I find the place I most enjoy listening to music is on the open road. Something about the peacefulness and repetition of it allows my mind to be most receptive to inspiration. This makes me tend to gravitate toward songs that have a certain motion to them. Songs to get you from point A to B. Songs you can get lost to, and with. Of all the “travel songs,” train songs seem to usually be the best … with, perhaps, honorable mention to horseback. But for our purposes, let’s go with trains! — R. Finn
Jimmie Rodgers — “Waiting for a Train”
Of course, you can’t have a playlist about trains without mention of “The Singing Brakeman” himself! Perhaps the first rock star, and rightfully so, Jimmie is the complete package. His guitar playing is deceptive. On the surface simple, but elegant and deep. His voice is always the perfect highway companion, and his lyrics worth the price of admission alone. Hard-hitting lyrics, nothing spared. Organized with poetic precision. He makes sleeping in a boxcar and the hobo’s life sound ideal. He could be singing about dying from T.B. and it feels like chicken soup. Jimmie is the greatest, and this one of his best.
Muddy Waters — “All Aboard”
McKinley Morganfield, “King of the Delta Blues.” I love everything he ever did, but this era is my favorite. From the opening harmonica choo choo and the “All Aboard” call, I’m already in. Don’t know where this train is going, but I’ve bought a one-way ticket. Underneath that intoxicating rhythm is a tale of a “mean old Frisco” taking Muddy’s baby away. Must have been some kind of woman.
Bob Dylan — “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”
I love the band on this one. Loose with perfection. This record has such a classic sound. It’s throwback and cutting edge all in the same breath.
Howlin’ Wolf — “Smokestack Lightning”
This song was my introduction to the world of “The Mighty Wolf.” I remember when I first heard it, it nearly knocked me off my chair. It’s ferocious. Undeniable. Immediate. Before the song was over, he was one of my all-time favorite artists. Instantaneously. He was my gateway drug into the blues, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Apparently, as it was told to me, “Smokestack Lightning” is a reference to a train. So I’m going with that!
Elvis Presley — “Mystery Train”
All hail the King! What a sound. The essence of rock ‘n’ roll in its infancy. This song has the rhythm of the road built right into it. It’s magical, and I’m always in the mood for it.
The Grateful Dead — “Casey Jones”
The Dead have what you could say is a non-intrusive sound. They support you along wherever you’re heading. Great for journeys of all kinds. This song makes me think of good times! It also reminds you to watch your speed!
Guy Clark — “Desperados Waiting for a Train”
I discovered this song through the Highwaymen. It has what I like so much about Jimmy Webb’s writing. Unique lyrics with unpredictable chord changes. Lots of visuals. A great story with a lot of meat on the bone. Just a well-written song, by an underrated writer.
Roy Acuff — “Night Train to Memphis”
Memphis is my favorite city in the States, so the thought of taking a night train there sounds a-okay to me. Love the playfulness of this track, great vocals. Classic bluegrass!
Peter, Paul, and Mary — “500 Miles”
There are many variations of this song, performed by many different artists. But I just love how this one feels. A classic gone too far out, missing home type song. Perfect for a late-night drive. Makes you feel at home wherever you may find yourself.
The Impressions — “People Get Ready”
This is a wildcard for this list, but I love Curtis Mayfield’s music. There is so much humanity in everything he does. It’s deeply spiritual music. He understood the power of music and seemed to have no limitation in expressing it.
Photo credit: Peter Dawson