We have set out on a truly impossible task — to create a playlist appropriate for traveling through a region with the most-storied musical history in the world. While the South did not invent music itself, it is the place where traditions of folk, blues, gospel, jazz, and rock n’ roll took hold, deepened their roots, and from there spread all over to become worldwide phenomena.
There’s no way to capture every element of Southern music into this brief playlist — there’s not even a good way to define what “Southern music” is. Not all of this music is even rooted in the South, but we think it would appropriately paint your surroundings with a little more detail, and a little more feeling.
So, whether you’re driving through the Mississippi Delta, or winding through the mountains on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we trust these songs will enrich your journey.
1. T.I. ft. Lil Wayne – “Ball”
It’s up for debate as to whether New Orleans is really part of the South — it shares geography and culture, sure, but many consider it to basically be its own little country. Having been settled as a French port long before the expansion of the United States, New Orleans joined this country as a fully formed place with a cultural history already deep and storied. As a result, whole movements in the arts, culinary, and musical traditions pop up and stick around, many times without really leaving the city limits.
Bounce has been a big musical export, thanks to the internet-sparked fame of Big Freedia, the national adoption of correlated dance craze twerking, and also the love of DJ-extraordinaire / proto-anthropologist Diplo, who scored a pretty big hit with “Express Yourself.”
“Ball” is an irresistible track — it combines the relentless, twerk-inspiring energy of Bounce with distinctly Southern hip-hop production. While Bounce, for me, tends to forgo anything resembling a song to get its high-octane energy flowing, this has a little melody in it to cut things up. T.I.’s delivery is masterful; Lil’ Wayne, who tends to phone it in these days, sounds right at home here with his horribly entertaining puns.
- — Andrew
2. Alabama Shakes – “On Your Way”
Close your eyes and try and hazard a guess as to when this song was recorded. Sounds like the mid-’60s, a rough soul group early in their career, right? But this album was recorded in Nashville in 2011.
The Alabama Shakes got together while still in high school. If you think they’re too young for the themes they sing about, think again. It’s my belief that this song is about the death of lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard’s sister, who passed away when she was still a teenager. I’m obsessed with the opening notes, the desperation in Brittany Howard’s voice, and the big payoff in the song’s swooping finale.
- — Anne
3. The Everybodyfields – “Leaving Today”
One of my favorite bands of all time, The Everybodyfields were an alt-country duo from Johnson City, Tennessee. They chose to write songs during their saddest moments, and the results are haunting and wounded. This track is probably their least devastating. It manages to transmit the ambience of a dying Southern town, where everyone leaves except for the speaker, until all she has left are her memories.
- — Anne
4. The Band – “When You Awake”
Because “The Night They Drove Ole’ Dixie Down” seems a little obvious, I went with another track off their self-titled second album. The Band, who famously got their start backing up singers like Ronnie Hawkins, and then a slightly more-well-known one named Bob Dylan, were not just five incredible musicians — they were American musical archivists of sorts, and sound like they could land in any era of American history.
This song in particular feels like it could have been sung at a Civil War campfire, or onstage at Woodstock. Despite having an authentic Southerner in Levon Helm, The Band were actually a group of outsiders obsessed with the history of the South — the other four were all from Canada.
- — Andrew
5. Bessie Smith – “Backwater Blues”
There’s quite simply a whole lot of history in the American South that goes beyond comprehension — the kinds of things that can only be understood through art. Bessie Smith tells a tale of a bad rain that displaces an entire group of people, but she could have just as easily been narrating the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Smith also took part in another 20th-century African-American Southern tradition — she left, moving to Philadelphia to pursue her singing, before dying tragically in a car accident at the age of 43.
- — Andrew
6. Outkast – “Rosa Parks”
This song takes me back to 7th grade, when I first watched the music video on MTV for Total Request Live. The deliciously manic energy the song exudes certainly grabbed me back then — but I appreciate it so much more now that I’m older. There’s a lot going on here, and tons of musical subtleties to be dug up in the production, things that are lost on the average pre-pubescent, suburban white boy.
