By Nigel Jaffe
Few recording artists have seen as much of America firsthand as country music legend Willie Nelson. His signature “On the Road Again” stands out among his most recognized and most autobiographical songs— in more than half a century as an active touring musician, the 86-year-old icon has performed at countless venues across the nation while somehow finding time to record a new album every year. Brushing aside a brief health scare last month, Nelson shows no sign of stopping: his current tour, which has seen him keep up a pace of about 100 concerts a year, is projected to take him from North Carolina to Nevada to New York City in the space of three weeks.
It’s no surprise, then, that his songs are filled with references to locations near and far from his home state of Texas. “Me and Paul,” originally released in 1971 on the landmark Yesterday’s Wine, chronicles his early days of touring: the titular Paul refers to his longtime drummer, Paul English, who played with Nelson as early as 1955 and joined his band in 1966. That was long before Nelson was country music’s biggest star, and the song reflects his early difficulty finding receptive audiences: “It’s been rough and rocky traveling / But I’m finally standing upright on the ground… / I guess Nashville was the roughest / But I know I’ve said the same about them all / We received our education / In the cities of the nation, me and Paul.”
Each stanza recalls a different stumbling block, from being “busted in Laredo,” to denied a spot on the plane “at the airport in Milwaukee,” to a whiskey-soaked “package show in Buffalo.” All of those locations and more can be found on this map from CityLab, which plots many of the places mentioned in Nelson’s songs. The map is nowhere near complete, as any devoted fan of his will notice right away, but it represents a good start at putting together a definitive geographical account of his enormous catalog.
The numbers that accompany each pinpoint correspond to the chart below, which lays out the cities alphabetically, from Austin to Waco— unsurprisingly, almost 25% of the locations included on the map are in Texas.
All of the songs on the list can be found on this Spotify playlist, which represents a solid standalone introduction to Nelson’s work for the geographically-minded listener. Leading off the set is his Grammy-winning cover of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” named not for the city in Louisiana, but for a real passenger train on the Illinois Central Line. The narrator namechecks Kankakee, IL, Memphis, TN, and the state of Mississippi as the train makes its way from Chicago to New Orleans along what was once the longest regularly scheduled route in the country.
Unfortunately, the Willie Nelson song that includes the most geographical references is omitted from the map. In 1985, he collaborated with the influential country artist Hank Snow to produce a duet album, Brand on My Heart, on which they recorded Snow’s number-one hit “I’ve Been Everywhere,” later made even more popular by Johnny Cash. How many locations does that song reference, arranged to rhyme? Here’s the complete list:
Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota, Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma, Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma, Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo, Tocopilla, Barranquilla, Padilla, Boston, Charleston, Dayton, Louisiana, Washington, Houston, Kingston, Texarkana, Monterey, Ferriday, Santa Fe, Tallapoosa, Glen Rock, Black Rock, Little Rock, Oskaloosa, Tennessee, Hennessey, Chicopee, Spirit Lake, Grand Lake, Devil’s Lake, Crater Lake, Louisville, Nashville, Knoxville, Ombabika, Schefferville, Jacksonville, Waterville, Costa Rica, Pittsfield, Springfield, Bakersfield, Shreveport, Hackensack, Cadillac, Fond du Lac, Davenport, Idaho, Jellico, Argentina, Diamantina, Pasadena, Catalina, Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravelbourg, Colorado, Ellensburg, Rexburg, Vicksburg, Eldorado, Larimore, Atmore, Haverstraw, Chatanika, Chaska, Nebraska, Alaska, Opelika, Baraboo, Waterloo, Kalamazoo, Kansas City, Sioux City, Cedar City, Dodge City, and Winnemucca.
It’s safe to assume Willie Nelson hasn’t yet been everywhere he sang about, but he’s country music’s farthest-traveling artist nevertheless.