Songs Along The Way
Tunes that put places on the map
By M.B. Roberts
Many of our favorite songs celebrate imaginary places. Think Hank Williams and the Lost Highway. Or Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel at the end of Lonely Street. Even Bob Seger’s Main Street isn’t a destination you could find on your GPS.
But just as often, songs mention real locales. Johnny Cash cruises through dozens of cities in “I’ve Been Everywhere Man” and Martha and the Vandellas tick off a long geographical list in “Dancin’ in the Street.”
Then there are songs about a real town or river or road that was fairly obscure until a popular singer mentioned it in a hit song. Here’s a short list of songs that put real, not so famous, destinations on the map.
Waylon Jennings, 1977
Unincorporated Luckenbach, which was established as a trading post in 1849, sits some 50 miles north of San Antonio, between South Grape Creek and Snail Creek, just south of Highway 290 on the south side of Farm to Market Road 1376. Good to know, because with a population of three, it might be tough to get directions. Outlaw Waylon Jennings (with a little help from Willie Nelson) immortalized the place in the ’70s, and country singers have been stopping by ever since.
Take It Easy
The Eagles, 1973
I was standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona…
Jackson Browne, who wrote this song before the Eagles took it to the top, may or may not have been referencing a specific corner. Regardless, the Winslow town fathers seized a tremendous PR opportunity and designated the intersection of Kinsley Avenue and Second Street as the corner where a girl (my Lord in a flatbed Ford) slowed down to take a look.
Today, the fabled spot is marked by a bronze sculpture of a man with a guitar and a sign that reads, “Standin’ on the corner.”
Okie from Muskogee
Merle Haggard, 1969
Even though Haggard was born in a converted boxcar in Bakersfield, Calif., he is forever identified with this song, which he and his drummer, Roy Edward Burns, originally wrote as a spoof. Muskogee, the eleventh largest city in Oklahoma, was certainly known to some, but after Haggard sang about this place, where even squares can have a ball, this prairie town became known to all.
Alan Jackson, 1993
The 430-mile long Chattahoochee River has long been part of life for folks in Georgia, Alabama and northern Florida. But when Alan Jackson rhymed Chattahoochee with hoochie coochie, the waterway became a famous destination for learning a lot about livin’ and a little ‘bout love.
Billy Joel, 1982
This tune, which specifically lamented the demise of Bethlehem Steel, not only made an eastern Pennsylvania town famous, it also raised awareness about the struggle of American factory workers and became a blue collar anthem.
(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66
Nat King Cole, 1946
Legend has it that songwriter Bobby Troup wrote “Route 66” while driving his 1941 Buick to California on this very road. Nat King Cole made the song a smash and inspired a generation of travelers to get their kicks in previously under-the-radar towns (Winona, Ariz.; Barstow, Calif.) mentioned in the third verse.
Dozens of other artists, from Chuck Berry to the Rolling Stones to John Mayer, have since covered the song.
Last Train to Clarksville
The Monkees, 1966
This song was the first Number One hit for the Monkees, the band created to star in a television show inspired by the Beatles’ movie, A Hard Day’s Night.
There are dozens of Clarksvilles in the U.S. but people have long accepted that the train was en route to Clarksville, Tenn., because there was a military base in nearby Ft. Campbell, Ky., and the character in the song (And I don’t know if I’m ever coming home) was bound for Vietnam.
Steve Earle, 1988
Although Earle says it’s a mythical place, there was a real Copperhead Road in Mountain City, Tenn., located in Johnson County, which is mentioned in the song along with a Knoxville-bound sheriff, another solid clue.
But visitors will have to settle for Copperhead Hollow Road. The name was changed because fans kept swiping the street signs.
Lefty Frizzell, 1963
William Orville “Lefty” Frizzell was born in Corsicana, Texas, but when he sang about returning to this tiny Midwestern town to claim and live happily ever after with the girl he loved, he garnered acclaim for himself and launched Saginaw into the popular lexicon. Decades later, Simon and Garfunkel name-checked the city in their song “Look for America,” It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw/I’ve gone to look for America.
Johnny Cash and June Carter, 1967
It’s been debated for years, but most fans agree that the couple who got married in a fever/hotter than a pepper sprout were heading to Jackson, Miss. One thing that has never been in doubt is that Johnny and June made the duet a smash. In 1968, Johnny proposed to June after they finished the song onstage at the London Gardens Arena in London, Ontario.
Doobie Brothers, 1973
China Grove, Texas is a real town (population:1247) near San Antonio but the original Doobie Brothers lead singer, Tom Johnston, claims he didn’t know that when he wrote this song about a fictional Samurai sheriff. When it was called to his attention that the band played San Antonio and drove right by China Grove the year before he wrote the song, Johnston admitted it may have been a subliminal thing. Now we need to tell him that Samurai warriors come from Japan, not China.