My former colleague Linton Weeks threw out this idea in his NPR blog: Tell us the six songs of your life. I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t even get close, but I started by listing 10 that got me into the 1980s and then I quickly summed up a few more from there. Note that these are honest. A lot of music-heads want you to think that they emerged cool from the womb, but I listened to nothing but pure commercial radio until I was in my 20s and I say that without embarrassment. My youthful choices for this list were affected accordingly. Anyway, here are my picks:
1. “Ramblin’ Rose” by Nat King Cole. My folks used to put on an album of his songs almost every Sunday after we got home from church (well, OK, him or Doris Day). I remember that album well…it also had covers of “Goodnight Irene,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Wolverton Mountain,” among others.
2. “500 Miles” by…well, I probably heard the Peter, Paul and Mary version first. In second grade, I conned the nuns into believing I could play it on guitar, and they called an assembly of my entire class so I could perform it for them. Of course, I couldn’t play guitar at all, although I sang the song. My guitar skills have improved only slightly since then.
3. “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred and his Playboy Band. My sisters and I pooled our money and bought an album of the biggest hits o’ the day circa 1967 or so, then wore it out on the hi-fi. I remember this song above all.
4. “Crimson And Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells. I remember finally scraping up enough allowance money to walk up to the Melody Shop downtown and buy this single. It was my first personal music purchase of any kind.
5. “Free For All” by Ted Nugent. It was the lead song on the first album I ever bought, after I could afford my own stereo when I was 15. I was 15. I was 15. Y’all need to forgive me; that was nearly 40 years ago.
6. “Come Sail Away” by Styx. More forgiveness needed: It was my high school senior class song. I loved Styx and everyone I knew loved Styx. That was what it was like to be an 18-year-old in a small Midwestern town in the 1970s. I deeply love the Eric Cartman version, too.
7. “Radio Free Europe” by R.E.M. Heard it in college and it broke me of the Top 40 habit forever. It made me an enormous R.E.M. nut back when that was a very, very odd thing to be and I remember how upset I was when they started recording songs with intelligible lyrics.
8. “Don’t Worry Baby” by Los Lobos. I heard this whole album (How Will The Wolf Survive?) at the best party I ever went to in my life, which was in 1985 or so. It made me a crazy Los Lobos fan. To this day, I occasionally perform “I Got Loaded” and “Evangeline” off of this album.
9. “Baby, What You Want Me To Do?” by Jimmy Reed. I walked into a bar in Little Rock, heard this song being played by a friend’s blues band (the first blues band I’d ever seen live), went home and pulled out my dormant harps, and was in a band within six months. I’ve been annoying people ever since.
10. “American Music” by The Blasters. It started a multi-decade love affair with this band. I still want to be Phil Alvin when I grow up.
That only gets me up to the 1980s. Then there was Delbert McClinton’s “B Movie Boxcar Blues” and Tom Waits’ “Heart Of Saturday Night” and David Wilcox’s “It’s Almost Time” and James Harman’s “If The Shoe Fits, Wear It” and Little Charlie and the Nightcats singing “Don’t Do It” and Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” and Buddy and Julie singing “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast” and Steve Earle with “Copperhead Road” and Lyle singing about his pony. Alejandro Escovedo’s “Castanets” is fantastic and “Windfall” from Son Volt still tears me up, and Levon Helm singing “Stuff You Got To Watch” and Lucinda performing any of 10 different songs….and you get the point. Last year, everything on Jason Isbell’s “Southeastern” cut me wide open. Now I’m bordering on Homeless Crazy Guy whenever I start talking about John Fullbright. The music moves on and I’m so glad I’m still moving with it.