It is well-noted that America has some oddly named places: Accident Maryland, Horneytown North Carolina, Frankenstein Missouri, Hell Michigan, Intercourse Pennsylvania, Kickapoo Kansas, Pee Pee Ohio, Truth Or Consequences New Mexico and (amazingly…) Unalaska Alaska!
But it also has some iconic city names, like Nashville, Atlantic City, Baton Rouge, San Fransisco, Los Angeles and New York City.
So many places in America have been immortalized in music, whether by a dance-craze like The Charleston, in a band name, like Chicago, Boston or Kansas, or in a song, like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama, Willie Nelson’s Georgia On My Mind, Elvis’ Blue Hawaii or James Taylor’s Carolina In My Mind. Through the power of music, these places and so many others have become a symbol for something bigger than their geographical location.
That was what I felt as I passed road signs pointing the way to Charleston, Chattanooga and Georgia on a road trip we took down to Florida for some much needed vacation time. These place names are so rich with history and are so lyrical sounding, I just wanted to use them to express the journey we felt we were on, not just on the road, but in our lives.
Once the idea for the song hit, the actual writing of the lyrics came rather quickly. (What a gift that there are so many rhyming state names in America!) And while not all the lines in this song are based in actual events, many are rooted in real ideas, emotions and experiences we had at the time.
For instance, although I’ve never lost a literal fortune at the poker tables in Los Vegas, I’ve definitely had my share of losses. And in a more metaphorical sense, I know the feeling of losing your shirt because you gambled on a losing hand.
The line about getting high in West Virginia definitely merits some explaining, as it could easily be misunderstood. As a non-drug-user, I had mixed feelings about keeping this line in the song, but left it as a tribute to John Denver, the musician who inspired it. As we drove south, climbing up and up through the winding roads in the mountains of Virginia, I remembered hearing John Denver speak at the 1985 PMRC hearing against Tipper Gore who was pressing record labels to put parental warning labels on albums with explicit lyrics. Protesting any form of censorship, he recalled how censors had misinterpreted the meaning of his song Rocky Mountain High because they had never personally experienced the natural high of being in the mountains, camping with friends under a starlit sky.
The stars of Michigan is not a reference to the lights in the sky, but of the heroes we regularly go to watch battle for victory on an 200-foot sheet of ice.
Being stuck in Tennessee is a reference to the one night we spent in a motel room in Nashville, stranded by a rainstorm in the middle of the night. It was such a great experience, as we took refuge from the storm in the music-filled bars up and down Broadway, listening to the likes of Hillbilly Casino and many other young, aspiring artists.
But more than any of the specific lines, or the stories that inspired them, this song is about getting deliberately lost in order to find your true self. It’s about walking away from everything you’ve known or believed in, to see if you can come back to it again in a new and fresh way. It’s about running away to see whether it’s even possible (or desirable) to come home again. It’s about purposefully taking a new path, sometimes to arrive at a new place and sometimes to force yourself to consciously appreciate the journey to a familiar one. It’s about embracing being in a state of confusion and feeling lost, as a way of rejecting the arrogant assumption that you are already found. It’s about recognizing that often the journey is far more important than the destination and learning how to just enjoy the ride. (Watch the Official Music Video for the song, The State I’m In)