10 Perfect Songs for a Drive Through the Desert
Like a lot of music-obsessed people, I tend to create a fair amount of iTunes playlists. Why? So that I always just the right music for any setting or situation.
I make them for different vacation destinations, certain times of the week (my massive “Sunday Morning” playlist gets a lot of use), different background-music-friendly weekend activities and, of course, holidays.
For the past year or so, I’ve been tinkering with a playlist that’s perfect for trips to one of my favorite places on earth, the southern California high desert—especially the stunning landscapes in and around Joshua Tree National Park (Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms…you get the idea). Or maybe even Death Valley or the drive from Los Angeles to Barstow.
Below are 10 songs that are featured on this playlist; consider them recommendations for your own “ultimate desert playlist.” As you’re listening, picture the sandy, rocky nothingness; picture Gram Parsons and his buddies being photographed on the side of the road in early 1969; picture the high-lonesome, dry, rocky journeys of countless forgotten 19th- and 20th-century migrants, drifters and adventurers. Or picture Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney and Sid Caesar as they search for that elusive $250,000 in 1963.
And sure, this list is completely random and out of the blue. What’s your point?
A final thought: Please avoid being a troll. This list is purely subjective; if you disagree with something, that’s nice. If you have a recommendation of your own, please add it to the comments at the bottom of this story (Seriously, I’m always looking for more desert songs). Enjoy!
Let’s just say this song sets the scene perfectly. The guitarist is Dave Gonzalez of the Paladins, a veteran SoCal rockabilly band that’s hitting the road this spring and summer. If you like this tune, be sure to check out its equally effective sequel, “Son of Saguero.”
PEACEFUL EASY FEELING
I know this selection is obvious, but leaving it off this list is akin to leaving the Byrds’ “Chestnut Mare” off a list of songs about deranged cowboys chasing after female horses. That’s Bernie Leadon—a former member of the Flying Burrito Brothers—on the B-bender.
WAY OUT WEST
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives
Marty Stuart and his posse just released an album called Way Out West, and pretty much any song from the disc would fit nicely on this list. I’ve decided to go with the title track (mostly because its music video lends some impressive visuals to this article), but feel free to sample “Lost on the Desert,” “El Fantasmo Del Toro” or “Old Mexico.” For more about this album, head here and here. By the way, I’m speaking to Marty this week; if you have a question for him, write to me at email@example.com (Please write “Marty Stuart” in the subject line).
CHRISTINE’S TUNE (DEVIL IN DISGUISE)
The Flying Burrito Brothers
Before U2, no recording artist was more quickly associated with Joshua Tree than Gram Parsons. The original Flying Burrito Brothers—Parsons, Chris Hillman, Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Chris Ethridge—shot their first album cover in the national park, and Parsons died while staying at the Joshua Tree Inn in 1973. Here’s the opening track from the Burrito Brothers’ debut album, The Gilded Palace of Sin; check out Kleinow’s fuzzed-out pedal steel guitar work. While you’re at it, be sure to check out “Hot Burrito #1,” “Juanita” and “Wheels” from the same (brilliant) album—not to mention any of the Parsons-led tracks on the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
I KNOW THAT FEELING
I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine a desert playlist without a few down-tempo Sixties country tunes, complete with a whining pedal steel guitar and some Earl P. Ball-style piano. Phil Baugh’s “I Know That Feeling” is just one of a thousand possible choices. By the way, guitar fans might want to check out Baugh’s “The Finger.”
Every good desert playlist needs a good cowboy song, so it’s Marty Robbins to the rescue. Robbins has two classic “cowboy” albums: 1959’s Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs and 1960’s More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. “Big Iron” is from the former.
BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE
Some people say “anything by Calexico is perfect for a desert playlist.” Yeah, that’s not true; but this tune fits the bill.
I’VE BEEN EVERYWHERE
Here’s a nice one by Johnny Cash with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers—complete with lyrics! Be sure to check out the Hank Snow version while you’re at it.
“[Giant Sand] frontman Howe Gelb has a way of turning a phrase that is ingenious, funny and deep at the same time,” says X frontman John Doe. “His voice is so dry, it makes you think of the desert.”
I WISH I WAS THE MOON
Neko Case’s voice is like an incredible, never-ending multi-course meal; there’s so much there to enjoy, so much to bite into. Case is one of those artists who, like Calexico, is often associated with desert music. I’ve chosen this song for its subject matter but also its dreamy guitar work. On second thought, Case’s voice isn’t like a meal at all, since you can never quite get enough of it.
Full disclosure: I wrote and played guitar (a 1966 Gretsch Tennessean) on this brief tune. It’s crazy, but I actually recorded this song with a desert playlist in mind, so there’s no way I’m leaving it off this list. Besides, this is actually the 11th song on this list. In retrospect, I wish we’d played it a bit slower that day. The trumpet (not played by me), however, is perfect.