Guide Playlist: Songs for a River State of Mind

6 Min. Read
River guides playing music at camp on the Colorado River

Music and river trips go together like Dutch oven brownies and starry nights. Idaho guide Emerald LaFortune shares 15 songs that will transport you back to that river trip state of mind. Get the full playlist on Spotify below…

1) Long Hot Summer Day – Turnpike Troubadours

“For every day I’m workin’ on the Illinois River / Get a half a day off with pay / Oh tow boat pickin up barges / On a long hot summer day

Something about this classic river narrative conveys the joy of long hot days on the water and the promise of a day off every once in a while. Its bluesy instrumentals make it a campfire favorite.

2) Old Crow Medicine Show, “Wagon Wheel”

“And I gotta get a move on before the sun / I hear my baby calling my name and I know that she’s the only one / And if I die in Raleigh at least I will die free

Like most, I’ve moved through the full cycle of the iconic “Wagon Wheel” song. I’ve gone from loving it, to despising it, to general acceptance and chuckling at its absurd campfire prevalence. Regardless of where you are in the West, you’re almost guaranteed to hear this Bob Dylan-written tune when the guitars come out.

3) Alan Jackson, “Chattahoochee”

“Yeah, way down yonder on the Chattahoochee / Never knew how much that muddy water meant to me / But I learned how to swim and I learned who I was / A lot about livin’ and a little ’bout love

This song describes growing up near a well-loved river perfectly. And you haven’t lived until you’ve done a country western swing dance around a river kitchen with your favorite cowboy or cowgirl to this tune.

Guide Playlist: Songs for a river trip state of mind

4) Doc Watson, “Deep River Blues”

“Let it rain, let it pour, let it rain a whole lot more / ‘Cause I got them deep river blues

Doc Watson is a brilliant bluegrass musician and when he turns his picking to the topic of rivers that brilliance continues.

5) Josh Ritter, “Idaho”

“Something else was on my mind / The only ghost I’m haunted by / Hear her howling down below / Idaho oh Idaho

Idaho-born singer/songwriter Josh Ritter’s songs are always river guide favorites, particularly his easy-to-sing-along homage to his home state.

6) Guy Clark, “Dublin Blues”

“Forgive me all my anger / Forgive me all my faults / There’s no need to forgive me / For thinkin’ what I thought

While river guiding is arguably the best job in the world it also involves sacrifices – time away from loved ones, intense work schedules and the occasional heartbreak. Guy Clark’s classic “Dublin Blues” talks about margaritas (a river guide favorite) and the difficulties of moving through life.

7) Marilyn Monroe, “The River of No Return”

“There is a river called the river of no return / Sometimes it’s peaceful and sometimes wild and free

What doesn’t go together like Dutch oven brownies and starry nights? Marilyn Monroe and a wilderness river trip. Or so we thought, until we watched the classic Marilyn movie “River of No Return.” Chances are, you’ll wake up to a mournful, “Wailaree!” at least once on your river trip.

8) Sturgill Simpson, “Keep It Between the Lines”

“Do as I say / Dont do as I’ve done / It don’t have to be / Like a father, like his son

Us river guides couldn’t get enough of Sturgill’s country-rock feel this past summer. Plus, “Stay in school, stay off the hard stuff and keep between the lines is great life advice.

9) Alabama Shakes, “Hold On”

“So, must be someone up above / Saying come on girl / You got to get back up / You got to hold on / Yeah you got to hold on

While I’m pretty sure the lead singer of Alabama Shakes is talking about life, this message is also highly relevant to tomorrow’s rapid…

10) Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Green River”

“Let me remember things I love / Stoppin’ at the log where catfish bite / Walkin’ along the river road at night / Barefoot girls dancin’ in the moonlight

A tried and true river classic from an even more classic band, no explanation needed.

Guide Playlist: Songs for a river trip state of mind

11) Reckless Kelly, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”

“Well he reached for her hand and he slipped her the keys / He said… I’ve got no further use for these

Admittedly, it’s hard to understand why the ballad of an outlaw giving a redheaded woman his motorcycle is considered a river tune. Some songs work their way into our river libraries and lose their history along the way. I’m sure there’s a story behind why this song gets played directly before and after every Middle Fork of the Salmon trip, but I couldn’t tell you why. The river guide favorite is the live Reckless Kelly version, but it’s been covered in just about every genre from bluegrass to rock.

12) Wood Brothers, “Luckiest Man”

“Running is useless and fighting is foolish / You’re not gonna win but still you’re the luckiest man you’re up against

A beautiful guitar riff, Wood Brothers’ lead singer Oliver Wood’s gravel voice and his reminder that you’re pretty darn lucky is a great way to start any day on the river.

13) Head and the Heart, “Rivers and Roads”

“Been talking ’bout the way things change / And my family lives in a different state / And if you don’t know what to make of this / Then we will not relate

Rivers. Roads. This is literally the two main ingredients of a river guide life. Did Head and the Heart write this specifically about us?

14) Drive-By Truckers, “Grand Canyon”

“We went to Grand Canyon / And we stood at the expanse / And we watched the rocks change colors / And we watched the shadows dance

It’s hard to put into words the awe-inspiring feeling of peering down into the chasm that is the Grand Canyon or looking up into its sandstone walls from the water…but Drive-By Truckers sure try.

15) Leon Bridges, “River”

“Take me to your river / I wanna go / Oh, go on /Take me to your river / I wanna know

Leon’s bluesy vocals and classic vibe helps give guides that nostalgic feel we get when thinking about our favorite rivers and why we make the time to visit them.

Find Emerald’s river guide playlist on Spotify. What’s your favorite riverside tune? Share it with us in the comments below.

Photos: Jonathan Matthews, Justin Bailie, Tom Gotchy

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