This article is from the summer edition of Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in 2023. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.
By Jim Beviglia
The Gulf of Mexico has inspired some of the finest musicians and songwriters to wax poetic and philosophical. While some of these songs possess a direct connection to the Mobile Bay area, the following list takes some liberties with geography in favor of choosing songs that capture the spirit of the Gulf and the people whose lives are affected by it.
“The Gulf Of Mexico” by Steve Earle
Earle’s wistful tale features three generations of men working on the Gulf, each in a different capacity (shrimper, Texaco crew-boat captain, roughneck). In that way, he manages to speak to some of the area’s history while evoking stirring emotions. At song’s end, even the devil arrives, “crawlin’ from the hole” of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
“Gulf Coast Highway” by Nanci Griffith
There are some lovely versions of this song, including a killer duet with Emmylou Harris and Dave Matthews. But the late Nanci Griffith’s take on the song that she co-wrote, one about a couple’s perseverance in the face of a working-class, Gulf-highway life, is simply sublime.
“Fire On The Bayou” by The Neville Brothers
This endlessly funky number was the inspiration for two classic albums, both of the same name (Fiyo On The Bayou). The Meters did it first in 1975, and then helped the Neville’s on their version in 1981. The narrator has “swamp water runnin’ through my veins,” and the authenticity practically drips from these amazing musicians.
“Bama Breeze” by Jimmy Buffet
Buffet’s effortless storytelling ability often gets missed by those who only know his knack for branding. Check out this winning tribute to a waterside bar — it’s the Flora-Bama, of course — that practically takes on a life of its own for those lucky enough to frequent it year after year. Mick Jagger and Lynyrd Skynyrd make unofficial appearances.
“Hurricane Party” by James McMurtry
Nobody gets the details of a character-driven song quite so right as McMurtry. (He is the son of novelist Larry McMurtry, after all.) The title is ironic, to be sure, because the narrator is left bereft and isolated following the heavy rains.
“Hurricane” by Levon Helm
This song became a big country hit for Leon Everette in 1981, a year after it appeared on Helm’s American Son. Unlike McMurtry’s song, this one is about a literal storm moving in. And no voice ever embodied Southern grit and defiance like Helm, which makes him the perfect fit for the tale of an old man scoffing at Mother Nature.
“Big Bayou” by Rod Stewart
When Stewart was on his game in the ’70s, he could inhabit any song with ease. So it was that it sounded perfectly natural for the Scottish-English icon to deliver this hard-charging rocker about a guy who indulges his wanderlust only to realize there’s no place like home on the Bayou.
“Galveston Bay” by Bruce Springsteen
While this one flies a bit far afield in terms of the geography (it takes place in Texas), the story of a Vietnamese immigrant facing adversity while he plies his shrimping trade in the waters along the Gulf hits close to home.
“Blue Bayou” by Linda Ronstadt
You couldn’t go wrong if you chose Roy Orbison’s version of this song that rolls by like a calm night on the water. But Ronstadt’s masterly interpretive skills capture all the loneliness and “the hurting inside” of someone longing to see the fishing boats again.
“Stars On The Water” by Rodney Crowell
Crowell’s self-titled 1981 album is notable for the songs that became hits for others (“Til I Gain Control Again” and “Shame On The Moon.”) This song leads it off, as Crowell finds beauty in various locations along the Gulf. After hitting Louisiana and Mississippi, he stops in Mobile to see the “moonbeams on the Bay.” His writing is so evocative that you can easily picture the titular optical illusion.
"Mobile Bay (Magnolia Blossoms)" by Merle Haggard and George Jones
Originally recorded by Johnny Cash for his 1981 album The Baron, this version by Merle Haggard and George Jones — two of the best ever — nails the pathos of Southern nostalgia like only country music can. The narrator — a wino on the street in the grip of a harsh Chicago winter — fears he might freeze to death before he gets to tell about “Mobile Bay, magnolia blossoms, cool summer nights, warm rolling seas, and all my dreams.” The words get a lot right, except for the “cool” summer nights part.