“I’m not sure if there’s any place I love to hear music more than on the road,” says Eric D. Johnson, the singer and songwriter behind indie rock group Fruit Bats. He’s not alone. Cruising along the highway, it’s easier to just listen. Melodies sound crisper; lyrics hit more deeply. And as tempting as it is to lean on your long-standing playlists when you have a lot of miles to cover, a road trip is a great time to appreciate something new.
Drive posed a challenge to Johnson and a few other artists: Create playlists to spice up our readers’ fall and winter road trips.
For That Carefree Feeling
In early March, Pixie and the Partygrass Boys brought their pop-tinged bluegrass sound to the Subaru WinterFest celebration at Utah’s Snowbird ski resort, where they played on a deck that overlooks the towering peaks of the Wasatch Mountain Range.
More recently, the five-person band – vocalist and ukulele player Katia “Pixie” Racine with Amanda B. Grapes on fiddle and vocals, Zach Downes on upright bass, Ben Weiss on mandolin and Andrew Nelson on guitar – have been playing socially distanced shows from rooftops, parking lots and campsites in and around Salt Lake City, livestreaming it all on social media when they can. Their debut LP, The River Speaks Plainly, was released on September 25.
Dan Kricke: What inspired the playlist you created?
Katia Racine: There are certain songs that immediately feel like windows down, hand waving up and down in the wind, smiling while your hair whips around your face. Sort of that idyllic American road trip moment: carefree, time means nothing, and the world is open in front of you to endless possibilities.
We started our playlist with our song “Home,” which feels like the perfect love song for a road trip. The lyrics on the second pre-chorus are “I know we both must wander / This world’s so big / There’s so much to see / And I know my spirit won’t falter because home is when you’re next to me.” [Editor’s Note: “Home” is currently unavailable on Pandora®,1 so you won’t see it on the playlist embedded in this article, but you can find it on YouTube and other streaming services.]
It’s a song about how sometimes “home” is found in people, and because of that, home can be anywhere. As touring musicians, it’s important for us to find those people out on the road who make it feel like we’re always driving toward home, no matter where we are or where we’re going.
DK: Do you have a favorite memory of being on the road?
KR: In a usual year, we tour mostly around the continental USA, and this country is so big and varied. We are really lucky to have those moments where we come around a corner and suddenly snowcapped Mount Hood is right in front of us, or the endless rolling green of the Appalachians, or the giant evergreens of upstate Idaho and Montana towering over both sides of the road. There is so much beauty in this world, and the road lets us see so much of it.
DK: I imagine life has been different this year. What have you been working on since you haven’t been able to tour?
KR: We’re really missing being on the road this year, but it’s been a great opportunity to record more music. Our first full-length album dropped on September 25th and is called The River Speaks Plainly. It’s a mix of narrated stories and original instrumentals all about the Colorado and Green rivers in the Western USA that we wrote and performed as a ballet with Salt Lake City’s Municipal Ballet Co.
Our second full-length album coming out this winter is called Snake Creek and is a collection of originals spanning fiddle tunes, tongue-in-cheek goofy songs, including some written in the car on the road. Additionally, we’ll be releasing a few singles from our quarantine recording sessions, heavily influenced by what we’ve been personally going through in 2020.
DK: What’s your go-to road trip snack?
KR: Our band life on the road revolves as much around where we need to be for a show as it does around our bass player Zach’s love of ice cream. I’ve started filming interviews with him about the ice cream he gets – normally milkshakes – so I can put together a series of Zach reviewing ice cream around the country.
Pixie and the Partygrass Boys Playlist
Led Zeppelin – Hey, Hey What Can I Do
Oscar Isaac – Green, Green Rocky Road
Chet Atkins and Dolly Parton – Do I Ever Cross Your Mind
Socks in the Frying Pan – The Boop Set
Kittel & Co. – The Boxing Reels
Trampled by Turtles – Alone
Johnny Cash – (Ghost) Riders in the Sky
Smokey Robinson – Cruisin’
War – Low Rider
Julian Lage – Atlantic Limited
The Travelin’ McCourys – Travelin’
Railroad Earth – Mighty River
Eddie Vedder – Hard Sun
Chris Whitley – Big Sky Country
For the Whole Family
Dan and Claudia Zanes have been making music together since they met in 2016. Together, they create what they refer to as “all ages” music: songs that are appropriate for children without being cloying to adult ears.
