When people from outside the US visit our country, they’re always surprised at how vast it is. And how each state is really like its own little country. Or in the case of California or Texas, a pretty big country. If you’re embarking on a cross-country road trip, having the exact right song to play when you cross the state line is an essential part of the experience. The songs about each of our 50 states and the cities in them are as different as the states themselves, often capturing the character of the place in a brief three-and-a-half minutes. So for your Spotifying and road-tripping pleasure, here are the best songs written about all 50 states.
Wonder how many Crimson Tide fans, while completely losing their minds as the opening guitar riff of this song blares over the loudspeaker at Bryant-Denny Stadium on gameday, could tell you that the band who sang it is actually from Florida? Over/under six.
There is nearly one song called “Alaska” for every Alaska resident, but this classic still tops them all. Johnny Horton’s timeless marching song about the brutal cold, grittiness, and loneliness that marked the Alaska Gold Rush was his biggest hit, though he never lived to see it hit #1 after dying in a car crash shortly after its release.
Though Public Enemy’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona” is certainly a more biting, famous protest of the state, it’s pretty anti-Arizona. Locals would probably rather you look to what’s widely considered to be the best Eagles song. Winslow, Arizona, gets the only state shoutout, but the whole vibe of the song — chilling out and driving down flat roads — is a pretty great encapsulation of the southwestern way of life.
Fun fact: This was actually one of Bruce Springsteen’s audition songs when he played for CBS records in 1972. Springsteen went on to Rock and Roll superstardom and Mary went on to be the female protagonist in about a dozen other of his songs.
Tough competition here as the word “California” appears in roughly 77 percent of every song ever written, but this rap classic featuring Dr. Dre has a video that looks like Death Row Records does Burning Man and will get anyone with even a minimal tie to California to crank their stereo any time it comes on.
Upon further examination of tax records, exactly zero members of Aerosmith live or have ever lived in Connecticut, which may explain why this song is only 57 seconds long and has no words — though it has a pretty badass guitar riff.
“Delaware” is perhaps the pinnacle work of the state/pun music genre, with such timeless lyrics as “What did Delaware, boys? She wore a brand New Jersey!” Or revealing that Missi was, in fact, sipping a “Minne sota.” Or that “Ore gone” to pay his Texas. Ok, this song is basically about every state, but only one gets to lay claim to the title.
For some reason, many a Florida State University student and alum seem to think this song is some alternate fight song for their football team, when it is in fact about the dredging and imminent destruction of the Everglades. Probably because they went to Florida State.
We’ll give Johnny and the Devil and their respective fiddles their due, but this song was Ray Charles, and though you can never really be sure whether he’s singing about a state or a lost love, the true beauty of the song is that it doesn’t matter.
Up until Hawaii icon Iz did a cover of Over the Rainbow, this song was firmly associated with Kansas and the Wizard of Oz. However, this moving, extremely popular rendition of the song on the ukulele is now the most iconic song of Hawaii. And the beautiful state does seem to be exactly what Dorothy was pining for, even if she didn’t know it.
“Private Idaho” is as much about Idaho as it is about patios and swimming pools (drug addiction… it’s about drug addiction), but you cannot argue with the sheer mid-century, surreal, stoic brilliance of this video, which is both disturbing and strangely upbeat.
The Blues Brothers
It’s ok Kanye, we’ll letchya finish, but this song, originally by blues man Robert Johnson, is the greatest song about anything in the state of Illinois ever.
Though he never actually calls out Indiana as the home of his small town, he also never really specifies where the Tastee-Freez is or what street the little pink houses are on. It’s like the Springfield of classic rock lyrics, but we’ll just assume everything is somewhere near Bloomington.
Who knew the best song ever about getting lucky at a slot machine would be about Iowa?
It’s not up to us to decipher whether the Kansas City with all the crazy little women was in Missouri or Kansas. For today’s purposes, let’s assume it was on the west side of the state line and move on to states with simpler state line delineations.
Elvis Presley/Patsy Cline
We can’t help but think this song about staring up at the moon and wishing for it to shine over a long-lost lover was somehow the inspiration for the tear-jerking “Somewhere out There” in An American Tail.
There’s no shortage of songs paying homage to New Orleans, but telling the story of a borderline illiterate who could play the hell out of a guitar and rose to fame and fortune is about as Louisiana as a song gets without mentioning alligators.
You ever notice people in Maine either seem like they’ve lived there for 500 years or they’re getting away from something? This song about a cheating couple planning to run away explains one of those.
You will never in your life hear anyone as excited about waking up in Baltimore as Tracy Turnblad, even Joe Flacco after he somehow convinced the Ravens he was worth $120 million.
The song doesn’t really talk as much about Beantown as it does about losing one’s leg. But we dare you to spend a night out in Boston without hearing it at least six times.
No rock song has turned into a civic anthem stronger than “Detroit Rock City.” And though we didn’t really need KISS to let us know we gotta lose our minds there, put this song out around a bunch of Detroiters and you’ll see how literally they take it.
Weird Al Yankovic
Though it’s not a straight parody in the style of “Like a Surgeon” and “I’m Fat,” this nearly seven-minute folksy ballad sends up the likes of Harry Chapin and Gordon Lightfoot, replacing songs about lost fathers and shipwrecks with one about a family road trip to a bizarre roadside attraction.
Rock fans often forget “When the Levee Breaks” is actually a cover of an old blues song by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie — two names that clearly do not originate from Mississippi. They probably also forget that the song is about a devastating Mississippi flood in the 1920s.
Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith
Wonder if Vladimir Tarasenko knows the team he plays for is named after a Bessie Smith song. Or who Bessie Smith is.
