You don’t have a career like Willie Nelson’s without being well-traveled, but not only has he played his songs everywhere, he’s written songs about a hell of a lot of places. That’s the takeaway from this post from The Atlantic’s CityLab blog, which explores the many places Willie has sung about in his time.
No one map could track all the sites and cities Willie sings about. He’s recorded songs about rivers: the Rio Grande and the Pedernales, the Mississippi and the Ohio, the Rhine and the Jordan. He’s played songs about trains: the Midnight Special, the Wabash Cannonball, the Golden Rocket, the City of New Orleans. (And, of course, a song about rainbows.) Georgia, Montana, Tennessee, and Texas all loom large over his songbook.
Cities serve as metaphors and signposts in Willie’s songs—a role they tend to play in much of blues, country, and folk. Maybe it’s because he’s a master of those three styles that he’s known for songs about cities and places. That interest unites all those different genres in his catalog. The experience of traveling cross-country, getting the hell out of some place or setting off for a new start, is an entire category of Willie Nelson songs, right up there with cowboy heartbreak and drinking whiskey.
The list CityLab puts together runs 33 cities long, which is probably a very soft estimate—and it draws from Willie-penned songs like his 1985 hit “Me And Paul,” which is one of the more well-traveled songs in Willie’s oeuvre. In that song, he reminisces about the tour dates he and long-tenured drummer Paul English have endured/enjoyed: “I thought Nashville was the roughest / but I know I’ve said the same about them all” is Willie’s refrain on the song, which takes them from the Music City to Laredo, Milwaukee, and Buffalo.
It also draws from songs that Willie recorded, but didn’t write: The Jerry Jeff Walker/Jimmy Buffett tune “Railroad Lady” plays heavily on the list, as does Steve Goodman’s “City Of New Orleans.” Willie’s catalog as a songwriter is impossibly deep and impressive, but his career is also built heavily on other people’s songs, so we can leave the debate to whether a “Willie Nelson song” is a song he wrote or recorded to the purists.
Some cities that don’t appear on the list might be surprising on first blush, but there’s a reason for it. On Willie’s career-defining Red Headed Stranger, for example, one of the songs is named for “Blue Rock, Montana,” but it doesn’t show up on the map. The reason? There’s no such place. Others would be a stretch: Bethelhem is a real place, but the fact that Willie sang “Oh Little Town of Bethelhem” on his 1979 Christmas album Pretty Paper doesn’t really make it a Willie Nelson song. (That same logic didn’t keep the blues standard “Kansas City” off of the list, though.)
Still, the map and the list are a fun bit of visualization that takes Willie’s songs and career and puts them in the very broad context that they deserve: Texas cities might be most strongly represented on the map, but Willie’s a chronicler of America, and that runs from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, and all places in between.