Road Trip Soundtrack: The Rock Hall's Essential Driving Songs

Friday, September 21: 2 p.m.
Posted by Terry Stewart
Rock Hall President and CEO Terry Stewart shares his essential driving songs

Between movies such as 1977's Smokey and the Bandit and 1981's The Cannonball Run – both starring Burt Reynolds – I've long dreamt of hitting the open road with adventure at every turn. When the first film debuted in the late 70s, I was driving a 1967 Ram Air Oldsmobile 442. Of course, with that kind of equipment at my disposal, visions of cross country exploits were inevitable. Alas, it wasn't to be. Jobs, money, a switch to a Toyota Celica and a fear of going to jail derailed those fantasies for good. Or so I thought.

Lo and behold, I now have a chance to live out that dream… sort of. Come Sunday, September 23, I am embarking on the 2012 Fireball Run: Northern Exposure, along with three other teammates. The only difference between this adventure and those on-screen antics I was so captivated by is that we can't speed. The Fireball is more like a game of Trivial Pursuit for eight hours each day, for a week, in a moving automobile traveling a circuitous route from Independence, Ohio, to Bangor, Maine. It's not an exact facsimile, but I'll take it. 

Which leads me by way of my elbow to one of the great joys of a road trip – listening to music along the way. Being the highest ranking music honcho (the only one, in fact) in the car, I have lined up a road-ready panoply of tunes for our driving pleasure.

First, we'll have at our fingertips and at all times the new 24/7 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame station on Sirius satellite radio, channel 310. We'll have an iPod loaded with three of the interactive playlists featured in the Museum: the Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll, One Hit Wonders and the Hall of Fame Jukebox, featuring cuts from all of our Inductees.

Moreover, to make sure we are channeling the true spirit of the American road, I'll be bringing along my favorite car songs. If you know anything about the history of rock and roll, you are aware that songs about cars are about as essential to the rise of this music as the solid body guitar. It follows then that three of the records most often mentioned as the first rock and roll numbers are car songs. Let's start with the original version of "Hot Rod Race" by Arkie Shibley in 1950, then fast forward to Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" in 1951 and, four years later, Chuck Berry's "Maybellene." For sure, we'll be blasting those great rockers, but there are so many more. Here are a few of the highlights I'll be spinning, both well-known and obscure. What songs would be on your road trip playlist?

War – "Low Rider" 

A great West Coast thumper recorded by the band War and appearing on the group's 1975 album Why Can't We Be Friends?, "Low Rider" remains among the great musical salutes to automotive culture.

Jerry Reed – "Lord, Mr. Ford"

The late Jerry Reed was one of the great pickers, though he's better known as Bandit's sidekick in Smokey and the Bandit and the purveyor of the crossover hit "When You're Hot, You're Hot." "Lord, Mr. Ford" was the only single from his 1973 album of the same name.

Robert Johnson – "Terraplane Blues"

The venerable Robert Johnson's first single, recorded in the mid 1930s, is certainly one of the earliest (and not-so subtly raunchy) homages to the automobile: "And when I mash down on your little starter / Then your spark plug will give me fire." 

Vernon Green and the Medallions – "Buick 59" 

A prescient car song if there ever was one, Vernon Green and the Medallions' "Buick '59" was obviously channelling "Rocket 88." Interestingly, the group was singing about a car that wouldn't appear until five years after the record's release in 1954.

Todd Rhodes Orchestra with Connie Allen – "Rocket 69"

When Todd Rhodes and Connie Allen delivered this ditty in 1952, they weren't looking to the future. Rather, it was penned during that fantastically lascivious, double entendre period when everything was about sex. 

Sonny Day & the Versatiles – "Speedillac"

Here's one of my favorites from Sonny Day & the Versatiles. Sonny sings about his dream car, which had just about everything and then some: "Got a cute little filly sittin' by my side / she want to go for a Speedillac ride."

The Treniers – "Get Out of the Car"

The Treniers were one of the first truly great rock and roll ensembles, and they hailed from my hometown of Mobile, Alabama. Anyone who ever saw them live never forgot it. They were still knocking them dead until just a few years ago, roughly six decades after they started.

Lee Dorsey – "My Old Car"

"My Old Car" is one of the only shuffle beat New Orleans car songs. Written by the prolific Lee Dorsey, "My Old Car" was the amusing tale of a poor guy simply trying to make it home, counting the miles and lamenting: "Oh, what I'd give to be home / Resting my bones."

The Duals – "Stick Shift"

With rollicking, twanging guitars, this 1961 hot rod instrumental by the Duals comes complete with revved up sound effects befitting its title.

The Beach Boys – "409"

I'd be remiss not to include at least one Beach Boys car song, as they dominated the genre for a good long while, and "409" – Brian Wilson and company's paean to the hot rod staple Chevrolet 409 – wonderfully captured the enthusiasm of driving when released in 1962.

Robert Mitchum – "The Ballad of Thunder Road"

Can you imagine? The actor Robert Mitchum had a real ditty in 1957 with "The Ballad of Thunder Road," a song close to my lower Alabama and Nascar roots.

Charley Ryan – "Hot Rod Lincoln" 

The answer record to "Hot Rod Race" by Arkie Shibley, "Hot Rod Lincoln" was a great 45, whether performed by Charley Ryan (in both 1955 and 1959) or the more familiar version cut by Commander Cody in 1972. 

Chuck Berry – "Jaguar and Thunderbird"

What more can you say about the poet laureate of rock and roll and the 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame American Music Masters honoree? This particular tale of road-born rebellion delivered the goods with Berry's singular brand of storytelling: "There had a speed sign sittin' at the top of the hill / It said, '35 miles and stay in line' / But the Jaguar and Thunderbird never read the sign."

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