Backup Track: The Search for Arizona's Unsung Anthem
Zac McDonald

Backup Track: The Search for Arizona's Unsung Anthem

Until I moved from New York to Arizona, I never noticed how many songs about New York there were — and how each one of them told what it was like living there day to day, embodying what it took to survive there. “New York State of Mind,” “New York Groove,” “New York, New York,” “You’re a Native New Yorker” — there are hundreds of New York songs, even ones written by foreigners like The Pogues and AC/DC, that manage to capture the unique rhythm and character of the city.

By comparison, there seems to be a paucity of Arizona songs. If Arizona is mentioned at all in a pop song, it’s because it conveniently rhymes with a lot of other places. I’m looking at you Oklahoma, Tacoma, and Winona.

After becoming a state on February 14, 1912, Arizona adopted the official state song, “The Arizona March,” in 1919. Which was probably the last time anyone requested it. Not so much sung as bleated, it was written before the invention of microphones, when people had to yell it across valleys and plains for it to become popular.

Then there’s our alternate state song, conveniently named “Arizona,” by Rex Allen Jr. It was adopted in 1982 and name-checks “the rise of Dos Cabezas and the outlaws I see in my dreams.” Besides predicting the Keating Five, Allen Jr. came up with a song that extols the beauty of our state’s natural resources and rightly could take over as the official song if we decide to retire “The Arizona March” by its centennial in 2019.

In that event, we should have an alternate alternate state anthem in place. And that’s where this Arizona state song ranking comes in.

We’ve gathered up some of the highest charting songs, according to Billboard’s Top 100 Pop charts, as well as Country, R&B, and Rap charts, that mention Arizona. And with our unique grading system, any song that adds up to 48 or greater ought to be considered. Only one hit makes that cut. Who dare guess it?

Here’s the grading key for the songs in question:

• Has an Arizona city or the state in the title: 10 points
• Is actually about Arizona: 10 points
• Mentions an Arizona city or the state: 2 points per reference
• Mentions places that aren’t Arizona: -5 points per reference
• Went to No. 1 on the Pop or Country chart: 10 points
• Went Top 50 on the Pop or Country chart: 5 points
• Went to No. 1 on the R&B chart: 20 points (because of improbability)

“Never Been to Spain”
Three Dog Night
1971

This Hoyt Axton ditty reached the U.S. Top 5 (+5) and muses about places Hoyt’s never been to but has a flimsy working knowledge of. Its inclusion of Arizona twice (+4) is negated by the fact that he’s been to “Oklahoma, not Arizona” that same number of times (-5). Compounding the hurt you are feeling now as an Arizonan, there are also mentions of Spain, England, Las Vegas, and heaven (-20). The city of Needles, which is on the border of Arizona, falls in the jurisdiction of California, not Arizona. What does it matter (-5)? Final score: - 21

“Rock’n Me”
The Steve Miller Band
1976

This U.S. Bicentennial No. 1 (+10) mentions Phoenix, Arizona, twice (+4), but then mentions five other U.S. cities (-20). So it’s not really an Arizona song. “I just put it together and didn’t think much about it,” says Miller, proving he was thinking less about Arizona than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was thinking about The Steve Miller Band’s comfort and convenience. Final score: -6

“Get Back”
The Beatles
1969

This charttopper (+10) is the only Fab Four song to mention a U.S. city and state: Tucson, Arizona, (+4) the home of the fictional Jo Jo. But it gets 5 points deducted for the “California grass” reference (-5). Even though Beatle Paul implores Jo Jo to get back to where he once belonged, the rest of the song is consumed by indecisive transgender Sweet Loretta Martin, town of origin unknown. Final score: 9

“Ænema”
Tool
1999

Maynard James Keenan used this title track of Tool’s second album to gives props to comedian Bill Hicks’ “Arizona Bay,” which it name-checks twice (+4) while hoping that his new adopted home state become waterfront real estate after Armageddon (+10). Not so much a love letter to Arizona than a fervent wish to see L.A. ( -5) crumble into its own toilet water. Final score: 9

“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”
Glen Campbell
1967

Frank Sinatra called this “the greatest torch song ever written,” but it’s Phoenicians who will feel the burn, even with its titular nod to Phoenix (10+). Jim Webb wrote this time-lapse about his drive from Phoenix (+2) to Albuquerque (-5) to Oklahoma (-5) which went to No. 2 on the Country charts (+5). Isaac Hayes covered the song in 1969 and it made it to No. 37 on both the R&B and Pop charts (+5). If we were to give it partial credit (+10) for its appearance on the Hot Buttered Soul album, which topped the R&B album chart for 10 weeks, then we’d also have to take into account that his 18-minute version also includes nods to Tennessee and Soulsville (-10). Final score: 12

“King Tut”
Steve Martin
1978

This more or less follows the pattern of “Get Back,” a No. 1 song (+10) about a guy from Arizona that moved somewhere else. In this case, it’s Babylonia, where he has “a condo made of stone-uhhh.” In this case, he mentions Arizona four times (+8) but gets a -5 for dancing by the Nile permanently. Just to show how far we’ve fallen as a people in 40 years, this song, which was the byproduct of a Saturday Night Live skit, outraged a liberal arts college in Oregon when that skit was played in a humanities course. Final score: 13

“Take It Easy”
Eagles
1972

The Eagles’ first hit rose to No. 12 (+5). This classic’s one mention of Winslow, Arizona, (+2) was enough impetus for Winslow to erect a bronze statue of Glenn Frey after his death in 2016. Various Jackson Browne interviews contradict where the real-life incident took place that inspired him to write that verse with Frey. If realism equaled tourism, there would be a Jackson Browne statue located outside Der Wienerschnitzel in Flagstaff, being eyed by a woman in a Toyota pickup instead of a flatbed Ford. The whole song takes place in Arizona (+10) and has had several lives, including a 1993 Country Top 30 hit (+5) for Travis Tritt (which inadvertently reunited the Eagles for its music video). If we could give it extra points for being showcased in episodes of Knight Rider and BJ and the Bear, we would. Final score: 22

“Arizona”
Mark Lindsay
1969

Bearing the same title as our current alternate state song (+10), this Top 10 hit (+5) mentions Arizona 12 times (+24) with only a demerit for the protagonist trying to shepherd this runaway teenybopper child to San Francisco (-5) where he thinks she’s from. He could just ask where she’s from, but having already got an earful of her counterculture beliefs about brotherhood and Robin Hood, he names her Arizona and opts for deprogramming her with an Aesop’s fable. Yeah, I know. The ’60s. The girl seems less a metaphor for our state than some hippie chick that might be a fan of that free love the kids in “rainbow shades” and “hobo shoes” keep talking about. Final score: 34

“Carefree Highway”
Gordon Lightfoot
1974

This Maricopa County highway provides the title (+10), is mentioned a dozen times in the song (+24), and was a Top 10 hit (+5). And it’s actually about the Carefree Highway (+10). Sorta. It’s not really clear if the Canadian singer-songwriter is drawing analogies to a highway in need of infrastructure repair or an old flame who has let herself go. Final score: 49

Editor's note: This post has been modified from its original version to correct the score on "Never Been to Spain."

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