Every NPR reporter has their own way of preparing for a road trip. It's making sure your gear is all in good shape and fully functioning. It's having that extra supply of batteries. Or the proper jacket or shoes depending on local weather forecast. All practical measures to ensure the success of any assignment. But in the many years I've been a roving journalist, I've developed a few other rituals that are all my own.
One involves music.
Before every trip, I go to Spotify or iTunes and build a short playlist of songs, all connected in some way to the place I'm headed. The connection is sometimes a no-brainer — for example a song like Lefty Frizzell's "Saginaw, Michigan" if I'm going to, well ... Saginaw, Mich. Or it can be far less obvious. That same playlist might include something from Motown legend Stevie Wonder, who was actually born a hundred miles north of Detroit in Saginaw. Sometimes the connection is even thinner than that, but if I can make the link in my head it's close enough.
Here's what this habit does for me: When my flight touches down, the first thing I do in my rental car is plug in my playlist. As the songs play, they immediately help create a sense of place for me mentally. And there's something else — it's a musical reminder that this is a place with its own culture and its own identity. Call it a subliminal message that I'm here to report on what happens, but also to try to capture the essence of the place.
Here's my latest playlist, from a recent trip to Iowa.
You'll find jazz, folk, country, 1950's rock, and a group from Liverpool, England — each with a connection to the Hawkeye State.
1) "Davenport Blues" / Bix Beiderbecke
Bix Beiderbecke has one of the great alliterative names in all of American music. He is a native of the Mississippi River town of Davenport, Iowa and was an early Jazz great — a contemporary of Louis Armstrong. A cornet player, Beiderbecke composed the song included on this playlist in 1925. It's called the "Davenport Blues." Travel note: Every summer, the city of Davenport hosts the annual Bix Jazz Festival.
2) "Counting Feedcaps" / Greg Brown
Greg Brown is another Iowa native, who became well known as a regular on A Prairie Home Companion during the 1980s. He's categorized mostly as a folk singer, but his music includes blues, jazz and, at times, zydeco influences. For this playlist I turned to an album he released in 1981 called the Iowa Waltz. Sometimes I just put this entire LP on as my playlist for an Iowa trip. This time I selected a song that for me really captures a sleepy Iowa diner, somewhere out in the country, where everyone is just getting their day going and I'm walking in with my tape recorder hoping to talk politics. The title "Counting Feedcaps" refers to the baseball-style, mesh-backed caps that you see in farm country. Instead of a team logo, they feature the insignia of one of the big feed companies.
3) "Sioux City Sue" / Willie Nelson and Leon Russell
Not much explanation needed here — Sioux City is a town in northwest Iowa. The song was written in the 1940s and first popularized by the legendary Singing Cowboy Gene Autry. Lots of artists have recorded it, including Bing Crosby and Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys. I first heard Willie Nelson and Leon Russell do it when I was in college. It's been a favorite ever since, so I include their duet here.
If you want to sing along:
I drive a herd of cattle down from old Nebraska way
That's how I come to be in the state of Iowa
And I met a girl in Iowa her eyes were big and blue
I asked her what her name was she said Sioux City Sue
Sioux City Sue Sioux City Sue...
4) "Wake Up Little Susie" / The Everly Brothers
The Everly Brothers — Don and Phil — need no introduction from me. Their harmonies and songwriting genius earned them a 1986 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They grew up in a tiny – very tiny – one room house in Shenandoah, Iowa in the southwest corner of the state. This is one of the Everly Brothers greatest hits. It's from 1957.
5) "Till There Was You" / The Beatles
So the inclusion of the Beatles on my Iowa playlist requires a bit of explanation. This song was on 1964's Meet The Beatles, their very first album released in the United States. The song, sung here by Paul McCartney, is from the very popular broadway musical, The Music Man. All four of The Beatles play on this track. Including Ringo on the bongos(!). But here's the Iowa connection — The composer of the Music Man is Mason City, Iowa native Meredith Willson. The plot follows a traveling salesman/con man who arrives in the fictional town of River City, Iowa hoping to dupe the local townfolk into buying expensive high school marching band uniforms. I'll let you see the play or watch the movie for the rest. Suffice it to say, the Beatles do one of the nicest renditions of this ballad you'll ever hear.
This one isn't available on Spotify, you'd probably rather watch this one anyway:
6) "Well...Alright" / Buddy Holly
C'mon. You can't have an Iowa playlist without Buddy Holly! Plus, every four years, the historic Surf Ballroom & Museum in Clear Lake hosts candidates, banquets and any number of political events. They still put on a pretty great rock and roll show too.