Cars have always featured in American music right from the very first widespread recordings made in the ‘20s. The reason for this is fairly mundane, America is a big country and over the decades economic forces have required ordinary people to move and the car played an obvious part in this. Due to the size of the internal market, car and petrol prices in America have always been cheaper than those of Europe. President Roosevelt’s New Deal meant that there was a significant national and local road building initiative in the ’30s, which again helped popularise the car. Finally, the post war housing boom following WWII and the rise of the shopping malls, made the car part of teenage life. However, it was the European imagination that brought a mythical view to such things as Terraplanes, T-Birds, Hot Rods, Buicks, Cadillacs and more. There have been sporadic songs celebrating the English car but unfortunately the effect was not quite the same. Alexi Sayle’s ‘Ullo John! Gotta New Motor?’ anyone?
While people have written thesis on the role of the car in American culture and development, we shouldn’t forget that it makes an excellent metaphor for sex which is possibly the real reason cars fit so readily with the blues, country and rock’n’roll.
The following is a chronological list of americana tracks celebrating what is now a lost art form, the American Car. As always with these lists, part of the fun is seeing the comments from readers on the selections and omissions so feel free to leave your thoughts.
Robert Johnson ‘Terraplane Blues’ (1936)
‘Terraplane Blues’ was recorded by Johnson in San Antonio and was his first single, subsequently becoming a reasonable local hit. The song has subsequently been heavily cover by a variety of blues and rock musicians from the ‘60s onwards after it was included on Johnson’s ‘King Of The Delta Blues Singers’ in 1961. Steve Earle named his 2015 blues album ‘Terraplane’ in honour of Johnson.
Robert Johnson took on mythical status with the artists of the blues revival due to the quality of his songs and playing and also to the fact that very little was known about him other than he died young in mysterious circumstances. There was speculation he was passed poisoned whiskey by a jealous boyfriend or husband while playing a juke joint gig. The lack of any really known facts about his life also helped the legend develop that his undoubted skills as a musician, were the result of a deal he struck at midnight at the Crossroads with the Devil himself At the meeting Johnson is meant to have sold his very soul in exchange for musical prowess.
What would have been obvious to Johnson’s original audience, but not necessarily to some of his later acolytes, is that a Terraplane was a fairly large and powerful popular ‘30s car that was the bedrock of the Hudson Motor Car Company. Like many early blues songs, the subject of the song is used as a metaphor for sex.
Bob Dylan ‘From A Buick 6’ (1965)
Dylan may have been ramping up the electricity in 1965 and leaving his protest singer persona behind, but on this track from ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ the inspiration for the song was bluesman Sleep John Estes’s acoustic country blues recording of ‘Milk Cow Blues’ from 1930. The lyrics have echoes of Bonny and Clyde which enable Dylan to take on an outlaw persona.
As with a number of Dylan songs, the title does not appear in the body of the song. No doubt this lead to many young Bobcats thinking up complex and convoluted theories as to the hidden mysteries of the title. However, there is no real mystery as a Buick 6 was a large 6 cylinder car manufactured by Buick in varying forms from 1916 to 1930. Dylan was simply picking up on his outlaw theme by referencing a large powerful getaway car of the era. The song is delivered as a real blues with Dylan and his band, which includes Al Kooper and guitarist Mike Bloomfield, taking inspiration from the first recorded blues wave and not the emerging blues-rock of the ‘60s. It may not be considered to be one of Dylan’s best songs but it is a great blues performance that is both modern and timeless.
Tom Waits ‘Ol’ 55’ (1973)
When Tom Waits’ debut album ‘Closing Time’ was released on Asylum Records in 1973, it was marketed as another singer-songwriter folk-influenced offering and, while it is certainly his most straight forward album, anyone taking notice of the jazz musicians and instruments supporting the songs would get a strong hint that Tom Waits was not your standard singer-songwriter. The album received positive reviews on release, but little sales, though several tracks on the album were eventually covered by other artists over the years.
‘Ol’ 55’ is the opening track of the album and was the lead single. It has subsequently been covered by a number of artists including Shelby Lynne and Alison Moore in 2019. According to Waits himself, the song’s lyrics were inspired by a friend of his whose girlfriend asked to be taken home but the problem was his old car only had one working gear, reverse, and the country-rock tune tells of his journey home.
However, the success of the song probably has a lot more to do with the fact it was covered by Waits’ label mates at the time, The Eagles, on their ‘On The Border’ album as they were supposedly attracted to the west coast lifestyle sentiments of the song. Though The Eagles cover has certainly added to Waits’ coffers over the years, he has been far from complimentary about their version, claiming it was too bland and smooth. In later years he applied the same criticism to the whole of The Eagles’ catalogue. Readers are free to make their own minds up on which is the better version and comment accordingly.
