On the Subtle Art of Picking Road Music
For several weeks each spring and fall, I travel on business. (I'm leaving on a short trip later today.) It's mostly in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, so the trips are almost always by car. And a critical part of preparing for any car trip, far more important than checking the oil or the air pressure in the tires, is deciding what music to take. If I were an iPod guy, I could take everything I own everywhere I go--but that's cheating. Life is about choices and decisions, and picking a subset of my vast music collection to take with me when I travel is one of the more pleasurable decisions I am required to make. So why would I want to give it up?
When I bought my current car (2001 Ford ZX2, midnight blue), a single-slot CD player was standard equipment. I upgraded to a six-disc changer in the trunk and a cassette deck--not necessarily because I wanted the changer, but because I really wanted the cassette deck. It's what I use most of the time for my day-to-day travels. The CD player gets its turn on longer trips for business or pleasure.
When I'm traveling long distance by myself, I carry a mix of cassettes and CDs. Over the years, I have assembled a formidable array of car tapes, and they're still my preferred travel companions. I have assembled a few compilation CDs featuring my favorite artists, however, and I have aspirations to convert some of my favorite car tapes to CDs, eventually.
One thing I want when I'm on the road is variety--so in addition to compilation cassettes and homemade CDs, I often find myself grabbing commercially released CD compilations from Rhino, Time-Life, and others. What I'm going for is the mix of tunes a really good radio station would provide, without the talk. (The irony of an ex-DJ who was in love with the sound of his own voice actively avoiding DJ talk today is a bit painful.) But like most radio listeners, I'm also looking for familiarity. An advantage to taking the highly familiar on the road is that you can usually sing along to it. Singing is how I keep myself awake and alert when the road gets long or the hour gets late. (It's not singing you'd want to hear--or that I would want you to hear--but that's not the point.) Familiarity is important also because I also find the car is not a good place to listen to a new CD. Classics and warhorses work a lot better. With them, it doesn't matter so much if you're not paying attention. And you probably know some of the words.
Music you'd use to chill out doesn't work in the car either. I'm a big Bill Evans fan, but he'll play on my bedside CD player 100,000 times before he'll make it into the stack for a road trip. I find that most jazz generally doesn't work at 70MPH, unless it's really smokin'--I'm thinking here of soul-drenched or bluesy Hammond B3 stuff, Charles Earland or Jimmy Smith, or a blues band that prominently features keyboards, like Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, or Madison's own Westside Andy/Mel Ford Band.
Blues records are often prominent in my road stacks, and I tend to break my familiarity rule where the blues is concerned. The blues are a uniquely American art form, and it's possible to argue that the road itself is a unique sort of American icon. The two belong together. (For several years, I have kept a harmonica in the glove compartment of my car, because when you're on the road, you never know when the blues will break out.) Even if I don't know the record or the group all that well, if they're following the rules for the blues, I'm glad to have them along.
So I can tell you what kind of music works for me on the road, but there's no one-size-fits-all formula you can follow to pick flawless stacks of road music. Like making car tapes, making such choices is highly personal and therefore, quirky. But if you have some sure-fire, guaranteed-great road music to suggest, or if you'd just like to tell the whole class what you listen to behind the wheel, click "Comments" and have at it.