Urban Plains’ definitive playlist for aimlessly driving around the Midwest’s backroads
Words by Gracie Piper
Most Midwesterners understand that dirt roads are like double-dog dares: You just can’t say no. And there’s no better way to take in the rolling hills, questionable bridges and endless possibilities than with songs that are equal parts dust and daydreams. So grab your auxiliary cord, roll down your car windows and hit play on this specially curated mix of shoutouts to the Midwest and its musical roots.
“I’ll Take You There” // The Staple Singers
The Staple Singers delivered their gospel-like tunes with a heavy dose of soul that was cultivated in the Windy City. Their 1972 hit, “I’ll Take You There,” will make you want to hit the road with your honey as Mavis Staples’ smooth, chocolatey vocals float into the front seat through your speakers.
“Ohio” // The Black Keys
Blues rock duo Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney reveal a hearty affection for their home state in this namesake single. Between leisurely symbolic-laden choruses that sound like a stoned Santa jingling his sleigh bells, Auerbach growls, “If you see me hunkered down in your town, I’m just watchin’ the clock on the wall ’til I can go to the place I love most of all…” Extra points if your favorite place happens to be on a gravel road.
“Good as Hell” // Lizzo
Minneapolis-based hip-hop artist Lizzo’s “Good as Hell” is an upbeat call for female empowerment. Her snappy rhythms are the perfect complement to your next girl’s trip, so crack a window do a “hair toss” and let Lizzo’s high notes lift your spirits.
“Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” // Sufjan Stevens
When the bubbly instrumentals in “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” crescendo, you can practically see the end credits to a G-rated movie roll past your windshield. It’s 10 gallons of optimism trumpeted through a French horn and vibraphone. But that feel-good melody is masked with lyrics paying sarcastic homage to Chicago’s hosting of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The result: beautifully fey.
“Nebraska” // Bruce Springsteen
The harmonica at the beginning of Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” sounds like the Midwest version of funeral bagpipes: hollow and haunting. And for good reason. The title track to The Boss’s 1982 folk masterpiece tells the story of a murderous rampage committed by two teenage lovers that began in the Cornhusker State. We bet you won’t want to pull over while this classic is playing.
“Sweet Home Chicago” // Robert Johnson
Smooth, steady strumming from this 1930s tune will set the pace for your 30-miles-an-hour drive down unbeaten dirt. As you hum along to the Delta blues master’s droning single, don’t get lulled to sleep. If you need a pick-me-up, check out the Blues Brothers’ cover—you’ll have to keep your hands on the steering wheel to keep from clapping along.
“Chicago Is So Two Years Ago” // Fall Out Boy
Illinois-based Fall Out Boy jams out heartbreak-style to this punky number about missing the bright lights of their home city Chicago. The emo sound of this band is honest, real and just on the edge of pop-y.
“The Big Three Killed My Baby” // The White Stripes
The defunct, Detroit-bred duo calls out their city’s crumbling economy in the caustic “The Big Three Killed My Baby.” The Big Three are Detroit’s former auto production companies, Ford, Chrysler and General Motors. Maybe you should have borrowed your dad’s Subaru for this road trip.
“Ride” // Liz Phair
Long before Ariana Grande sang about riding a “bike” so hard and fast that it leaves your legs wobbly, Liz Phair advocated for one last ride before you die. The 90s singer-songwriter was raised in the Chicago suburbs, where she derived the Mayberry vibes in this flowing melody. Leave June Cleaver by the side of the road and pick up Phair singing about catching more than just rides.
“Greater Omaha” // Desparecidos
Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst goes post-punk with his Nebraska-based band Desparecidos. An amalgamation of shrieking vocals and soft guitar scales spun together in a surprisingly satisfying cookies and cream-like combo, the track examines Omaha’s attempt to transition from small town to Midwestern metropolis. It’s not pretty, but it’s definitely poignant. If head banging is a pivotal part of your gravel road aesthetic, Desparecidos’ beats that feel like they’re fueled by Red Bull may just give you whiplash.
“Des Moines” // Jeffrey Foucault
Blues, country and folk rock-dabbling singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault gives a melancholy shoutout to Iowa’s capital in the opening track for his 2015 record, Salt as Wolves. With a soft-spoken drawl, Foucault sings about drinking a beer with a lover in Des Moines, as he strums a guitar as slowly as you’d savor your favorite IPA.
“Yoü And I” // Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga’s “Yoü And I” from her second studio album Born This Way is a twisted love song about a man—but you can call him “Nebraska.” “There’s only three men that I’m gonna serve my whole life,” she belts as she slams the piano like a screen door. “It’s my daddy and Nebraska and Jesus Christ.” Same, Gaga. Same.
“Tipsy” // J-Kwon
Take your road trip from Honda to house party with this Billboard Top 100 hit. You’ll have a hard time staying in your seat as St. Louis native J-Kwon’s banging beats take you back to your last blackout. Make sure you hail an Uber on the back roads if you start to feel “inspired.”
“Dreamin” // Wax
This witty rap song is part pulsing club beat and part Nintendo sound effects. The upbeat tune will have you tapping on your steering wheel to the beat of the thumping bassline. Rapper and songwriter Wax aggressively assures the listener that he won’t take shit from anyone from anywhere. (Not even Des Moines.)
“How We Land” // P.O.S. with Bon Iver
Minneapolis underground rapper P.O.S enlisted indie folk band Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon for the track “How We Land.” With P.O.S.’s verse and Vernon’s mellow tone, the pair of Midwestern natives’ collaboration offers commentary on the over-medicated youth of the 21st century in a slow hip-hop-esque track with pace that approximates smoke rolling out the cracked window of a car speeding down the highway.
“Kandiyohi” // The Honeydogs
With a country twang and a sound reminiscent to the rockabilly era of early rock ‘n roll, Minnesota-natives the Honeydogs sing of their home state in “Kandiyohi.” Bob Dylan-esque storytelling lyrics depict a not-so-favorable impression of Kandiyohi County juxtaposed against sugar-beet sweet melodies.
“Small Town” // John Mellencamp
This veteran rocker’s ode to his home town of Seymour, Indiana, helped solidify his place in the public consciousness. The pulse-steady strums of an acoustic guitar complement unshakable lyrics about about finding Jesus and devotion to small town life.
“Kansas City” // Hound Dog Taylor
In the 50s, songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller penned the bluesy song “Kansas City,” about journeying to the heart of America in search of a new girl. The Beatles made the song a hit by covering it on their album Beatles for Sale, but no one can contribute to a true road trip experience quite like Hound Dog Taylor.