We didn’t have much money when I was growing up. Solidly middle class, my parents drove used cars and my brother and I wore jeans from Sears. But travel was important to my parents, so somehow, they managed to take us on a vacation most every year. A few times we flew to one coast or the other, but much more frequently we drove to our summertime destinations. Now that I’m an adult with my own family and dreams of travel, I recognize how hard my parents must have worked to save up for those trips and to plan each part of them so meticulously.

But when I think back to my childhood vacations, it’s not the itineraries or the history lessons or the souvenir budgets that I remember most. What comes to mind most often and what I find myself laughing about when I reminisce with my parents and brother are the unexpected, the accidents, the things we forgot, and the mistakes we made. And for me all of it — the good and the bad and the funny and the annoying — is underscored with a soundtrack.

I suppose you’d say it’s the soundtrack of my childhood, but that music was played on repeat during the hours we spent driving across states so I associate it most with our family road trips. In an era before Pandora and Spotify and satellite radio, the cassette tapes my parents loved took us from rest stop to rest stop until we had not just the lyrics of each song memorized but the instrumentals and the order of the songs, too. For me, family vacations sound like Alabama, Chicago, Restless Heart, Lionel Richie, Barry Manilow, the Beach Boys, and Air Supply. Maybe not so much Barry Manilow because my mom surely got tired of us mocking her and the guy who wrote the songs (except that one, guys. He didn’t write that song.).

But the other artists? I know them well.

The idea of a vacation soundtrack is so deeply ingrained into my psyche, as a matter of fact, that when we began planning our first big road trip as a family of four two years ago, I may have spent as much time curating our trip’s song list as I did researching hotels and attractions. What I didn’t realize, though, is that the importance of a vacation soundtrack isn’t simply finding good music that you won’t get tired of during a 10-hour road trip. At least in my experience, it’s been about the passing down of an understanding and appreciation of a certain kind of music. Perhaps calling it a legacy is a bit much when I’m referring to knowing all the words to “Dancin’ on the Ceiling” or “Dixieland Delight,” but something special happens when a group of people experience something together and do it while hearing the same music.

It’s why our generation is crazy about 80s on 8, 90s on 9, or any other nostalgic look at music from “back in the day.” It’s why we swore we wouldn’t listen to the oldies station like our parents did . . . and do it anyway. (Note to oldies stations: Please, for the love of hair bands, quit trying to tell me that Bon Jovi is oldies music. It just cannot be possible!) It’s why a certain song will take us back — to a relationship, to a job, to a party, to that one night you’d completely forgotten about until you heard those lyrics on XM.

Over the past several months, Mark and I have been lamenting a major parenting fail with Annalyn. We have let her down by letting her listen to an abundance of children’s music and current pop music — all while neglecting her musical education. She doesn’t know the difference between the Beatles and the Jackson Five, between Elvis and Garth Brooks. As two music lovers we’re disappointed in ourselves and determined to remedy this situation. We’ve started by adding some of “our” music to the girls’ nightly dance parties, trying to outdo one another in finding the catchiest “classic” song the girls will enjoy.

So far, the biggest hit has been “Elvira” by the Oak Ridge Boys — probably not one you’d think of immediately, but since Mark and I both have warm-though-fuzzy memories of loving that song as kids, we couldn’t help but encourage our girls as they giggled at the “oom-papas” in that old country tune. We’ve kept trying to expand their musical horizons with Johnny Cash, Nirvana, Michael Jackson, Patsy Cline, and everything in between. But the song that’s stuck most recently has been another goofy old country song: “I Love a Rainy Night” by Eddie Rabbitt.

You know, I remember watching a commercial several years ago, possibly during the Superbowl. It was for a car [edited to add: the Honda Pilot, and you can see the commercial here] and featured a family singing “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne together. It was so cute and made me grin and tear up at the same time. I thought to myself then, “That’s the kind of family I want! So cool. So musical. So not fighting over the last bag of Teddy Grahams or screaming about who gets to wear the dark pink headphones and who has to wear the light pink ones.”

The tears might have been because I assumed that would never actually be my family. Sort of like when the Bravermans had their dumb dance parties and I cried about that, too. Clearly I have family music jealousy issues.


Flash forward (from the 2012 commercial) to last week, when my not-really-cool, not-totally-musical family hit the road for a vacation across four states. The girls spent a lot of time staring at their tablets, reading books, and whining about who touched who first. Throughout the week I hit my limit of patience more than once and was outraged to the point of speechlessness more than once. For the record, my husband took the last bag of Teddy Grahams, and nobody wore the light pink headphones.

But as we hit our seventh or eighth hour in the car (a small SUV that now felt so tiny that I texted my mom and asked how we possibly drove cross country in a small sedan), something beautiful happened in our desperation to find something to calm the three-year-old and cheer up the nine-year-old and keep the parents from losing their minds. We decided to try playing, “I Love a Rainy Night,” on YouTube and cranking it up. As we wound through the hills of Kentucky, me periodically shouting directions from my phone’s navigation and my husband continuing to grumble about the idiot drivers on the road with us, we sang along to that song at the top of our lungs.

“Showers wash all my cares away. I wake up to a sunny day, ’cause I love a rainy night!”

And in that one moment, I was a kid again, singing every greatest hit Alabama ever had, and I was that fictional family singing Ozzy Osbourne in a TV commercial, and I was the happiest vacation mom, ever.

Don’t get me wrong, friends. That moment was short-lived and we had plenty of yelling and fighting and pouting and crying as we marched through museums and bought bags of souvenirs and looked for local restaurants that all four of us would like and swam in the hotel pool even though it was freezing. I didn’t post the pictures of tantrums on Instagram, but believe me, those moments were plentiful. Still, I hope that when we look back at our 2017 vacation, it’ll be the laughter and the ice cream and “I Love a Rainy Night” that we remember most.

What kind of soundtrack do your family vacations have?

What should you watch next?


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