In 2014, I made three trips back to my native home of New Orleans and its surroundings. That’s about an 11-to-12 hour drive, and one that I enjoy (except for the pain in my neck that develops in the ninth hour or so, resulting from me being stuck in the same seating position for so long). I’ve always been a music fan, but not of any one type of genre; I like almost everything. And when taking those three trips last year (two to help a friend’s election campaign in my hometown suburb of New Orleans), I put a lot of thought into picking out the tunes I’d enjoy on the way, probably spending more time selecting the music than I spent packing.
Just choosing favorites isn’t part of the process, though. I’m not claiming these to be the best albums of any genre or of all time – these are simply the ones that I can listen to nonstop during that long drive. I don’t have to skip any songs – each of the tracks in succession seem to develop and follow one another in a progressive sequence without changing the theme – and I can enjoy the long drive a lot more, too. I also skip out on the “best of” and “greatest hits” collections, too. They seem to lack in sequence.
(And, yes – I *do* know how to burn CDs, and I also have an MP3, but for me to go through that in prep for these long trips would take me just about as much time as the drive itself, dammit. I want it simple.)
These are my favorite long-drive selections, in no particular order. These aren’t exactly rare releases or things you’ve never heard of before. You probably know most, if not all, of them, in fact. But for those you’re not familiar with, enjoy the selections picked for each.
Doo Dad – Webb Wilder (1991)
From this album, here is “Tough It Out” (which, in my road-experience opinion, is perfect for that time when you finally get to pass up the car accident that caused a traffic jam).
Moondance – Van Morrison (1970)
It flows smoothly throughout, and I’ve liked it best on return trips at the point when I get past the rush-hour traffic in Atlanta and move towards Augusta. The song below is “Caravan,” which lightens the mood when on that unlit stretch.
Weezer – Weezer (1994)
The garage-band aura of the album consistently projects a freshness, that of an innocent youth learning the real ways of the world for the first time. Who learns of his own faults, which are due to inexperience, at the same moment. Who isn’t quite happy with all the new and life-changing transformations that are occurring right then, and who wishes he could trap himself within the world he knew just minutes before he came across that realization.
That freshness and its consistency throughout lets me listen to the entire CD without having to skip any tracks. This is “No One Else” (click here for the full cut of their debut album).
Underground – Thelonious Monk (1968)
A little bluesy, and can inspire reminiscence even the first time you hear it. There’s even a waltz-like song in there, all of which made that stretch of I-26 pleasant as I scooted along a sparsely-trafficked (but densely fogged) morning. The album closes perfectly with this last track of “In Walked Bud,” the only song on the CD with vocals.
Dirt Floor – Chris Whitley (1998)
This fourth album of his features just Whitley alone, though, playing guitar and banjo (complete with foot stomps). Sort of a return to his folksy base, but with a passionate flair.
On the recent trips into NOLA, I saved this CD for shortly after I passed Montgomery and got on I-85 to Mobile. That rural and flatland setting in a near-sunset time of day seemed most appropriate for the music.
(For the record, he passed away in 2005 at age 45.)
“Accordingly” (below) is my favorite from this album (although “Indian Summer” – listen to it here – runs a close second).
Captured Live – Lil' Charlie and the Nightcats (1993)
Lil’ Charlie is always good, but none of his albums capture the hip-hop/jazz format of his blues guitar (sort of big band without the brass) better than this one of him and the Nightcats live on stage.
It’s fun – it’s quite suggestive at times – and it has a couple of classic, laid-back cuts, too. After I start to feel tired from the long drive, I play this CD to help that cup of gas station coffee make me wake up and be alert.
This “Run Me Down,” the second track on the album, is my favorite, though.
Paul Weller – Paul Weller (1992)
Not restricted to any band’s image or theme, Weller’s first and self-expressing solo combines pop with funk and Motown with jazz and soul with Woodstock. It’s also rather personal and thought-provoking, as if he composed these songs in self-evaluation as he began this new chapter of his professional career (and personal life, too).
For example, from the album’s “Above The Clouds”:
As my anger shouts – at my own self-doubt
So a sadness creeps – into my dreams
When you’re scared of living – but afraid to die
I get scared of giving – And I must find the faith to beat it
Do Not Disturb – James Harman Band (1991)
While the title track that opens it isn’t my favorite, it does sort of set the tone of its story of an on-the-road band, and which continues to develop throughout the album. There’s Delta blues, old postwar blues, Chicago blues, Texas roadhouse blues, and even a little zydeco flair on one track. One of my favorites – “Mad About Something” – is below.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik – The Red Hot Chili Peppers (1991)
I didn’t think I’d like it, though, due to the punk-rap avenue I had heard RHCP explored on this album. (Plus, I was really missing their days of “Catholic School Girls Rule,” which came out when I was a senior at a Catholic boys school.) I got hooked on this one quickly, though. While still maintaining that infamous charm and candor, this album also showed progressive development – not just musically, but personally, too. Here’s a favorite track, “Breaking The Girl”:
The Old Kit Bag – Richard Thompson (2003)
“The Old Kit Bag” is the one I can listen to non-stop, though. It’s combination of rock and folk and blues, all aided by traditional Gaelic folk (in my opinion, at least) might be staples found on all of his many albums, but this is the one I can listen to with no interruption.
