There probably have been more country songs written about the anticipated joys of “going home” than on any other subject. But it’s pretty obvious you can’t go home until you’ve left home. And songwriters have covered that part of the emotional equation, too. Splendidly. From the well-known to the obscure, here are a dozen great escapes.
“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”
Writer: Jimmy Webb
Chart Status: No. 2 (1967)
Men have such a vile habit of hitting the road while their wives and girlfriends are asleep. While this fugitive from domestic life visualizes what the woman he’s abandoned is doing that first day of his absence, he manages to sound both tender and callous.
“The Cry of the Wild Goose”
Tennessee Ernie Ford
Writer: Terry Gilkyson
Chart Status: No. 2 (1950)
Musically, this is a mish-mash of sounds and rhythms, but the theme is clear: “My heart knows what the wild goose knows/And I must go where the wild goose goes.” Maybe he’s a biologist. Anyway, he, too, leaves his woman behind — and we’re terribly relieved for her. Frankie Laine had a Top 5 pop hit with this. You can see the kind of music rock ‘n’ roll destroyed.
“Cry on the Shoulder of the Road”
Writer: Matraca Berg, Tim Krekel
Chart Status: No. 26 (1997)
Why this chilling escape narrative (sung with Levon Helm) fizzled so far down on the singles chart is one of country music’s great mysteries. It depicts the resolve and terror of a woman who’s leaving an unappreciative mate and hitting the highway, where her only companion as the big trucks fly by is the sad sound of the radio. Another hard-hitting McBride tribute to the courage of abused and neglected women.
“Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons”
Writer: John Scott Sherrill
Chart Status: Not released as a single
How’s this for a scene-setter? “It seemed like overnight the town of Red River/Was suddenly full of strange men/Who wore suits in the summer and stood on the dirt roads/Trying to hold their maps in the wind.” The witness to this alien invasion is a fifth generation Wilson who watches as developers bulldoze the last 50 acres of his ancestral home place. Angry and defeated, he catches a bus and leaves the land that will never be home again. It’s heartbreaking to listen to. This song was in Seals’ 1988 album, Rage On. John Anderson and Doug Supernaw also cut it.
“Four Strong Winds”
Writer: Ian Tyson
Chart Status: No 3 (1965)
Just as sure as the wind blows and the tides roll, this guy has got to move on. It’s in his blood. He’d like for his sweetheart to come with him. But if she won’t, he promises, “I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.” Isn’t that magnanimous of him?
“Heads Carolina, Tails California”
Jo Dee Messina
Writers: Tim Nichols, Mark D. Sanders
Chart Status: No. 2 (1996)
This delightfully frothy confection sounds like a stoner’s concept of career planning. But, hey man, why not? The two lovers are stuck in a nowhere zone. So the solution is to split for “somewhere greener, somewhere warmer.” As impulsive as they are, they’re clearly going to need that quarter they’re prepared to flip to make their choice. Ah, the insane impulse of youth.
“I’m a Ramblin’ Man”
Writer: Ray Pennington
Chart Status: No. 1 (1974)
Mr. Hot Pants has a girl in every town he plays in. He can’t help it. But let’s be fair about it. He does issue this warning: “Once I mess with your mind/Your little heart won’t be the same.” No self-esteem problems here.
“I’m Moving On”
Writer: Hank Snow
Chart Status: No. 1 (1950)
Snow has had it up to here with the gal who’s been “flying too high for [his] little ol’ sky.” So he’s hopping aboard that “big eight-wheeler rolling down the track” and heading south. You can hear the clickety-clack of the train wheels as he leaves her in the dust. That’ll teach her.
“I’m Movin’ On”
Writers: Phillip White, D. Vincent Williams
Chart Status: No. 4 (2002)
A much deeper and more beautifully crafted lyric than Snow’s song of the same title, this is a thinking man’s exit speech. No anger. No blame. No running from the law. Just an acute awareness that here is not the right place to nourish one’s soul and that somewhere new is bound to be better.
“Texas in My Rear View Mirror”
Writer: Mac Davis
Chart Status: No. 9 (1980)
The crafty Davis has it both ways in this autobiographical chronicle about a wandering minstrel. First, he lines out the reasons for leaving Lubbock and then the reasons for returning and staying. So he’s got you coming and going.
“Time to Bum Again”
Writer: Harlan Howard
Chart Status: No. 17 (1966)
Written and recorded during the folk boom, this song touches on all the reasons for leaving that the folk genre afforded: a nagging woman, a stultifying home, a buddy out there on the road who understands you and the possibility of coming back after you’ve seen the rest of the world. Other than its memorable melody, the element that lifts “Time to Bum Again” above others like it is Jennings’ brooding delivery.
“What if We Went to Italy”
Mary Chapin Carpenter
Writer: Mary Chapin Carpenter
Chart Status: Not released as a single
The glory of Carpenter is that she conquered country music in the early 1990s — winning two CMA female vocalist awards — without giving an inch artistically to the format’s provincialism. Who else would have the background and audacity to write a getting-away song on a country album that starts with, “What if we went to Italy/A suitcase of books and one bag apiece for the summer?” For the Brown-educated, Washington, D.C.-groomed Carpenter, these allusions and thoughts were as natural as Brad Paisley or Luke Bryan singing about fishing and pickup trucks. “What if We Went to Italy,” from Carpenter’s 1996 album A Place in the World, is a lovely exercise in daydreaming big.