Narrowing down a list of the Top 10 Road Songs is like naming the best love song. Following that subject and, perhaps, drugs, there are few more popular topics in rock 'n' roll than touring. Writers are often told, “Write what you know,” and for musicians, the result is lyrics about life on the road. It's no coincidence that none of the songs on our list comes from a debut album. These soulful, weary and humble tunes are by artists who've already experienced the victories and defeats that become part of any traveling band’s legend.
From: ‘Running on Empty’ (1977)
A critic once called the ‘Running on Empty’ album “audio verite” – an LP about the road recorded onstage, backstage, in buses and in hotel rooms. ‘The Load-Out,’ co-written by Browne and Bryan Garofalo, helps bring the record to a close in elegant fashion, as Browne earnestly describes the highs and lows of the touring life, along with his gratitude and frustration. “We’ve got time to think of the ones we love / While the miles roll away,” he sings, “But the only time that seems too short / Is the time that we get to play.” Then the song segues into a celebratory cover of the doo-wop classic ‘Stay’ and all that weariness melts right off the stage.
From: ‘Pretenders II’ (1981)
Chrissie Hynde compares touring to going to war – an all-too common perspective found on sophomore albums by bands still reeling from the craziness of it all. In ‘Day After Day,’ Hynde sings about planes and dolphins and Tokyo and Lake Erie, flying above everything while missing the real life that’s happening down below. She speaks a hushed coda: “When the war’s finally over we’ll meet again / And pick up where we left off.” Then James Honeyman-Scott breaks into a roaring guitar solo and we hear the crash of a jet plane.
From: ‘Exile on Main St.’ (1972)
Gram Parsons was palling around with Keith Richards during the band's ‘Exile’ days, and it’s tough to imagine that he didn’t have an influence on this country-soul ballad. In fact, Mick Jagger (twanging up his voice like a hillbilly) might even be singing about the over-indulging musician: “You think he’s bad, he thinks you’re mad.” Or maybe that’s aimed at Keef. Regardless, ‘Torn and Frayed’ rolls around in the muck of touring – parasites, prostitutes, sickness and drugs – but still finds a space for salvation: “Just as long as the guitar plays / Let it steal your heart away.”
From: ‘Mott’ (1973)
Mott guitarist Mick Ralphs lost his guitar when the band was touring, prompting frontman Ian Hunter to pen this rocker. In the tune, a rock star’s guitar gets sent to Oriole, Kentucky, by mistake and he has to take a train from Memphis to retrieve it. He gets it back mid-song, but during his trip back he ruminates on the endless road of rock 'n' roll. Hunter sings, “Your name gets hot so your heart grows cold,” an admission of how touring changes people.
From: ‘Brothers and Sisters’ (1973)
Although this glistening Southern-rock standard doesn’t mention touring specifically, ‘Ramblin’ Man’ is a perfect snapshot of Dickey Betts’ life as a traveling musician. He departs one music town for another (Nashville to New Orleans), meeting women and good times every night, and leaving them behind the next morning. All that he asks in return is understanding. After all, he’s “just trying to make a livin’ and doin’ the best [he] can.”
From: ‘Ace of Spades’ (1980)
Lemmy Kilmister paid tribute to Motorhead’s road crew by writing this raucous gem … on the toilet. According to Lemmy, it was the only place in the studio where he could get some peace. The song tells us about the endless amount of roadie responsibilities – “Another backstage pass for you / Another tube of super glue / Another border to get through” – and touring distractions – “Another hotel we can burn / Another screw, another turn.” Lemmy wasn't just observing, of course. He once was a roadie for the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
‘Green River’ (1969)
There's probably a few more spots on our list of the Top 10 Road Songs for more CCR, but we’re going with the best: a ‘Green River’ country chestnut that combines John Fogerty’s road experience with his imagination. Although he’d never been to Lodi, Calif., he pictured himself becoming a washed-up musician playing for pennies in the middle of nowhere. His ambition drained, all he wants to do is return home, a common theme in all of these road songs. The people of Lodi have a good sense of humor about the track, having used the refrain of “Oh Lord, suck in Lodi again” as a theme for events.
From: ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’ (1966)
Paul Simon wrote this Simon & Garfunkel song in a railway station, during the period that he was living and working as a troubadour in England. ‘Homeward Bound’ is wistful, but not angry, as Simon becomes resigned to the “show” in show business. He sings, “Tonight I’ll sing my songs again / I’ll play the game and pretend.” Like many people on tour, he’s stuck doing the same thing again and again, lost in the repetition and longing for what most people take for granted.
From: ‘Back in ’72’ (1973)
Willie Nelson loves to be on the road, but to hear Bob Seger growl about it, being a touring musician must be the worst job in the world. Who’d want to put up with all those lonesome nights, long drives and back-breaking performances? People sometimes make fun of your hair! You might have to go to Omaha! Grizzled old Bob sounds both angry and blasé about his job as he pictures ruffling through the scrapbook of his life: “Here I am / On the road again … There I go / Turn the page.” And yet, he’s still touring. Must be a real glutton for punishment.
From: ‘American Beauty’ (1970)
All four of the Dead’s main songwriters (Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and lyricist Robert Hunter) collaborated on what turned out to be an anthem for the band. ‘Truckin’’ drew on the Dead’s touring experiences, moving from town to town, getting high and getting busted. Near the end, they shine a light on the Catch-22 of rock 'n' roll. When you’re a young band, "you’re sick of hangin’ around" and you’d like to travel. Then, once you begin touring, you “get tired of travelin’ and you want to settle down.” Even though they’ve been bruised by the road, the Dead still make it sound like fun. After all, “what a long, strange trip it’s been” probably could summarize most rock tours.