He played once at Tipitina's during my tenure there. The crowd attending his solo performance was of many different generations, too, backing up my opinion of his long-time appeal.
From that album, my favorite is “Jealous Words,” which includes Judith Owens as backup vocal.
A Cab Driver’s Blues – Mem Shannon (1995)
I remember seeing him at Tipitina’s in 1991 or 1992, and he still looked nervous on stage, keeping his back to the audience when he wasn’t singing. He might have been nervous when first recording this debut album, too; as its liner notes read, Shannon needed encouragement from other musicians on the recording (such as “when in doubt, funk!”).
Making it even more fun, the tracks are separated by recordings Shannon made of passengers in his taxi (and those are classic, too, like “The Miserable Bastard” and “$17 Brunette”).
This is the bluesy/jazzy/funky/Nawlinsy “You Ain’t Nothin’ Nice”:
Born To Run – Bruce Springsteen (1975)
And on one school day in 1975 – I think I was seven years old – as I first listened to this album, I looked out the window to see not my brother, but the refinery just a few blocks away. Plumes of smoke rolling from many stacks, a consistent flame shooting from another. The place where many from my community worked – and were getting laid off from, which I learned as I witnessed more and more classmates getting “free lunch” coupons from our homeroom teacher. And on that day, right before my brother got home from high school, I heard this closing line from first-track “Thunder Road”:
It’s a town full of losers – I’m pulling out of here to win.
This is another start-to-finish album that joined me on each of last year’s trips back home. Here’s that “Thunder Road.”
We always wanted big names in the concert hall. It was great for business; it was great for our reputation. Attendees who saw them would be sure to tell everyone they knew who they saw at our establishment. It was the best of free advertisements.
It still bothered me somewhat, though, because sometimes these big names would insist on being treated like royalty, including being allowed in for free. I mean, these superstar musicians ought to remember what it’s like to be the small, unknown talent on stage relying on the cover charges to pay their rent, right? So I had a policy of testing the big names who’d wander in. (And if they got too angry when we pretended not to recognize them, they didn’t get in, dammit.)
That night, the doorman approached to tell me Springsteen just entered. “He had money in his hand right when he came up! He refused the comp!” the doorman said, obviously impressed by the gesture.
I approached Springsteen to offer him a private area on the second floor balcony; being a small crowd, he was sure to be seen and recognized, and might be pestered. (He might also take away attention from the talent on stage, too, I worried.)
But he refused, and stayed all night on the floor with everyone else. He didn’t hide or cower away when folks approached him. He just simply shook hands, and would even point at the stage to compliment the performer (returning attention to where it was due). He stayed inside Tip’s for a few minutes after we closed and locked the doors, waiting on the cab we called to pick him up. I gave him a couple of shirts as souvenirs.
And when I left after closing that late night/early morning, this time to a suburb on the opposite side of New Orleans from where I grew up, I remembered that afternoon of 1975. And I again felt like I had yet to find a place I wanted to call home.
When I hear it now, though, and as I drive to and from my old home and new home, it makes me reminisce about (and miss) New Orleans – and just about all of its suburbs – even more.
Well, that’s it. Remember – I’m not claiming these to be the best 12 albums ever made, or even my personal favorite dozen. These are simply the ones that make that long drive from Chucktown to the Big Easy a pleasure to endure (and which I hope to do again soon, too, so you Gentilly folks and parish peeps need to let me know of anything I can do for you).
And for an official closing, let me answer a question some might have, and which I’ve already answered many times to many people. Why do I drive there instead of flying? Well, the primary answer is, there really isn’t that much difference in the time it takes to get there.
To begin with, there are no direct flights between CHS and MSY. It takes a half-hour for me to drive from my home to Charleston International. I need to be checked in one hour before takeoff. It’s an hour and ten minutes to Charlotte, then an hour layover, then about 2:15 to New Orleans, and then a half-hour before I exit the plane and get my luggage. Then I have to get a rental car, and drive another 45 minutes or hour to my final destination. That’s about seven and a half to eight hours. And cheapest flights (at this time, anyway) are $568 for one person. (Don’t forget to add in car rental.)
When I drive, it takes about four hours longer, but that’s from starting point to ending point. And for about two tanks of gas each way. And that costs me less than half as much.
Plus, best of all? I get to listen to all that music.