The Most Depressing Country Songs About California

About three months ago, I was at home in my palatial mini-mansion, taking care of a four-year-old with an ear infection. I was noodling around on Twitter during naptime, and somebody asked this question: there are many songs about going to California, but are there any songs about leaving California? I thought of about eight of them, and Tweeted them to this guy, and the best that I can recall he was kind of snarky about it.

I didn’t think anything more about it until this morning, when I heard a song on the satellite radio I hadn’t heard in ages–a Delbert McClinton song, discussed below–which got me thinking about what California means in country music. Generally speaking, it means shaking the dust off the boots of the little town where you grew up and leaving for the West Coast to reinvent yourself or something like that. Like this song:

Little Red Rodeo, Collin Raye –

(Note: Phil Vassar did the songwriting on this one, and he recorded it too, but this was the first video that came up on YouTube.)

Okay, anyway, don’t know if you listened to the song but it’s simple enough: a woman gets tired of her relationship in the South and takes off in her little SUV for California, and the main character is chasing her. That’s a typical country song, not particularly depressing, there’s lots of those out there. It’s not too dissimilar from this one, either:

There Goes My Life, Kenny Chesney –

In this one, the woman who’s leaving for a bright sunny future in California is a daughter, and the singer is the father, who’s realizing that his life is slipping away, and that’s depressing. But what I think your real true California depressing country song is about one of two things: either going out to California and having your golden dreams dashed, or else being forced to leave California and come home because you couldn’t make it out there.

Two More Bottles of Wine, Emmylou Harris –

Thought I’d be in the sun all day
But I’ve been sweepin’ out a warehouse in West L.A.

That about says it, right there–the contrast between the sunny California promise and the depressing reality. (This is the Delbert McClinton song I was talking about; Emmylou Harris sang the most well-known version.)

Streets of Bakersfield, Dwight Yoakum & Buck Owens –

Obviously, you can’t do a depressing California country songs piece without the obligatory Buck Owens reference. You can slot any number of great, depressing Buck Owens songs in here–songs like “Waitin’ In Your Welfare Line” or “Made in Japan” and they would be just fine, but this one is California-specific and fits in here nicely.

All The Gold In California, The Gatlin Brothers –

A big part of what drives country songs about California is envy, and this is the best example of that. This is a bitter, bitter song by a rich guy with everything in the world going for him, which tells you something. (There’s a similar Mel Tillis song, but you know, Mel Tillis.)

Tulsa Time, Don Williams –

This isn’t a great song, and the hook is really silly–would you really set your watch back to Central Standard if you were living in California–but it encapsulizes one particular typical California story:

They don’t need me in the movies
And nobody sings my songs
Guess I’m just wastin’ time

If you’re a Don Williams fan, there’s also “If Hollywood Don’t Need You,” which is a different trope–the poor sucker left behind while his lost love is sashaying around California. (There was a Montgomery Gentry song like this, if memory serves, but the best example is “Hackensack,” by Fountains of Wayne, and yes I do live in New Jersey, so what?)

Hungry Eyes, Merle Haggard –

And of course, you can’t talk about country music and California without talking about Merle Haggard. This maybe isn’t the best example of a depressing Haggard song, but it is set in a California labor camp and talks about Dust Bowl refugees. Haggard’s parents, of course, were from Oklahoma and were forced to move to California at that time. One of the different things about this song is that, really, nothing happens–the mother stands by her man, but she’s unhappy about it and depressed. It never says she got drunk, or left, or went to prison, or the things that depressed people normally do in country music. She went on about her life, hoping things would get better. Damn.

If California’s that depressing, then what you’d want to do is leave, right?

L.A. Freeway, Guy Clark –

Easily the best song about getting the heck out of California and heading back home. There are a ton of these, of course, but this one is so detailed about all of the little things you have to do to leave someplace you thought you’d love.

Marina Del Rey, George Strait –

You don’t often see George Strait songs about California, but this is a good one–one of his first hits, and it sounds a lot more lonesome and sad than a lot of his other songs. There’s some great California imagery there as well–the hidden beach, the golden sun, the pretty girl that you can’t get out of your mind.

