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“People have been on the move throughout history, and music has always moved with them.”
I came across this quote a few years ago at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix, Arizona (the MIM is outstanding, by the way). It caused me to stop and really think and then this satisfying realization hit me. “YES, this is my life! This is why music and travel are two of my greatest passions. They’re connected! They’ve been connected throughout history and always will be.”
Yes, a simple display in a museum is what presented me with such a defining moment in my life.
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I try to incorporate music into my travels, whether it’s traveling away from home for a concert or a festival or seeking out live music after arriving at a destination. A few years ago, my motto became “will travel for music“. And I did – still do – often bringing my family along. But, for me, the connection between music and travel was established long before…
Rewind approximately 30 years (nothing like giving up just how old I am). I was your average 10-year-old growing up in Chicago, listening to pop music or whatever my parents had on the radio. I don’t recall exactly how it came into my possession, but I had a cassette of the newly released album, “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen. I spent the summer of 1984 listening to that tape on my Sony Walkman over and over again. I was captivated and intrigued; it was quite different from most other music I was familiar with.
But what exactly was so captivating and intriguing? I didn’t realize it until decades later, but I was drawn to the songs on that album because each one was like a different story. For the first time, music actually meant something to me. It was more than just sounds and singing voices. I began to see music as another form of storytelling, getting lost in song lyrics, imagining scenes and characters as I did while reading novels. As cliche as it seems, it was as if an entirely new world had opened up before me.
Speaking of a new world, the songs on that album also introduced me to places I’d not heard of before. From Khe Sahn in the title track, “Born in the U.S.A.”, to “Darlington County”, I needed to know exactly where these places were. I asked questions of my parents and also researched locations using my set of World Book Encyclopedias. Then I started compiling lists of places I wanted to see that were mentioned in songs. That was the earliest connection between music and travel for me.
My musical interests were never the same after that summer. I gravitated more toward the singer/songwriter set and placed great emphasis on song lyrics. In doing so, I developed quite a distaste for popular 1980s music, for the lyrics didn’t really tell stories, much less make any sense to me. This trend continued for the next decade and then, in the late 1990s, I discovered roots rock. Or Americana. Or alt-country. Whatever you want to call it. Bands and singer/songwriters like Son Volt (my number one favorite band of all time forever and ever), Jay Farrar, Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, Bottle Rockets, Old 97s, Kasey Chambers, Steve Earle, Neko Case, Anna Fermin’s Trigger Gospel… I became obsessed.
These artists and many of their songs had one thing in common: they created a sense of place, and I began wanting to see these places that inspired these songwriters, to travel to the spots where the stories occurred. I made my first such trip in 2004, visiting the town of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, the inspiration for the song “Tear Stained Eye” by Son Volt. Visiting the town on the Mississippi River allowed me to learn the history of Ste. Genevieve, including the catastrophic flood of 1785 which is referenced in “Tear Stained Eye”. I felt more connected to the song and to the town itself and became more informed about the history of my own country.
And that brings it all full circle, back to the beginning of this article, how people have been on the move throughout history and music has moved with them. It’s their stories, their lands, and their histories that I’m committed to exploring, to discover the roots of music through travel.