Let's agree on one thing first: Lists like Ranking All 50 States and Best Sandwiches in America are created as much to spark debate as to offer actual guidance on what makes or breaks a place. Or a sandwich. The idea is to get people to nod in agreement or, more often than not, shake their head in disappointment.
Esquire deserves the disappointed nod.
After a wave of attention during writer-at-large Chris Jones' stint as a visiting professor in the UM journalism department — during his stay there were blurbs about Charlie B's, The Depot, The M and, um, Jones' (lack of) underwear — the state has fallen back into the national magazine's lazy afterthoughts.
The latest example is "The Best Songs About the 50 States," during which contributing editor Andy Langer seems to have exhausted the iTunes search function by seeking out song titles that mention state names. He did this after apparently ripping off the story idea from an AT&T commercial."Montana," by someone named Rocky Votolato. I think I once bought insurance from someone named Rocky Votolato, but this isn't really about Rocky Votolato. You know why? Langer didn't even spell Rocky Votolato's name right. Rocky Votolato—or "Voltato" in the story—is an innocent singer-songwriter who once drove through our state and, clearly bored and at risk of running off the road, wrote a perfectly fine song about driving through Montana. But it is not about Montana.
Langer at least tossed us a bone with two runners-up: "Wild Montana Skies" by Emmylou Harris and "Montana" by Frank Zappa. Either of these would've been a safer choice and avoided this blog post, but that would undermine the whole purpose (read: debate) of Langer's list. Instead, we get Rocky Votolato.
Clearly there are alternatives to Langer's dubious choice. For one, he could've searched beyond song titles and found perfectly apt selections about our fine state. There's Merle Haggard's "Big City" and Tarkio's heart-breaking ballad about the Hi-Line, "Save Yourself," and even "Mountain Standard Time" from the beloved Mission Mountain Wood Band. Or, he could've focused his Googling skills on current local bands and found a bevy of equally obscure, infinitely more kick-ass selections like "Blue Highway" by Russ Nasset and the Revelators or "Taillights" by Dawns. With a little digging he could have discovered '90s era songs like "South Canada" by The Banned and "Sunset on Evaro" by Mike & Rick. A little more digging would've turned up cowboy classics like Montana Slim's "My Old Montana Home" or "My Missoula Valley Moon." The list surely goes on; feel free to offer more suggestions in the comments section.
But rather than beat this to death, let's point music fans in a better direction: Every year the Boston Phoenix selects the best new band — and, in some cases, offers a nod to a past band (Silkworm!) — for each of the 50 states. It has better research, a solid track record and, alas, is free of poor Rocky Votolato.