Like a lot of music-obsessed people, I tend to create a fair amount of iTunes playlists. Why? So that I always have just the right music for any setting or situation.
I make them for different vacation destinations, certain times of the week (my massive "Sunday Morning" playlist gets a lot of use), different background-music-friendly weekend activities and, of course, holidays.
For the past year or so, I've been tinkering with a playlist that's perfect for trips to one of my favorite places on earth, the southern California high desert—especially the stunning landscapes in and around Joshua Tree National Park (Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms...you get the idea). Or maybe even Death Valley or the drive from Los Angeles to Barstow.
Below are 10 songs that are featured on this playlist; consider them recommendations for your own "ultimate desert playlist." As you're listening, picture the sandy, rocky nothingness; picture Gram Parsons and his buddies being photographed on the side of the road in early 1969; picture the high-lonesome, dry, rocky journeys of countless forgotten 19th- and 20th-century migrants, drifters and adventurers. Or picture Milton Berle, Mickey Rooney and Sid Caesar as they search for that elusive $250,000 in 1963.
One final thought: Please avoid being a troll. This list is purely subjective; if you disagree with something, that's nice. If you have a recommendation of your own, please add it to the comments at the bottom of this story (Seriously, I'm always looking for more desert songs). Enjoy!
One final-final thought: Just assume that America's "A Horse with No Name" is a given. Honestly, I didn't want to waste a spot on something so obvious. Besides, everyone knows that song already; this list gives you a chance to hear some off-the-beaten-path stuff, including songs by the Hacienda Brothers, Marty Robbins, Phil Baugh and the Flying Burrito Brothers. There is a method to all this.
Let's just say this song sets the scene perfectly. The guitarist is Dave Gonzalez of the Paladins, a veteran SoCal rockabilly band that's hitting the road this spring and summer. If you like this tune, be sure to check out its equally effective sequel, "Son of Saguero," and a huge chunk of their Arizona Motel album from 2008.
PEACEFUL EASY FEELING
I know this selection is about as obvious as America's "A Horse with No Name" (see above), but leaving it off this list is akin to leaving the Byrds' "Chestnut Mare" off a list of songs about deranged cowboys chasing after female horses. That's Bernie Leadon—a former member of the Flying Burrito Brothers—playing the B-bender-equipped Telecaster. Another good Eagles choice for this list is "Hotel California."
WAY OUT WEST
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives
Marty Stuart's latest album is called Way Out West, and pretty much any song from the disc would fit nicely on this list. I've decided to go with the title track (mostly because its music video lends some impressive visuals to this article), but feel free to sample "Lost on the Desert," "El Fantasmo Del Toro" or "Old Mexico." For more about this album, head here and here.
CHRISTINE'S TUNE (DEVIL IN DISGUISE)
The Flying Burrito Brothers
Before U2, no recording artist was more closely associated with Joshua Tree than Gram Parsons. The original Flying Burrito Brothers—Parsons, Chris Hillman, Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Chris Ethridge—shot their first album cover in Joshua Tree National Park, and Parsons died while staying at the Joshua Tree Inn in 1973. Here's the opening track from the Burrito Brothers' debut album, The Gilded Palace of Sin; check out Kleinow's fuzzed-out pedal steel guitar work. While you're at it, be sure to sample "Hot Burrito #1," "Juanita" and "Wheels" from the same (brilliant) album—not to mention any of the Parsons-led tracks on the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
I KNOW THAT FEELING
I don't know about you, but I can't imagine a desert playlist without a few slow early to mid-Sixties country tunes, complete with a whining pedal steel guitar and some Earl P. Ball-style piano. Phil Baugh's "I Know That Feeling" is just one of a thousand possible choices. By the way, guitar fans might want to hear Baugh's "The Finger" (and perhaps use it on another playlist).
Every good desert playlist needs at least one cowboy song, so it's Marty Robbins to the rescue. Robbins has two classic "cowboy" albums: 1959's Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs and 1960's MoreGunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. "Big Iron" is from the former—but he has so many songs that are just as fitting.
BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE
Some people say, "Anything by Calexico is perfect for a desert playlist." Yeah, that's not true; but this tune fits the bill, and the scenery in the video doesn't hurt. Be sure to also check out "Fake Fur."
I'VE BEEN EVERYWHERE
Here's Johnny Cash's version of one of the greatest "road songs" of all time; he recorded it in the Nineties with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Be sure to lend an ear to the Hank Snow version while you're at it. Best of all, the video below supplies the lyrics.
Besides being a great "desert drive" track, this also might be the most beautiful piece of music written for solo pedal steel guitar. As with all of the songs on this list, I ask that you imagine hearing this tune at 11:36 p.m. while passing through that lonely stretch between Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley, California. To add to the image, you're alone—just like Daniel Lanois.
I WISH I WAS THE MOON
Neko Case's voice is like an incredible, never-ending multi-course meal; there's so much there to enjoy, so much to bite into. Case is one of those artists who, like Calexico, is often associated with desert music. I've chosen this song for its subject matter but also for its dreamy guitar work. On second thought, Case's voice isn't like a meal at all, since you can never quite get enough of it.
SING ME BACK HOME
It would be strange to ignore the Bakersfield, California, gang—Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Don Rich & Co.—so I'll include this classic 1967 Haggard track. It's actually perfect because it was covered by pretty much everyone involved in the late-Sixties, long-haired, West Coast "country rock" scene, including the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds (live) and Nashville West. And if nothing else, it's a powerful song that everyone should have tucked away—somewhere—on their iPod.
I love lists that go from Merle Haggard to Kyuss. A lot of people will say the band's entire Welcome to Sky Valley album (1994) needs to be on this list. Perhaps not, but a strong argument can be made for "Whitewater," despite its mention of water (this is a playlist about desert songs, after all). The late-night-desert-drive portion of the song starts around 5:41.
I wrote and played lead guitar (a '66 Gretsch Tennessean) on this tune, which is dedicated to the 19th-century Mexican traders in the New Mexico Territory who made their living by trading with the Great Plains Indian tribes. It's crazy, but I actually recorded this song with a desert playlist in mind, so there's no way in hell I'm leaving it off this list. Besides, this is actually the 13th song on this list (of "10" songs), so no complaints, people! In retrospect, I wish we'd played it a bit slower that day; the trumpet (not played by me), however, is just right.