Singing about cars is nothing new for American musician Justin Townes Earle; he's been performing "automobile blues," his unique medley of classic Samuel Lightnin' Hopkins tunes – including I Been Burning Bad Gasoline or My Starter Won't Start – for years.
But recently, Earle was asked to write a song about a modern car. "So I took the challenge of somebody telling me I couldn't write a Chuck Berry-style car song about a Japanese import," says Earle before a recent show in Ann Arbor, Mich., on tour to support his new album, Kids in The Street. He met the challenge with the infectious Champagne Corolla, a nod to the cars he grew up around in Nashville in the 1990s.
"I got this idea when I was writing this record where I was like you know, I'm sick of hearing kids write songs about '57 Chevy's and things that they've never seen in their life, except for in a magazine. Because I'm willing to bet that in 1955 not everybody thought that a 1955 Chevrolet was going to be a classic. They probably thought it was pretty normal looking," says Earle.
Several songs on Earle's new album have a car theme. "Maybe A Moment, when we all used to pile into a car and take off to Memphis to see shows that wouldn't otherwise make it to Nashville when we were young," says Earle. "And Nashville was one of those towns where if you didn't have a car or knew somebody who had a car, then you were out of luck in a lot of ways."
No surprise that a cover of Paul Simon's Graceland is a B-side to the seven-inch Maybe A Moment single.
"The automobile has always played a major part in what I do because we spend so much time in them. It's always on the road, and until you get to a bus, it's not usually that fun to be in them. But I do know that everybody loves when you get off the road and into your own car after not driving for a while," says Earle.
Specific vehicles and models have long provided inspiration for songwriters: Bruce Springsteen's Pink Cadillac, Prince's Little Red Corvette, the Beach Boys 409 and Little Deuce Coupe, Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88, Wilson Pickett's Mustang Sally, and, of course, War's Low Rider.
"Chuck Berry was the first to kind of come up with the idea of writing songs that were tailored to a generation. And one thing that was big about that generation was this love affair with the new V-8 super powerful cars that were being made in America," says Earle.
But times have changed, and so have vehicles. As Earle sees it, "These days if we're going to write about the car it can't be so much about the car, but the experience that you had in the car, with the car, the freedom that the car brought you, or something like that."
Tunes such as Copperhead Road and Hillbilly Highway by his famous father, Steve Earle, might fit that bill. Same goes for Tom Waits's (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night or Diamonds On My Windshield, Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, and Neil Young's Long May You Run. Young has even written a book, Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars about his love affair with vintage autos, including Lincvolt: his 1959 Lincoln Continental that has been transformed into a biomass-powered hybrid electric.
Of course, there has always been plenty of room for metaphor in automotive tunes, such as Aretha Franklin's Freeway Of Love, Springsteen's Ramrod, and Bo Diddley's Road Runner. Queen's I'm In Love With My Car (which concludes with the revving sound of drummer Roger Taylor's Alfa Romeo) is also open to interpretation.
And lest we forget, there are even car songs for the innocent-at-heart, such as Riding in My Car (Car Song) from Woody Guthrie's 1956 album Nursery Days.
After spending time with his brand-new baby daughter, Etta St. James, Earle will be back on the road. In the meantime, his Kids in The Street album and Champagne Corolla remind us that inspiration can come from virtually anywhere.
Top 10 Car Songs
1. No Particular Place to Go – Chuck Berry
2. Road Runner – Bo Diddley
3. Big Black Cadillac Blues – Lightnin' Hopkins
4. Drive My Car – The Beatles
5. Used Cars – Bruce Springsteen
6. Terraplane Blues – Robert Johnson
7. Ol '55 – Tom Waits
8. I'm in Love with My Car – Queen
9. Mercedes Benz – Janis Joplin
10. Rocket 88 – Jackie Brenston
11. Hot Rod Lincoln – Commander Cody