The Old Home Place by JD Crowe and the New South
Boats have featured in my travels ever since the mid-90s when, aged 22, I bought a narrowboat to live on. I was working in London, but the boat was in Cheshire. I’d never piloted a narrowboat before and I had two weeks off work to get it down south. The soundtrack that came to define this eventful voyage was Kentucky banjo player JD Crowe’s groundbreaking, eponymous 1975 album, now so revered it is known simply by its catalogue number: 0044. I became obsessed with this opening track, not just for JD’s banjo mastery but for its nostalgic longing for a simpler, rural life, as I made my slow watery way through the backwoods of my own country.
Suku Suku Bam Bam by King Sunny Ade
I’ve spent the pandemic recovering from long Covid, which has given me plenty of time to revisit old adventures, as well as optimistically plan future ones. A recurrent theme has been a yearning for desert travel. This track takes me back to my motorcycle ride from London to Cape Town and the surreal Algeria-Niger border post in the middle of the Sahara.
Marked by just a couple of huts in a vast sea of sand, the scenery didn’t change across the frontier, but everything else did. After the austerity of Tuareg north Africa, suddenly I was being high-fived by customs officers while they danced in the sand to the joyous sounds of neighbouring Nigeria’s musical hero, King Sunny Ade, booming out of their tape recorder.
Country Boy by The Heptones
A couple of years ago I spent January in Jamaica, mostly around Port Antonio on the island’s wild, eastern coast. In a tiny nearby village called Drapers, a weekly institution called Vinyl Sunday takes place – a DJ night of ska, rocksteady and reggae classics, all played off original 45s; the venue is ostensibly a roadside bar but the dancing spills out into the road. When a car comes along everyone simply skanks out of the way to let it pass and the party continues. The sight of two young guys grooving in the moonlight to this track is a moment of pure joy that will stay with me forever.
Crimson and Clover by Tommy James and the Shondells
My first solo overland journey was a motorcycle ride from Alaska to Argentina. While waiting for my bike to arrive in Anchorage, I hired a pickup truck and cruised the snowy highways, radio tuned to the local oldies station. It didn’t take long to realise their playlist consisted of about 10 tracks on relentless rotation. Fortunately, one of them was this symphonic, psychedelic masterpiece. Although hailing from the east coast and better known for his bubblegum pop hits, Tommy James’s Crimson and Clover with its pulsing crescendos, spacey lyrics and trancey outro somehow served as the perfect sweeping soundtrack to Alaska’s equally epic landscape.
Ça Plane Pour Moi by Plastic Bertrand
During my 10 years as the banjo player in bluegrass band The Jolenes, we were booked to play a series of gigs in Belgian men’s prisons. In an attempt to tailor our set to our host country, we learned Plastic Bertrand’s 1977 punk-pop hit, which transposed surprisingly well to the bluegrass genre. It was a tough crowd. All eyes were on our vocalist, gamely launching into the solo opening line in her best schoolgirl French. Confused looks passed among the audience. Then, as the instruments joined in and we burst into the unmistakable “Ooh-woo-ooh-ooh” of the chorus, the penny dropped. The crowd went wild – prisoners and guards alike, up out of their seats, dancing in sheer abandonment to Belgium’s unofficial national anthem.
Hello Stranger by Emmylou Harris
Mexico’s Baja Peninsula is where my love affair with deserts began nearly 20 years ago, and I try to return as often as I can. The best musical travel memories are often formed around a fleeting moment of carefree communion (think the Tiny Dancer scene in Almost Famous). This track belongs to such a moment: singing with friends in the back of a pickup truck, rolling down Baja’s Highway 1. It was originally written and recorded by the Carter Family in 1937, but Emmylou’s vocals take it up and into the sublime. It’s the theme song of any lonesome traveller who has known the kindness of strangers.
Train Kept A-Rollin’ by The Johnny Burnette Trio
Six months into my ride from Alaska to Argentina, I found myself standing stock-still under a speaker in a supermarket in Panama City. For the previous month I had been travelling alone through Central America. I’d been roughed up by the Honduran police, outrun bandits in Nicaragua, and not spoken English for weeks (this was pre-social media and I had no mobile phone). Detached and isolated, I was missing home, friends and family – and pining for my record collection. Then, inexplicably, this song from my teenage rockabilly years came over a supermarket PA. I stood transfixed for the full two minutes and 14 seconds. My spirit revived, I got back on the bike and gunned it all the way to Tierra del Fuego.
Jerusalem Ridge by Kenny Baker
One summer I packed my banjo (and husband) into a vintage Russian sidecar outfit and we set out to drive across the US, from Richmond, Virginia to Seattle. The first part of the trip was spent hopping from jam session to jam session across the Carolinas, Tennessee and Kentucky. My banjo skills paled in comparison with the locals’, but I received a warm welcome nonetheless. The only session I did not dare to join was at Nashville’s legendary Station Inn where every Sunday the world’s greatest bluegrass pickers get together to kick some serious ass. This is where I first heard Jerusalem Ridge. I texted my fiddle-playing friend back home: “We have to learn this tune!” In lockdown I finally nailed it, but not quite up to this speed!
Talagh by Googoosh
Iran is the country I most long to return to, and many lockdown hours have been whiled away listening to this track and watching dreamy tours of Persian gardens on YouTube. It was on my first visit there in 2013 that I discovered the phenomenon that is Googoosh. Iran’s superstar singer and actress reached peak success in the 1970s, combining Eastern melodies and instrumentation with western rock and funk, but the Islamic revolution of 1979 stopped her career dead. In 2000 she left Iran and re-emerged with a sellout world tour but still remains largely unknown outside of her home country and the Iranian diaspora. This song transports me back to arriving in Iran for the first time and the astounding hospitality and warmth of the Iranian people.
Pata Pata by Miriam Makeba
My London to Cape Town motorcycle ride involved dodging landmines in Angola and tackling AK-47-toting soldiers in the Congo. It ended, rather unceremoniously, with me pushing my bike the final few yards to the Cape of Good Hope. After 10,000 miles of reliable service my motorbike had conked out with the end literally in sight. When I eventually fixed it and limped to a hotel in downtown Cape Town, I collapsed on the bed and turned on the TV, to be greeted with the glorious sight of Mama Africa herself, performing Pata Pata. I couldn’t have asked for a better welcome to South Africa, or a more jubilant finale to my journey.
• Lois Pryce is the author of Revolutionary Ride: On the Road in Search of the Real Iran (Nicholas Brealey/Hachette) among other books. Her website is loisontheloose.com