30 songs that absolutely define 30 cities

These songs define some towns.

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The Southeast

"MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE" originally by Chuck Berry (1959)

Berry wrote it. Elvis recorded it. So did the Beatles. And Al Green. The most well-known version may have been the one that Johnny Rivers recorded in 1964. Doesn’t matter who is singing it. Equating fond memories of the city on the western edge of Tennessee with a dad missing his young daughter after divorce is a guaranteed heartbreaker. “We were pulled apart because her mom did not agree – and tore apart our happy home in Memphis, Tennessee.” (NOTE: my wife insists I let you know that she would have chosen Paul Simon’s “Graceland” in this slot.)

"NASHVILLE CATS" by The Lovin’ Spoonful (1966)

There are roughly seven hundred million songs about Music City by the likes of Dolly Parton. George Strait and Waylon Jennings. So I’m picking one written by a shaggy-haired rock folkie from Greenwich Village. John Sebastian wrote it as a loving tribute to all the great musicians who call Nashville home, and his simple lyric “Well there’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville – And they can pick more notes than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill – Yeah, there’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar cases in Nashville – And any one that unpacks his guitar could play twice as better than I will,” – well, that kind of says it all.

"CHARLOTTE’S IN NORTH CAROLINA" by Keith Whitley (1985)

Whitley plays with the name Charlotte here – singing about the woman who left him to go to North Carolina. Did she go to Charlotte? Maybe she went to Fayetteville or Wilmington. But I’m sticking with Charlotte. Whitley’s classic country twang – taken from the world by his alcohol-related death in 1989 – is utterly heartbreaking. As a city, Charlotte seems especially prone to generating songs with cryptic references – like Lute’s “Ford’s Prayer,” and Anthony Hamilton’s gorgeous “Comin’ From Where I’m From.” Unless you want a song about NASCAR – then the references are right out in the open.

"GIMME THREE STEPS" by Lynyrd Skynyrd (1973)

They were from Jacksonville, but if you didn’t know that, you might not be able to identify this near-tragic tale of harmless flirtation gone wrong as being part and parcel of the River City. Except the opening line tells you “I was cutting a rug down at a place called the Jug – with a girl named Linda Lu.” And The Jug Saloon is in Jacksonville, not far from where Ronnie Van Zandt grew up. The story goes that Van Zandt had the run-in described in the song at a different Jacksonville establishment, but “The Jug” fit the lyric better, so it became famous.

"WASHINGTON DC HOSPITAL CENTER BLUES" by Skip James (1966)

Robert Johnson’s only rival as the greatest delta blues singer of all time. James recorded his account of getting treated at the hospital in Washington on one of his two glorious ‘60s albums after his rediscovery. “The doctors and nurses, they shakin’ their heads – Said ‘take this poor man and put him to bed – because he’s a good man, we know he’s a poor man – We can understand.” This may be the most complimentary song ever written about a hospital.