The best road trip music, hands down

I am married to a music snob. This is fine with me, because, if I’m being honest, I don’t care all that much about music.

I have preferences, sure. I have favorite bands and albums (“records,” my husband calls them) and songs I will listen to over and over and over again if I’m driving alone and there’s no one in the car to slap my hand away from the stereo and say, “Christ, enough already with the Barenaked Ladies!” or whatever. It’s not always the Barenaked Ladies. I was just making a point. 

In high school I liked bands because they were cool. I wore their t-shirts and accompanied my friends to their shows. I didn’t care that much about what they played. Secretly, I mostly just wanted to listen to Tom Petty, which was decidedly not very cool.

I have outgrown that because, frankly, it is exhausting to pretend to like things I don’t like. Now, I will agreeably listen to whatever you put on because I’m probably just going to turn the volume down and chatter at you, anyway. I will definitely talk over This Amazing Song You Have To Hear and if you are a music snob, like my husband, this will annoy you.

There is an exception, of course: Road Trips. I care what we are listening to on a road trip.

I would be content to listen to the same few artists (the same few “records,” even) on every road trip for the rest of my life. A few essentials:

  • Into the Great Wide Open, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which I believe to be the best road trip soundtrack in existence
  • Wildflowers, also Tom Petty, if you haven’t already gotten sick of him and insisted we listen to something else
  • Midnight at the Movies, Justin Townes Earle, because I am young and vital and I don’t exclusively listen to artists who mostly stopped recording before I was born (but better if they sound like/are the offspring of Steve Earle)
  • Assorted Grateful Dead, probably Pizza Tapes because yes I am a stereotype, sue me

People feel strongly about road trip music. Recently, when I absentmindedly put on Damn the Torpedoes as we drove up a dusty 4WD road into the Sawatch Range, Bix asked if I hadn’t already had enough Tom Petty.

“But it’s not even Great Wide Open!” I protested, shocked that anyone would have a problem with playing the same nasally voice for hours on end.

“Okay, but what if we listened to something new?” he suggested. I made a show of pausing the music.

Bix picked a Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson duet of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” at the end of which I rolled my eyes and asked if, really, listening to the entire Waylon & Willie album (“record”) for the 870th time in our shared history was any more refreshing.

“No, I guess not,” he replied, “But it’s better, you know, Road Trip Music.”

Just as I fondly recall my dad playing Tom Petty cassette tapes for entire afternoons in his garage throughout my childhood, Bix’s parents piled an assortment of kids into the car and put on old-timey country to drive to the North Woods.

The music I repeat ad nauseam is deeply rooted in my nostalgia for a time I never really experienced: a time when you could throw a suitcase in your car and disappear onto the open road to ramble indefinitely, without the aid of smartphones or detailed guidebooks or the advent of the Internet. It was harder, I imagine, and also simpler, somehow, and better.

My husband’s favorite records, too, conjure for him the time that we’re driving toward, a simpler, better time. I have some strong preferences, but I will make exceptions, here and there, because I am not entirely rigid and am capable of compromise for the sake of peaceful road trip coexistence.

But after this, I’m putting on some Tom Petty.


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