“Tennessee Waltz,” Sam Cooke, 1963
This timeless country classic, written in 1946 by Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King, is best known in traditional arrangements recorded by Patti Page, Patsy Cline, Anne Murray, Emmylou Harris and many others, but I was more intrigued by the double-time R&B version recorded by the great Sam Cooke in 1963. Puzzling, I think, that this song was so popular, seeing as how it’s about a guy’s best friend stealing his girlfriend.
At least a dozen states don’t seem to have any rock/pop songs written about them (please correct me if I’m wrong): Nevada, New Hampshire, Missouri, Utah, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Oregon, Delaware, North/South Dakota, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Maryland…
I’ve turned up a few songs about cities within some forgotten states — (Kansas) “Wichita Lineman,” Glen Campbell, 1968; (Iowa) “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines,” Joni Mitchell, 1979; (Minnesota) “Postcards From Duluth,” Peter, Paul & Mary, 1968; (Michigan) “Detroit Breakdown,” J. Geils Band, 1974.