Flight 309 to Tennessee, Shelley West –

There are actually two Shelley West songs in this vein, and the other one is a duet with David Frizzell about starcrossed lovers, one in L.A. and one in Oklahoma. This is the better one, because it’s more decisive; the character in this song is going home and the sooner the better.

Bloody Mary Morning, Willie Nelson –

This is probably the most anti-California song of the bunch, with Willie complaining about smog and the pitfalls of the city almost as much as his treacherous girlfriend. Of course, the really depressing part is that he’s going to Houston.

Come Monday, Jimmy Buffett –

Most of these songs are Southern California songs; this one’s more Northern California–laid back, mellow, more about the melody than anything else. It’s not so much about leaving San Francisco as it is the end of a long tour where you just want to see your wife again, and that’s cool, man. (My favorite Northern California song would have to be “San Francisco Days,” by Chris Isaak.)

Ballad of a Teenage Queen, Johnny Cash –

Hollywood could offer more
So she left the boy next door
Who worked at the candy store.

But there’s a happy ending, so that’s good. (And there’s a very good Rodney Crowell cover.)

Finally:

El Cerrito Place, Charlie Robison –

This doesn’t fit into my neat categorization, but it’s a great song and I couldn’t leave it out. It’s a modern-classic depressing country song–lovesick, hangdog, and dripping with contempt for Californians (“they all got something in their pocket/all got something on their face,” and whatever that means it ain’t complimentary).

Bonus Material:

1. Haggard did take a sideswipe against California, famously, in “Okie From Muskogee,” complaining about those long-haired San Francisco hippies. I think he was being sarcastic.
2. Of course, the most famous California country song is “Folsom Prison Blues,” but that’s a prison song and a train song, not specifically a California song, you understand.
3. I could have talked a little about The Eagles (especially “Tequila Sunrise”) and Glen Campbell’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,”), which are close enough to country to count, but the list was getting long anyway.
4. If there’s anything I’ve left out, let me know in the comments.
5. This is a good list of rock songs about leaving California. I am very partial to “A Long December,” by Counting Crows, which is probably the most depressing California song that there is, but it ain’t exactly country. Other great depressing California songs include Beth Hart’s “L.A. Song” and Ryan Adams’s “La Cienega Just Smiled,” which breaks my heart every time I hear it.

I am in the middle of a little bit of renovation on this here blog, which means that I am putting this particular song out there because I mostly need to test the system that I’m using to write these, so bear with me and it won’t take a second. This is a very average...

I have not updated this site in a long, long time, and I am sorry about that, and this is not an update but more of an apology. I have been working on my novel to the detriment of this site, which is a bad thing but it’s a really good novel and I hope...

This is an issue song, and I don’t like issue songs, not one little bit. They aren’t fair. They don’t pretend to be fair, to come down on one side or another. I am not telling anyone to shut up and sing; this is a free country. I am just telling you what I like...

It was early in the morning, and one daughter was dressed and ready to go. The other daughter was being whiny and fussy and not cooperative in terms of choosing what clothes to wear for the day. And I started singing: Well, it’s a fussy Katie morning Mommy woke her without warning In the morning light So I just...

I will listen to most of these songs, really I will, but this one gets switched off every single time. I mean it. This one is bad because it sneaks up on you; it pretends to be something it’s not: And she said: I’ll wait for you Like I did last year At Christmas time with your family here And...

Arlington

I’m going to start you off with the lyrics on this one: I remember daddy brought me here when I was eight, We searched all day to find out where my granddad lay, And when we finally found that cross, He said, ‘Son this is what it cost, to keep us free’. Now here I am a thousand stones away...

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a country song but a blues song; no country song could get away with the chorus repeated this often: And this traveling around It’s gonna be the death of me And this traveling around It’s gonna be the death of me But, Lord, this is a depressing song. It isn’t just the chorus, or the music,...

What gets me about this song is the contrast, I guess. On the one hand, you have what you might call the public Toby Keith, brash, who’s-your-daddy, putting his boot in the asses of America’s enemies (which include the Dixie Chicks for no good reason I can see). And then there’s the tortured, insecure Toby...