Songs About Drifters

Needles, South Dakota

Entrenched in winter. Around mid-October snow began to fall, followed by a cold snap which sent temps down in the deep negatives for days. A recent warming trend has suddenly brought on a serious winter storm, with a couple of feet of snow on the ground already, and no signs of letting up anytime soon. Outside the window, birch and spruce trees sit in perfect silence, giant snowflakes descending slowly from the sky. It’s calming to gaze out, observing the world as the serene place it can be. Elsewhere, the crazy continues to compound. The pandemic, the election, the denial associated with both, and the frightening fact that a significant percentage of our population refuses to accept anything as news that doesn’t bend to desired truth. Conspiracy over democracy, shallow self-interest above communal consideration, anger and lies trumping acceptance and positive intention…

But this isn’t about that. It’s about music. And roads. It’s about coming and going, and leaving more so than arriving. It’s about, as Sturgill sings it, ‘looking for the end of that long white line…’

As detailed in many prior posts, a good deal of my years have consisted of nomadic cycles of travel from one season to the next. Life in motion. And rarely set location to location, more like free-form rambling. One river to another, one state or country to the next, and a lot of worthy and whimsical attractions and distractions in the spaces between. Things have changed, of late, and I’m accepting of that in the moment, grateful for many aspects of my life in these difficult times, but it’s hard to subdue the spirit.

I chose a career based on opportunities to continually pursue a life outdoors, and accepted my current post with the intention of obtaining a different position in the near future—hopefully in another country altogether. In spite of having committed to a full-time job, I have no current plans or motivation to settle down to a sedentary lifestyle. Funnily enough, I’ve haven’t lived in Alaska even a full year this time around, but am already in my third residence. Old habits die hard. Something about staring at the same stale walls all the time, and sleeping in the same bed, and doing all the same things in the same places day after day tends to grind all the enjoyment out of life. Ugh, and don’t get me started on the accumulation of material goods. They’ve been piling up for months now, the needs and wants incarnate and little chance of even half of it fitting into the trunk of a Camry. Bed, sofa, mountains of warm weather gear, kitchen supplies, a good start at a home gym… Thankfully, however, I could throw it all in the Goodwill bin and walk away without a rearward glance. Could really care less about owning anything at this point.

There is just something about the kind of freedom that comes with leaving places and things and routines, committing instead to open roads and uncluttered options. Something that makes it seem like the only kind of freedom there is even. As Townes knew, ‘There’s no stronger wind than the one that blows down the lonesome railroad line; no prettier sight than lookin’ back on the town you left behind…’

And nothing enhances that feeling of freedom like music about endless roads, heartbreak, hopeless drifters, outcasts and outlaws. Windows wide open and desert air and straight lines into sunsets. Good time tracks you know every word to, along with a few ballads about lost love and longing. Songs that let you experience being alone but not alone, in other words. At other times, songs you can enjoy with that perfect someone in the passenger seat. As Isaac Brock concludes, ‘I like songs about drifters, books about the same. They both seem to make me feel a little less insane…’

Biggest tourist trap ever. And kind of cool. Wall Drug, South Dakota

Following then, the outlines of a playlist. A top ten of sorts, or thirteen, or whatever. Not even enough to get most people to the next state line, but maybe a half-tank’s worth of songs and a full start at starting over again.

fIREHOSE ‘Windmilling’ and ‘Sometimes.’ One of my favorite bands as a teen, once I finally figured out there were bands that no one played on the radio. Growing up in a very small town in Texas, long before the internet, our window to the outside world was limited to television and Top-40. I guess a lot of people there didn’t mind, as one of the main stations in Amarillo remains stuck in late 80s mainstream. Even today, when visiting the Panhandle one is guaranteed to hear Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran, and Tears for Fears on a daily basis. Fashions at school were at least a decade behind, with pegged jeans and hair-sprayed bangs the standard. MTV did feature actual music back then, but ‘alternative’ anything was just beginning to emerge, and punk rock was definitely not part of the format.

