After his "farewell Chicago" show Thursday at Empty Bottle, Netherfriends mastermind Shawn Rosenblatt will forfeit his apartment and day job to embark on a one-year, cross-country tour. The goal: write and record at least one song in every U.S. state. If the idea sounds vaguely familiar, it's because he’s not the first artist to take on a project that encompasses all 50 states. Many have tried; most have failed. To help Netherfriends learn from these projects' failures, The A.V. Club inspected a handful, pinpointed where they went wrong, and asked Rosenblatt why his attempt will succeed where others have faltered.
Sufjan Stevens, “The 50 States Project” (2003-?)
The banjo-plucking singer-songwriter had declared his intent to record an album about every state, starting with 2003's Michigan, which consisted of musical portraits of his home state. The release of his critically worshipped Illinois in 2005 meant Stevens was on pace to finish his project by 2101, but after the record's success, focus abruptly shifted to non-state recordings.
Why he failed: While Stevens succeeded in terms of publicity, he knew from the start that his goal was more joke than manifesto. "I have no qualms about admitting it was a promotional gimmick," he told London’s Guardian last year. However, Stevens recently released The BQE, a New York-themed multimedia project that returned him to regional recording, so who knows if the project is completely dead.
What Rosenblatt could learn from it: Have artistic motives rather than promotional motives.
Rosenblatt says: "My project is not a joke—his kind of was. I don’t think that’s a great way of going about it, getting people excited about something and not really following through."
The Dambuilders, “50 Songs for 50 States Project” (1991-1996)
This Boston-via-Hawaii indie-pop group recorded songs about states in the early '90s with the goal of gradually serenading all the stars on the flag, but stopped after 15. Those efforts were compiled and released on 1996’s God Dambuilders Bless America.
Why they failed: They're quitters. Had they continued to churn out singles and EPs, they could have knocked out 50 by 2000.
What Rosenblatt could learn from it: Slow and steady is the best game plan.
Rosenblatt says: "I don’t really want to write about states—one friend was bugging me about making each song about the state bird. I don’t want to have to sit down and say, 'This song is going to be about Alabama,' but I do feel like each state is going to inspire me to write a certain way."
John Linnell, State Songs (1999)
Considering the intellectual quirkiness of They Might Be Giants, it was no surprise that TMBG’s Linnell went conceptual for this solo album. His 15 state songs (plus one song about state songs) only tangentially have anything to do with the titular states.
Why he failed: Too many states. By tackling more manageable sums, TMBG soon became kiddie-rock superstars with 2005’s Here Come The ABCs (nearly every letter gets a song) and 2008’s Here Come The 123s (odes to 0-10, 12, 813, and infinity).
What Rosenblatt could learn from it: Count the states before you start, know what you're up against, and plan accordingly.
Rosenblatt says: "To me, this isn’t a gimmicky thing. It’s a way to push myself to be prolific, not waste time on tour, sitting in the van or surfing the net. I really don’t know how else I can do what I want to. This is the only way."
Tommy Facenda, “High School U.S.A.” (1959)
Facenda endeared himself to teens nationwide by cramming the names of two dozen regional high schools into each of the 28 versions of this single, covering 25 states, plus Washington D.C, and doubling up on a couple of states with two major cities.
Why he failed: Not enough hip high schools in flyover states.
What Rosenblatt could learn from it: Play to the locals—never underestimate the power of pandering.
Rosenblatt says: "It’s up in the air how these recordings will get released, but there’s a possibility of doing separate 7-inch records or EPs for the different coasts or different areas."
Neil Hamburger, Fifty States, Fifty Laughs (2000)
Anti-comedian Hamburger recorded this dire album as a limited-edition CD, sighing his way through one sad joke about each state, and using history, regional stereotypes, and bile to denigrate state residents.
Why he failed: Although he did cover all states, most jokes sound like, "Why have there been more U.S. Presidents born in Ohio than any other state? Because the nearest abortionists were two states away.”
What Rosenblatt could learn from it: Don't insult your subject matter, and avoid abortion jokes.
Rosenblatt says: "I will not be releasing all 50 songs on one album. That’s just exhausting for the listener."
George Thorogood, 50/50 Tour (1981) / Kevin Montgomery, 50 States in 50 Days tour (2008-2010)
In 1981, boogie-rocker George Thorogood played in Hawaii, flew to Alaska the next day, then headed back to the mainland, where he spent seven weeks playing a show a day in every state. That feat wasn’t repeated until 2008, when veteran Nashville songwriter Kevin Montgomery began an annual tour that asked fans and Facebook/MySpace friends to set up house shows. After two years without missing a state, Montgomery is planning the third excursion this fall.
Why they failed: N/A.
What Rosenblatt could learn from it: Americans will always show hospitality to rock stars.
Rosenblatt says: "That’s incredible. And if Montgomery could do this in 50 days, there’s no way that I cannot do this in a year."