If there were a Travel Disaster Songs playlist, no doubt Gordon Lightfoot’s most famous tune, “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald,” would be a first-ballot no-brainer. That list will have to wait for another time. Fortunately, in addition to singing about shipwrecks, Lightfoot has also penned a song or two about the joys (or perhaps melancholy) of travel.
“Carefree Highway” was one of the Canadian songsmith’s biggest hits, and it helped fill out his solid 1974 LP Sundown. That album opens with another vagabond song, “Somewhere U.S.A.,” but that number falls a little short both in comparison to “Carefree Highway” and as an album opener in general. It’s a mellow, bittersweet song with a pleasant melody, but its lyrics have not aged well, especially when Lightfoot croons “I would gladly offer you my love / In this hotel in Somewhere, U.S.A.” That’s not as ’70s-cheesy as “We made love in my Chevy van,” but it’s in the ballpark, at least in this writer’s opinion.
“Carefree Highway,” on the other hand, brims with the kind of satisfaction that comes with driving for driving’s sake, getting the heck out of Dodge, flying down the road unabated by stoplights. Often misheard as “every highway,” its lyrics wistfully pine for this “old flame,” which in fact is a stretch of Arizona State Highway 74, whose fanciful name Lightfoot noted and filed away for future reference. This song also has him singing about a woman – her name is Ann – but now he’s trying to forget her, or at the very least clear his mind. According to Lightfoot’s own liner notes from one of his collections,
There was a real Ann…It’s one of those situations where you meet that one woman who knocks you out and then leaves you standing there and says she’s on her way. I heard from her after a Massey Hall concert many years later; she stopped by to say hello. I don’t think she knew that she is the one the song was about, and I wasn’t about to tell her.
As for Lightfoot’s discovery of the curiously-named stretch of road, blogger John Woestendiek at Ohmidog.com did a little research on that for a 2010 post. He unearthed an item from the Carefree Times blog written by Nancy Westmoreland, who had personally quizzed Lightfoot about it. Per Westmoreland,
The story goes that he was on the band’s bus, traveling for an engagement at the Gammage Auditorium, when he saw the large marquee freeway sign along Interstate 17. He actually had the bus driver pull over so he could get out and snap a close-up photo of the huge off-ramp sign. When he arrived home, he had the picture blown up and placed on his living room wall. He wrote the song while on the bus, and it became one of his biggest hits, exposing millions around the world to the Carefree Highway.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Town of Carefree, Arizona. Its 3,363 residents get to brag not only about its pleasant-sounding name, but for having the highest number of restaurants per capita in the state, the Western Hemisphere’s third-largest sundial, and being home to a defunct movie studio in which parts of films such as Zabriskie Point and Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure were shot. Visit and you might take a stroll down Ho Hum Drive, Nonchalant Avenue, Rocking Chair Road, Never Mind Trail, Lazy Burro Road, and even Easy Street.
Just let Mr. Lightfoot tell you how to get there.