Hard to say if skateboarding led to a rejection of that small town mentality and accompanying status quo, or if it was the other way around. Maybe I just loved the freedom and creativity and sense of individualism that skateboarding provided, and craved more of the same. I wanted to know what else was out there. Not only that, but I wanted to go and skate it. When we turned old enough to drive, cars weren’t a good reason to stop skateboarding, they were tools to travel to far and away skating adventures. And then there was Thrasher Magazine, which, if I’m being honest, probably wasn’t always the best influence content wise, but provided a much desired counter-culture for a Texas teenager with little interest in pick-ups and team sports. Thrasher gave us inspiration, along with access to music and skate film soundtracks we never would have found otherwise. fIREHOSE was one of the many featured bands, all of them to become favorites, on the original Santa Cruz videos. These two songs in particular still evoke the feeling of freedom found with those first energies towards what would become endless road trips. Journeys of discovery.

Modest Mouse ‘The World at Large.’ With music, as in life, I always appreciate new interests. Love to stumble upon new sounds, artists, genres, and songs. It’s nice to switch things up a bit, to find something that creates excitement and revives passion. At various times I’ve put effort into doing so, and other times that stimulation appears organically. You hear something through the static of a community radio station while driving across a sprawling reservation; are captivated by a group of drunk strangers singing along to a heartfelt ballad in a palapa bar on a Mexican beach… You remember a few lines, maybe scrawl out a name, scan the credits at the end of a movie. You find that song, and perhaps others at the same time, and play them until you never want to hear them again. That’s what happens to me at least, a lot of the time. Every couple of years sees a shift from one or two genres to significantly dissimilar interests. I’ve gone through phases and hundreds of albums from punk, ska, grunge, alt rock to industrial, tribal, dub step, folktronica to rancheros, norteños, banda, ballenatos, flamenco, reggaeton to country, bluegrass, rockabilly, and old gospel. Just as I can’t imagine living in the same place for decades at a time, I cringe to think of getting stuck with the same music for all the days of my life—rocking out to tired sets of unchanging ‘classic hits’ on stations called Big Dog and K-WOLF.

Upper Missouri River, Montana

There are a few bands, however, that have proven the test of time. Artists I’ve been listening to for years that I’m still happy to hear on occasion. Albums and songs that still raise that same original energy upon listening. Modest Mouse is one of those bands. Not sure I could say what the exact appeal is, but I suppose it is the variation throughout each album, and even most songs. It’s the craziness, the melodic discordance. It’s that Isaac Brock is a remarkable lyricist, that even today I still catch deeply considered phrases that have passed by unheard somehow in 20 years of listening. It’s that so many of the songs are about searching for whatever—truth, meaning, purpose, sense in the universe—as well as the search itself, stories of pointless adventure, rambling chaotic songs about life and perpetual motion and infinite miles of freeway. Songs like ‘Dramamine,’ ‘Dashboard,’ ‘Float On,’ ‘King Rat.’ Probably my two favorites ever are one of their shortest tracks ‘So Much Beauty in Dirt,’ which speaks of local adventures, and one of the longest tracks, ‘Trucker’s Atlas,’ which sprawls from California, to New York, to Florida, to Alaska. ‘World at Large’, however, is replete with incredibly poignant lines, all relevant to the impulsive need to wander, from leaving the front porch without founded intention, to shifting seasons portending imminent departures. The ultimate song about drifters. One other great thing about being a Modest Mouse fan is that their digital discography represents at least a couple states worth of recordings—the perfect soundtrack for ‘a long drive for someone with nothing to think about.’

Waylon Jennings ‘Ramblin’ Man.’ I was emphatically not ‘country when country wasn’t cool.’ As mentioned, while growing up in Texas I was less than enamored with cowboy culture, and had little interest in romanticizing small town life. I guess it was in the Army when I eventually came around to that country state of mind, once I started listening to Hank Jr. and all the rest of the outlaw country legends. Waylon, David Allen Coe, Charlie Daniels, Merle Haggard, and on and on. Songs about drinking and rambling and being free from care of judgment. Well, some of the songs at least. The best ones. I have little in common with the protagonist of this particular song, but like so many of those best ones, it sure is fun to roll down the windows, crank the volume, and sing along as loud as you can.

Hank III ‘Thunderstorms and Neon Signs.’ I love all the Hanks, and have spent a lot of hours listening to each. Senior sang about life, love, and loneliness, and died on the road. Bocephus—bad habits and good times. And Hank III, well, all of the above plus some extra darkness and added twang.

