How could a cover of a 1991 song from a Canadian stadium rocker end up as America’s top country music single in 2006?
Simple, actually. It’s a road song. The country trio Rascal Flatts‘ 2006 version of Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is a Highway” has capitalized on the magical attraction for country fans (and other listeners) of songs about the open road. It didn’t hurt that the song appeared on the soundtrack of Disney’s popular film Cars.
A catchy hook drives the song (and pulls listeners along):
Life is a highway
I want to ride it all night long
If you’re going my way
I want to drive it all night long
It’s not the first re-make of the song: Tom Petty has also recorded it, and the late Chris LeDoux, rodeo champion and country singer, included it on his 1998 One Road Man album (LeDoux’s is my favorite version of the song, along with his zany and somewhat frenetic “Life Is a Highway” video).
Surprisingly, there’s a global angle to Cochrane’s song. Cochrane says “Life is a Highway” was inspired by a fact-finding mission to West Africa that he made for the famine relief organization World Vision. The original lyrics, consequently, carry a more international flavor:
This is the road and these are the hands
From Mozambique to those Memphis nights
The Khyber Pass to Vancouver’s lights
Rascal Flatts sings Cochrane’s words without alteration; in LeDoux’s cowboy version they become “from Tennessee to those L.A. nights/San Antone to the Vegas’ lights.”
Country road songs
Americans do like their cars and highways; Nashville’s Music Row favors songs about cars and highways. Country music’s dominance of the genre is clear when you read through the neat list of road songs compiled by Richard F. Weingroff of Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) on the Highway History section of its website.
Country road songs often become cross-over hits: for example, Willie Nelson’s “ On the Road Again,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobbie McGee” (best known through Janis Joplin’s gritty rendition, but also covered by Arlo Guthrie, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Rogers, and the Grateful Dead, among others) and Elvis Presley’s “Kentucky Rain” (written by Eddie Rabbit and Dick Heard).
Nearly every country singer of any prominence has recorded a road song (sometimes several), from George Strait (“Amarillo By Morning,” “Carry Your Love With Me,” “I Can Still Make Cheyenne”) to Trisha Yearwood (“You Can Sleep While I Drive”) to Suzy Bogguss (“Drive South”) to Hank Williams (“Lost Highway”).
One of the classic road songs, Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” is actually a train song (“I know every engineer on every train/ All of their children, and all of their names”), and includes one of the more memorable, and sweetly ironic, refrains in country music: “I’m a man of means by no means/ King of the Road.”
For whatever reason, rock, soul, R&B, jazz, and other American musical traditions haven’t been as road obsessed. Country-rockers, like the Allman Brothers (“Ramblin Man”) and The Eagles (“Take it Easy”) do pay allegiance to the highway, and two legendary rock musicians with numerous highway/road songs are Bob Dylan (who has his “Nashville Skyline” country side) and Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s “Born to Run” is—you can argue—perhaps the most popular road song ever recorded (and, for what it is worth, sits at #21 on the Rolling Stone list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time).
What’s behind the enduring attraction of the road, and the songs about it? The open road conjures up freedom. Escape. Steppenwolf captures that in its hit “Born to be Wild”: “Head out on the highway/ Lookin’ for adventure/ And whatever comes our way.”
The highway represents a new start. It beckons to the restless, and the rebellious and those, usually young men, looking to find themselves (think Easy Rider and Jack Kerouac and “Then Came Bronson‘). In a country founded by pioneers, men and women on the move, the road always seems an option. And American drivers, especially in the West, are blessed with wide open spaces and a vast highway network (thank you, Dwight David Eisenhower).
The secret of road songs is that they don’t have to be profound. Life may or may not be a highway, but it’s hard to resist Tom Cochrane’s song—like the other great road songs—and not put the pedal to the metal.
Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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