All kinds of artists have cut songs about what it’s like to be a musician playing from town to town – Simon and Garfunkel (“Homeward Bound”), Bob Seger (”Turn the Page”), and plenty of others. But Jackson Browne cut one of the great songs about the musician’s life – tracking part of it in a hotel room and part of it live on stage, no less – when he recorded “The Road.”
“The Road,” from Browne’s 1978 album Running on Empty, actually isn’t a Browne composition, but was written by Danny O’Keefe, an excellent and largely unheralded writer whose only hit as an artist was “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” in 1972. It was a testament to O’Keefe’s abilities that Browne, who was emerging as one of the FM rock generation’s premier poets, would even cut something written by someone else.
In some ways this song is a lesson in how not to write a song, at least by today’s commercial radio standards. The verses and lines aren’t technically perfect, with varying numbers of syllables, and there is no real chorus, but every verse is neatly wrapped up with the coda “And when you stop to let ’em know/ You got it down/ It’s just another town along the road.” The song addresses road issues like always-available women, stimulants of one kind or another and how those of us who spend any time as traveling pros try to focus on the little victories, like how we get to do something we love and (hopefully) get paid, while trying to forget the tedium and inevitable problems that accompany road life.
It’s interesting to compare and contrast Browne’s and O’Keefe’s versions of the song (O’Keefe released his in 1972 on his O’Keefe album). Browne’s version is several BPMs slower than O’Keefe’s original, and it’s just plain better that way. While O’Keefe sounds almost whimsical, Browne sings like he’s really living it, which he was. The slower tempo is much more effective in communicating the weariness and melancholia that accompany someone who sleeps in a different town every night, who lives out of a suitcase and travels in a smelly van with fast-food trash under the seats and an ashtray full of roaches. And even for performers who’ve graduated to buses or planes, the story doesn’t change all that much.
If you’re a younger musician who hasn’t heard “The Road,” you need to check it out. It really is one of the truest road songs ever, and it’s one of Jackson Browne’s most convincing performances.