Between Big Boi’s unmistakable drawl, the eponymous subject (who seems to matter little in terms of the lyrical content), a harmonica solo that sounds like it was recorded on a street corner, and a stomping beat that could be played by the second line on Mardi Gras in New Orleans — this is one of Outkast’s most certain nods to its roots in the group’s hometown of Atlanta.
- — Andrew
7. Wanda Jackson – “Funnel of Love”
When I look at pictures of my mom from the 1960s, I can’t help but hear this song. There she is, all dressed up, her hair done, her face soft and innocent. But there’s something a little defiant about her gaze. The portraits were taken in her small West Virginia town, and she looks ready to break free and move to the nearest big city, which in her case was Washington, DC.
Wanda Jackson was a contemporary of Loretta Lynn and other country greats, and despite the fact that she’s less well known, she’s my favorite of her era. Called the “queen of rockabilly,” Jackson performed spooky songs that feel more punk rock than the apple pie and America of modern country music.
- — Anne
8. Sweet Honey in the Rock – “Somebody Has Prayed Me Over”
Is there any musical genre more pure than the spiritual? Nothing goes from my ears to my heart faster than these old-time songs, widely popularized by African-American congregations in the South. Sweet Honey in the Rock is an all-woman a cappella ensemble based in DC. Their beautiful arrangements are deeply steeped in Southern musical traditions.
Particularly interested in social justice, the group has sung about human rights abuses in Central America and gun violence in the inner city. But I think they’re at their strongest when focusing their incredible vocal power on simple songs like this one.
- — Anne
9. The Dixie Chicks – “Top of the World”
The lyrics, “I wished I was stronger, I wished I was smarter / I wished I loved Jesus, the way my wife does,” sung from the perspective of a dying old man, just destroys me every time. It reminds me of many of the men in my family. Especially one of my uncles, named after a Civil War general, who looks more Cherokee than good old boy, and who always responded to my little kid questions with half-answers and grunts. I never knew how to read him, but this song, performed by an all-female group of country crossover superstars, offers a lot of insight and even more compassion.
- — Anne
10. Lucinda Williams – “Lake Charles”
Lucinda Williams is an artist who merits repeated listening — the stories she tells through song have so many tiny details, there’s no way you could get them all at once. Her music grows only better with age, the same way she did, scoring her biggest hit with “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” when she was in her late 40s.
This song, though, is an instant pleasure, and one of her most effortlessly enjoyable. Using just three chords, a regionally appropriate accordion player, and lyrics that hint at something big but never fully reveal what it is, she came up with a song that would sound right at home in The Band. It seems to induce an automatic calming response whenever I turn it on.
- — Andrew
11. Pallbearer – “Given to the Grave”
The Deep South is also a simmering hotbed for some of the best metal bands in the country, with the likes of Thou, Eyehategod, and this group, Pallbearer, calling it home.
If you’re willing to give metal a chance, you may be pleasantly surprised. What I love about these bands is that they sound as influenced by blues, classic rock, and Southern rock as they might be by European metal, which tends to lean heavily on elements of classical music. There’s no doubt that these guys, hailing from Little Rock, probably grew up listening to a few Lynyrd Skynrd or Allman Brothers tapes alongside their Metallica. With tasteful guitar solos and a drawn-out, repetitive structure, the band bounces between the metal subgenres of “doom” and “sludge,” terms that tell you everything you need to know about how the music sounds without hearing it for yourself.
In addition to the singer bearing a comfortable resemblance to the blues-leaning Jerry Cantrell, this song also has some beautifully spare instrumental parts that create a brooding atmosphere — and part of a good road trip involves pulling back for a second to take in the whole picture. Pallbearer seem to capture a dark side of the South — these are guys who grew up in the shadow of the West Memphis Three, where wearing all black and listening to heavy metal seemed to be all you needed to get a seat on death row. Pallbearer’s commitment to their craft in the face of that legacy adds layers of depth to music that’s already brimming with it.
- — Andrew