Sturgill Simpson ‘Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean.’ These days I listen to a lot of new country, probably even more than is good for me. It’s what’s on the radio. And I like a lot of the top 40 songs, the relatable ones I suppose. Songs about merciless southern girls breaking hearts, and feel good numbers dedicated to boats and beer drinking and Mexican beaches. A couple of the following bands on this list, as a matter of fact, might be heard on some of those stations. But probably not Sturgill. And that’s fine by me. Would hate to wear these songs down. Mr. Simpson sings it raw and real, often times with humor, and sometimes straight psychedelic. ‘Life Ain’t Fair’ is just a starter. ‘You Can Have the Crown,’ is an even better time. Things get stimulating with ‘Turtles All the Way Down.’ ‘Panbowl’ could crush a person.

Devils Tower, Wyoming

Ramon Ayala ‘Un Puño de Tierra.’ This song came across the only radio station I could pick up last winter as I was driving aimlessly through a desolate section of New Mexico. Apropos lyrics for the moment, to say the least. The singer was a guy named Chris Arellano, and I certainly appreciate his voice and cover of the song. But it was originally made famous in separate recordings by a couple of Mexican greats: Ramon Ayala and Antonio Aguilar. At least, that’s what I was able to discern through some perfunctory internet research. Spending so much time next to the border, out west in general, and down in Mexico itself, I’ve certainly come to appreciate a wide variety of Mexican music, and love to pick it up on random stations across the US. Most of the OG machismo tracks fit right in with all that outcast country. Couple of the best examples would be ‘El Aventurero,’ by Aguilar, and ‘El Rey’ by José Alfredo Jiménez, covered also by the great icon Vicente Fernández.

Ariel Camacho y Los Plebes del Rancho ‘Amarga Derrota.’ Another band from border travels. Kids really, these three, from the northern desert states of Mexico, and unbelievable talent. Songs about all the things, ‘corridos’ about cartels, ballads of new love and lost love. Check out the creatively original tuba of Omar Burgos, and consider the legacy left behind by prodigy singer-songwriter Camacho, who died in a car accident in Chihuahua at the age of 22. So many good songs, all of them really, including ‘Hablemos,’ ‘Del Negociante,’ y mi favorita ‘Con Cartitas y Whatsapp.’

Zac Brown Band ‘Stuck in Colder Weather.’ This is a band you will definitely hear on the radio. Some songs might cause you to tear up a little, like this one, while others make you want to hoot and holler. ‘Chicken Fried’ anyone?

Townes Van Zandt ‘Snowin on Raton.’ If you have never seen Be Here to Love Me, you should watch it. Townes Van Zandt spent most of his life living on the road, writing and singing songs that have been performed by almost all the country greats. A true Texas legend, Townes’s songs are about seeking and rarely finding. So was his life. I guess that’s theme for a lot of the music on this list. In the verse mentioned earlier, the one about the lonesome railroad line, the speaker has actually found the one thing that will keep him settled for a while, true love, though it’s difficult to know how long the convictions will hold. And maybe that’s what all the roamers out there pretend to be looking for: something to make them stick around for a while, be it person, place, or thing.

Chris Stapleton ‘What are You Listening To?’ A song about being stuck in love with someone you’ll never see again. A voice that encapsulates all the loneliness in the world. A look that says pariah as fuck. Stapleton has been making the move from underground to spotlight these last couple years, singing duets with J. Timberlake, and Pink, as well as his own wife. Success well deserved. His latest release, ‘Starting Over,’ is not only playing on commercial stations, it debuted at number one on the charts. It offers a different something to search for: that someone who wants to be there with you the whole time, no matter how hard life might be otherwise. A lasting companion willing to pack it up, get in the truck, and go along for the ride. Two people that don’t need anything but each other.

Tom Waits ‘Long Way Home.’ (Also, amazingly covered by Ms. Norah Jones.) Seems like that’s the goal more than anything else. The dream. Finding that person that’s happy to be part of the process. The one that appreciates the adventure, and doesn’t obsess over the small details. If I ever had to pick the one song that says it all, the few verses that manage to distill life values into a couple of simplistic ideas, it’d be this one. ‘Money’s just something you throw off the back of a train…’ ‘And I love you pretty baby but I always take the long way home…’

Upper Missouri River, Montana

Above photos taken during a trip from Texas to Alaska a few years back: Northbound 17.

1 thought on “Songs About Drifters

  1. Jody Jett!! Stumbled across your page when looking through old notes. Hope you are well! So enjoyed reading through some of your latest. Sean Calavan circa de Nova summer ’18

    Like

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