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.)
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).
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.