Only a guy who named one of his kids Dweasel would write a song about moving to Montana to raise a crop of dental floss. And maybe Weird Al.
If you’ve ever written Gaga off as an auto-tuned pop star, take a listen to one of her first forays into country-inspired music to hear the full range of her vocal power. Though not much past her belting “Nebraska” over and over relates to the state, it’s far more comforting for a road trip than Springsteen’s spree-killer ballad.
Before movie-quoting hacks started ending every conversation about Sin City with “Vegas, baby, Vegas,” there was this song — the anthem of 1970s Las Vegas in the mob-and-leisure suit era, when the bright light city set even Elvis’s soul on fire.
Those who haven’t been to the Northeast probably don’t know much about New Hampshire beyond the cabin where they stuck Walter White. But now you can add the fact that BB King turns New Hampshire Boys on. Thanks, Sonic Youth.
There might not be a better opening line to any Springsteen song than, “Blew up a chicken man in Philly last night,” and though this isn’t the most flattering musical portrayal of the Garden State, it does capture the desperation and violence of the mob-run AC of yesteryear — and it’s sung by Springsteen, so everyone from Jersey loves it no matter what.
Driving through New Mexico is the most underratedly awful road-trip experience in America. It’s a state where you can go from clear skies to torrential downpour to high-desert snowstorm in a matter of miles. The Man in Black encounters all of that in this song, which like so many of his tracks clearly comes from real-life experience.
There are lots of songs about NYC, but it’s pretty much impossible to find one better than the theme song from Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film “New York, New York.” And you’ll hear it everywhere, from inside pizza shops to Central Park to Times Square on New Year’s Eve when the ball drops.
It’s not gonna be a popular pick, but does James Taylor give you a rush of North Carolina pride-driven adrenaline every time the chorus comes on? Probably not. I’m not even from North Carolina and I get pumped up hearing this song. Let the debate rage.
Since Wiz Khalifa still has yet to come out with a “Black and Yellow”-like anthem for his home state, the duty has fallen to Texan Lyle Lovett, who begins this song by explaining, “The boys in North Dakota, they drink whiskey for their fun.” As if there was any other reason.
A song bagging on Ohio by a group from Michigan has to be taken with a requisite grain of salt, but no other song asks such important question as, “What’s so great about a Buckeye?” and “Why does every city start with C?” Electric Six may hate Ohio, a lot, but even people from Ohio can take a joke and laugh at this song, which harangues the state for giving us John Boehner.
If you’re a coastal person who sometimes wonders about the mindset of the deep-red plains states, look no further than this 1960s Merle Haggard jam. The song might be over 50 years old, but the longing for a place where they don’t smoke marijuana or take LSD — and still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse — hasn’t gone much of anywhere since.
Although this is technically a Loretta Lynn song, the duet with Jack White has a hard-driving, stripped-down guitar underlay that makes it sound more like a White Stripes song with Loretta Lynn doing vocals. Either way, we’re into it.
Bruce Springsteen, still with more Oscars than Johnny Depp.
The smallest state in the country might also have the fewest songs about it, and nearly all of them come from a Family Guy episode. Though it’s not quite as funny as the “You’ve Got AIDS” barber shop quartet number, it’s also a little more relevant to Rhode Island.
James P Johnson
This song from the 1920s musical Runnin’ Wild that spawned the hottest dance craze of the 1920s has, thankfully, held up a little better than the Soulja Boy.
Johnny Cash’s sad, melodic drawl is almost the perfect instrument to tell the Sioux Indians’ side of the battle of Wounded Knee. It’s only a couple of minutes long but a better history lesson than you’ll get in most textbooks.
Three Six Mafia
There might be more country songs about Tennessee than there are about trucks and breakups, but did any of them win an Oscar? No, they did not. And can you really ever hear this song without picturing the sweltering, sweaty scenes of Hustle and Flow?
Texans will happily tell you they have the most, oldest, longest, biggest, and greatest of pretty much anything, though there are surprisingly few great modern-era songs about the Lone Star State. Probably why this Gene Autry classic holds up.
The Beach Boys
This song sounds like a radio promo the Beach Boys recorded for a concert in Salt Lake City, which with a few small lyrical tweaks has also been recorded as “Ok-la-homa!” and “South Da-Kota!” And it’s still the best song ever about Utah.
John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf
This song was written in the ‘40s by and first introduced by songstress Margaret Whiting. But since then, it’s been covered by Willie Nelson, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Tommy Dorsey, and Billie Holiday. How cool would it have been if they could have done a We Are The World thing in the ‘40s and gotten all these people on one track? Except for Willie Nelson; he’d have been ten.
Jerry Lee Lewis
Virginia’s another state that people seem to like to sing about “going back” to. Which begs the question, Jerry Lee, if this place is so great, why’d you ever leave?
Don’t you dare call Mix-a-Lot a one hit wonder. Sure, maybe outside Seattle people only remember him as the guy who had giant rubber butts on his turntable, but this song is so big in Seattle that the Seattle Symphony actually performed a version of it with him.
Some people get tears in their eyes every time this song comes on. And some WVU alums instinctively try to burn a couch.
The rhyming in this song is worthy of the Chainsmokers, but with Ella Fitzgerald’s satin voice rhyming “Milwaukee” with “gawky” doesn’t seem so bad. Also, Ella’s affinity for her nightclub-singing cousin, who had boyfriends by the dozen, is also admirable.
This song from the most renowned country singer to come out of Wyoming sounds almost biographical, a spoken-word story-song about a cowboy who sees a young woman painting in New York City and asks her to paint a picture of him back in the place he loves.