Ry Cooder ‘Crazy ‘Bout an Automobile (Every Woman I Know)’ (1980)
Ry Cooder had fun with this Billy “The Kid” Emerson song about the problems of attracting women if you didn’t own an automobile. The song opens with a piano and Ry Cooder and Terry Evans discussing Cooder’s ‘wimmin’ problems before really getting into the groove. The song appeared on ‘Borderline’ and this largely followed the template of the previous year’s ‘Bop ‘Til You Drop’ with its covers of ‘50s and ‘60s R&B and rock’n’roll numbers. The fact that the album was largely a repeat meant that the critical response was not as positive as it had been for ‘Bop ‘Til You Drop’ as up to this point in his career each album had shone a light on a different genre. While overall the songs were not as surprising or as good as those on Bop ‘Til You Drop’, it was still a very enjoyable album. It was also the first album that John Hiatt recorded with Ry Cooder.
Billy “The Kid” Emerson was a leading light of early R&B and rock’n’roll, not so much for his own performances on vocals and piano but more for his songwriting. Through his connection with Ike Turner, he was involved with Sun Records from the very start and helped the emergence of rock’n’roll by ensuring a ready supply of material for artists such as Elvis Presley and Billy Lee Riley. A little later he provided the same service for Chess Records in Chicago, where he worked with Buddy Guy, Willie Mabon and Willie Dixon.
Dwight Yoakam ‘Guitars, Cadillacs’ (1986)
It would be difficult to have a list of americana songs about cars that did not include Dwight Yoakam’s ‘Guitars, Cadillacs’. Yoakam took his inspiration from the same source as Gram Parsons a musical generation earlier, the Bakersfield honky-tonk sound of Buck Owens. Initially Nashville wasn’t interested in Yoakam as it was still infatuated with the Urban Cowboy phenomenon. Fortunately, Yoakam took his music to Los Angeles where he played to the same post-punk and roots rock audience as The Blasters, X, Lone Justice and Los Lobos. This meant that he was able to refine his own sound and add some rock’n’roll attitude until Nashville was ready to welcome him as part of the neotraditional movement.
He has never bettered his debut album ‘Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc’ but it is one hell of an album that helped redefine country music in the ‘80s and it is also a great dance album. The track ‘Guitars, Cadillacs’ was included in Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Country Songs Of All Time” and made the term ‘hillbilly’ cool again. The sound of the track was pure Bakersfield with producer and guitarist Pete Anderson invoking the sound of Don Rich.
Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen ‘Bakersfield Bound’ (1996)
Chris Hillman’s role in the development of country-rock is not always fully appreciated. He introduced Gram Parsons to The Byrds and was instrumental in the recording of ‘The Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’, he co-wrote the best Flying Burrito Brother’s songs with Gram Parsons, he was Steve Stills’ second-in-command in Manassas and he took country rock to the bank in the ‘80s with The Desert Rose Band. Clearly, it wasn’t simply a matter of him being in the right place at the right time, he really had something to offer. Herb Pedersen has been his partner for nearly 40 years, as well as being a member of the Dillards and a go to vocalist, guitarist and banjoist for west coast recording sessions since the ’70s, though they have known each other for closer to 60 years.
They recorded ‘Bakersfield Bound’ after the demise of The Desert Rose Band and it is a celebration of west coast country and western music, played straight with superb musicianship. It is a homage to the key influences of country rock. The title track describes a journey from the dust bowl of Oklahoma to the promised land of California, a journey made by many families and such journeys would have been impossible without a car, or at the very least a truck. The music mixes bluegrass, country rock and Bakersfield twang. The album cover is a great picture of Bakersfield seen from the inside of a convertible with Chris & Herb in it. While the album was not a commercial success, it is a near-perfect celebration of the music that inspired Chris and Herb in the first place.
John Fogerty ‘Hot Rod Heart’ (1997)
Creedence Clearwater Revival were one of the most successful and greatest late ‘60s groups and John Fogerty was their lead singer, guitarist and songwriter. Though they broke up in 1972 amid much acrimony among the band members the group has cast a long shadow over Fogerty’s career. Due to a long-running legal dispute with their label Fogerty refused to reference or play their songs during his solo career until 1997 when he started playing Creedence songs live. While he released two solo albums in the ‘70s it was 1985’s ‘Centerfield’ that really kick-started his solo career commercially.
John Fogerty is one of the founding fathers of americana due to his work with Creedence Clearwater Revival and his country covers album from 1973 ‘The Blue Ridge Rangers’. While he ignored their back catalogue, he did not ignore their sound during his solo career. ‘Centerfield’ for all its success was really a re-write of successful Creedence songs with John Fogerty playing all the instruments. Its follow-up, ‘Eye Of The Zombie’, was a disaster of weak songs and inappropriate production. It took Fogerty another 10 years to write and record his third solo album, Blue Moon Swamp’. While Fogerty used studio musicians they managed to deliver an album of relaxed musical perfection with a strong set of songs covering all the bases of roots rock. While it did not repeat the commercial success of ‘Centerfield’, it is one of his best solo albums.