As they’ve sheltered in place this year, Dan and Claudia have put out an ongoing Social Isolation Song Series, in which they record a song a day and release it on their social media streams. For Drive, Dan and Claudia created a playlist suitable for all ages of car travelers, from the adults up front to the babies in the back.
Dan Kricke: Tell me more about the Social Isolation Song Series.
Claudia Zanes: We’ve been really inspired by this because it’s given us an opportunity not only to entertain, but in a way it serves as sort of a daily journal. We’re writing songs inspired by the pandemic and also songs that have been inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. As artists, we see our platform as an opportunity to educate and illuminate what’s happening in our world.
DK: That adults can play your music on a family car ride, in lieu of, say, playing “Baby Shark” on repeat – you have probably saved the sanity of so many parents. Are there songs you remember hearing on road trips as a kid that resonated with the whole family?
CZ: I’m Haitian American, so a lot of the songs we would listen to were Haitian songs from the church and also Haitian folk songs. One of the ones that Dan and I perform a lot is called “La Sirene,” which my family would listen to. We listened to a lot of gospel music as well. [Gospel artist] Shirley Caesar was someone that I always felt a connection to, the way she expressed her truth through her singing.
DK: Is there an element to a song that you think makes it a good road trip song?
Dan Zanes: It depends on the time of day and depends on where you’re driving, what’s going on around you. More energetic songs are great for daytime driving – but then sometimes the energetic songs are good at 2 a.m., too, because you need that. You can’t get too relaxed at that hour.
CZ: If I’m behind the wheel, there’s always a good time to be listening to the Indigo Girls. I feel such a connection to their songwriting that it heightens my awareness, and I’m so present when I’m listening to them. It’s a beautiful accompaniment to a trip.
Dan and Claudia Zanes Playlist
Dan and Claudia Zanes – This Little Light of Mine
Rufus Thomas – Walking the Dog
The Deighton Family – Tennessee Wig Walk
Indigo Girls – Closer to Fine
Elena Moon Park – Unhurried Journey
Nina Simone – Here Comes the Sun
Father Goose – Bam Bam
Jerry Garcia and David Grisman – Stealin’
Sonia de los Santos – Corona de Flores
Althea and Donna – Uptown Top Ranking
The Okee Dokee Brothers – Can You Canoe?
India.Arie – Breathe
Trio Select – Ensemble Select En Action
For Making Memories
Johnson’s Fruit Bats, composed of him and a rotating cast of musicians, have been performing breezy indie rock for nearly 25 years. This includes a lot of time spent on the road. “I’d say the majority of my most evocative memories of music are sitting in a car going somewhere, near or far,” he says.
Lately, he’s been recording solo under the Fruit Bats name. His full-album cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ iconic Siamese Dream was released August 21 exclusively on vinyl via Turntable Kitchen. He’s also working on a new record, the first that he has written and recorded entirely at home. “It’s been a strange but very rewarding process,” he says.
Dan Kricke: Do you have a favorite road trip memory?
Eric Johnson: I’ve been touring for the past 20 years plus, so my adult life has been one big road trip. But I’ll recall a quick childhood memory. My family didn’t travel a whole lot, but one time we drove from Chicago to Fort Myers, Florida – a little over 1,200 miles. It was the middle of March, and I remember leaving Illinois in the snow and at some point waking up in Georgia in the wee hours at a rest stop to magnolia blossoms and the smell of grass. There was something kind of magical about that sudden change in season.
DK: What inspired the playlist you created?
EJ: A lot of these are songs that I have great memories of hearing while driving somewhere. Some are just songs I love that are about driving or riding in the car. It’s a mix of both.
DK: What makes for a good road trip partner?
EJ: Someone who can provide both great conversation and strategic stretches of contemplative silence. And someone who shares, or at least tolerates, your taste in music and lunches.
Eric D. Johnson Playlist
Tim Buckley – Buzzin’ Fly
Vetiver – Swaying
Gilberto Gil – Sai do Sereno
Karen Dalton – Are You Leaving for the Country?
Bedouine – Back to You
Bill Withers – Everybody’s Talkin’
Elizabeth Cotten – Going Down the Road Feeling Bad
Gene Clark – Here Tonight
The Staple Singers – Wade in the Water
Labi Siffre – Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying
Bill Callahan – Riding for the Feeling
William Tyler – Highway Anxiety
Karen Dalton – Green Rocky Road
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