‘Hot Rod Heart’ is exactly what you would expect being a celebration of the open road, hot rods, Buicks and Harley Davidsons with a great roots rock backing. The production manages to do something that was so missing on ‘Eye Of The Zombie’ and that is to sound modern and clear but also relaxed enough to reflect the earlier influences of Fogerty’s sound. It was the Creedence Clearwater Revival sound successfully transported to the ‘90s. Fogerty included a duet version with Brad Paisley on his ‘Wrote A Song For Everyone’ album.
Bill Kirchen ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ (1997)
Though he may not be a name that is on everyone’s lips, Bill Kirchen is one of the most important architects of the americana sound through his work with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen who mixed rock’n’roll, western swing and country covers with slyly humorous self-written songs. Kirchen’s lead telecaster licks, vocals and songwriting were a key part of the Commander Cody sound. They influenced not only subsequent rock musicians but also the emerging country music outlaws of the ‘70s and the British pub rock scene. Kirchen became friends with Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello in the late ‘70s and they have continued to work together over the years.
Apart from membership of various bands and session work, Kirchen has enjoyed a long-lasting solo career which has highlighted his skills on the telecaster and the humour first evidenced with Commander Cody. A key part of his signature solo sound is his long-time rhythm section of Johnny Castle, bass, and Jack O’Dell drums. One of the best ways of experiencing Kirchen is live and ‘Hot Rod Lincoln Live!’ was his first live album. The song ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ was first released in 1955 by Charlie Ryan but the most successful version was by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen who included a version on their debut album ‘Lost In The Ozone’ in 1971 and released it as a single that made No 9 on the Billboard Hot 100.
The song became a feature for Kirchen in his live shows as he mimics the signature sounds of artists such as Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Flatt and Scruggs, B.B. King, Link Wray, Muddy Waters and many more and the version here is prime Kirchen. If anyone wants to explore Kirchen further The Last Music Company have just released a compilation album ‘The Proper Years’.
Geoff Muldaur ‘Chevrolet/Big Alice (1998)
This list started with a delta blues track and ‘Chevrolet/Big Alice’ was inspired by an even older form of music, the fife and drum sound which was the music of African slaves in America from the 18th century. While Britain had Lonnie Donegan and skiffle, in America they had jug bands and one of the best was The Jim Kweskin Jug Band. American jug bands were a lot hipper than British skiffle groups and not only introduced long lost jazz, blues and country songs of the ‘20s and ‘30s to a modern audience but also helped change the presentation of music in terms of musician’s attitudes and even dress sense. Geoff Muldaur, with his then-wife Maria Muldaur, were pivotal members of The Jim Kweskin Jug Bang and he subsequently followed his own idiosyncratic musical course over the years, releasing periodic albums.
In 1998 he issued ‘The Secret Handshake’ which included the old Memphis Minnie tune ‘Chevrolet’ performed in a fife and drum style. The rhythm of the tune is very old and goes back to field-hollers. The same rhythm was popularised by Bo Diddley. The supporting musicians are excellent, including under-rated guitar player, and long-term Kris Kristofferson associate, Stephen Bruton, and mandolin god David Grisman. When Muldaur arranged ‘Chevrolet’, he added the jazz piano player Don Pullen’s ‘Big Alice’ as it featured the same rhythm but with added horns.
Drive-By Truckers ‘Carl Perkin’s Cadillac’ (2004)
The Drive-By Truckers have long ploughed their own furrow exploring not only southern music but also southern culture. While the band have had various members over the years, including Jason Isbell, the heart and soul of the band is to be found with Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, who formed the band in 1996. While you wouldn’t want to compare their song-writing to such southern literary titans as Mark Twain or Tennessee Williams, their songs do have a literary bent and they do convey and explore a more honest and realistic view of the south than some. more idealistic song-writers.
Mike Cooley doesn’t have as high a profile as Patterson Hood and past member Jason Isbell, but his singing, songwriting and guitar playing are fundamental to The Truckers sound. ‘Carl Perkin’s Cadillac’ from their breakthrough album ‘The Dirty South’, is one of his classic songs and tells the story of Sam Phillips offering a free Cadillac to his first artist to sell a million. The money was naturally on Elvis, but it was Carl Perkins who pulled it off with ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. The songs lyrics also highlight the fact the Jerry Lee Lewis always called Sam Phillips Mr Phillips. A small detail, but revealing about southern attitudes.