Iowa is known for a lot of things. It’s one of the biggest corn producers and the number-one pork producer in the country. The Hawkeye State has also produced some well-known musicians and bands, like Corey Taylor, Charlie Haden, and Greg Brown. While much of the music about the state paints it as an agrarian and depressing place, it isn’t always an accurate depiction. In this article, we’ll take a look at the 15 best songs about the state of Iowa.
1. Stranded – Manfred Mann’s Earth Band
Stranded may or may not have been based on an experience by Mike Heron or Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. But regardless of whether or not it’s autobiographical, the song is full of emotion. It explores the themes of feeling trapped and alone, awaiting rescue. Iowa is largely a rural state, with plenty of open spaces between major cities. It’s used as a metaphor in the track for the narrator’s own struggles with anxiety and restlessness.
The song also internalizes each person’s desire for freedom and connection with others. Aside from the obvious Iowa references, the track also contains the Mayday distress signal to up the urgency of the situation. Despite the state being used metaphorically in the song rather than literally, it stands tall as one of the best tracks to include The Hawkeye State within its lyrics.
2. It Sure Can Get Cold In Des Moines – Tom T. Hall
Iowa might not be the most northern state, but its geography lends itself to some incredibly harsh winters. No one captures the essence of what Iowans go through each year than Tom T. Hall in the song It Sure Can Get Cold In Des Moines. The capital city is well-known for these freezing temperatures, and his storytelling abilities paint a very vivid picture of what life is like for the people who live there.
The track serves as an ode to the resilience of the city’s citizens and a bit of a descriptive song for the traits of people across the state. Even today, this remains a golden country classic in and out of Iowa.
3. Iowa Stubborn – From The Music Man
Iowa Stubborn was written by Meredith Wilson for the 1957 musical The Music Man. A soft-shoe rhythm, it’s written as a partnered country dance that originated in Bohemia and was popular during the Victorian era as a ballroom dance number. As a whole, the song serves to help persuade a visitor in the musical to give the state a chance.
Enigmatic of Iowa, the track serves as a laundry list of traits for the people living there and is full of other references to it. Eight cities are named in the song, including Dubuque, Des Moines, Davenport, Marshalltown, Mason City, Keokuk, Ames, and Clear Lake. It further describes the people of the state as having a chip on their shoulder and being so stubborn they could stand touching noses for a week at a time.
4. The Iowa Waltz – Greg Brown
The Iowa Waltz was the title track of Greg Brown’s 1984 album and the first release to come from Red House Records. The album itself serves as a love letter to his home state, meant to contain simple yet beautiful songs that force you to visualize old dirt roads and warm summer afternoons. It was also, perhaps, the album that turned him into one of the greatest folk singers of his time.
The track itself is a slow, relaxing tune that describes all the natural beauty of the state. From smooth rolling hills to corn fields and small towns to a simple lifestyle. The gentle tunes in the song are incredibly calming and will make you want to take a trip to Iowa for yourself one day.
5. Iowa Corn Song – Percy Faith
If there’s one thing that people who know nothing about Iowa know about it, it’s that they grow a lot of corn there. Corn fields dominate the landscape of much of the state, thanks in large part to its climate and the ideal agricultural traits of the soil there. For many, rows and rows of cornfields create an idyllic country landscape, something ripe to be captured in song.
Percy Faith went ahead and composed a track for Iowa, capturing both the importance and essence of its cornfields. Iowa Corn Song is an instrumental that would be the perfect track to play during a soothing drive along its rural roads. It was first released in 1951, eventually becoming a classic staple of the state and the Iowa State Fair.
6. The Iowa Song – Josh Connor
The Iowa Song was written by Major S. H. M. Byers. He had fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union but was captured by the Confederacy in 1863 and was inspired to write the track while held in prison and hearing Maryland, My Maryland being played outside of his jail cell.
The first performance of the song came at the Foster Opera House in Des Moines, Iowa. Subsequently, he created a contest to increase state pride, where teachers competed to teach the most students the track by heart. By 1902, 500,000 copies of it had been sold, and by 1911, it was designated the official state song of Iowa. Even today, it’s often performed after the United States National Anthem at the state’s sporting events.
7. Coming Up Close – ‘Til Tuesday
Coming Up Close was released in 1986 as the second single to come from ‘Til Tuesday’s Welcome Home album. It was one of the earliest songs written by Aimee Mann that used an acoustic guitar rather than a bass and came while the band was on tour as the opening act for Hall & Oates.
For them, it became a commercial success, rising as high as number 59 on the US Billboard Hot 100. A nostalgic rock track set in Iowa, it set the stage for much of their later releases but was also enigmatic of the cultural landscape of the state as a whole.
8. The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines – Joni Mitchell
The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines came from Joni Mitchell’s final album with Asylum Records in 1979 titled Mingus. The gist of the lyrics in the song tells the story of a woman who falls in love with a dry cleaner in Des Moines, Iowa, but he ends up not being the man she believed him to be in the end.
Fancy wordplay and fun rhymes dot the lines of the song, with all of it laid over a jazz-fusion arrangement that adds to the overall fun of the track. It also includes a wonderful saxophone solo from Wayne Shorter, a section that helped turn the song into a fan favorite for Mitchell over the years.
9. Iowa – Dar Williams
Many of the best songs about Iowa come from folk singers, and this is no exception. Dar Williams brilliantly uses the state and the general stoicism of Midwestern America to discuss how big emotions can be tough for people. Many people choose to bury them instead of facing them head-on, keeping them from healing or effectively dealing with problems when they do come up.
Iowa itself talks about a person struggling because they have a hard time expressing their feelings of love for another person. It’s another meaningful folk track about the state and an excellent entry into any list of the best songs about Iowa.
10. Update From Iowa – Smitty Spread Love
A lot of the songs we’ve discussed so far are fairly old, at least through the lens of modern music. This one is the exact opposite. Update From Iowa was released by Smitty Spread Love in 2020 and is one of the few rap tracks to actually discuss The Hawkeye State. It’s really a song that just about anyone can relate to, as it was released and discusses the situation at the height of the pandemic.
It opens by talking about not being able to drive for Uber because of the lockdowns. Job loss was a major issue across the country during this time, and Iowa was no exception. It also deals with other heavy topics of the day, including police brutality and the struggle of everyday Americans.
11. Iowa – Slipknot
Iowa was the title track and final song of Slipknot’s second studio album in 2001. The band themselves are from Iowa and the members have stated on several occasions that their home is one of their greatest sources of inspiration. The state is so important to them, that they tend to always record there to avoid losing the inspiration that drives them.
The track in question is another one of their heaviest entries and the longest song they have recorded. It doesn’t actually talk about Iowa in the track but that doesn’t really matter in our opinion. It’s the best metal song about the state you’re going to find.
12. Turn The Page – Bob Seger
Turn The Page is a staple of classic rock and Bob Seger’s greatest tribute to being on the road. It was written while he was driving through Iowa in the winter. According to him, he and his entourage earned quite a few looks when they entered a restaurant or gas station in Dubuque.
The song first appeared on his Back In ‘72 album but wouldn’t be released as a single until 1976 as part of his Live Bullet album. While it wasn’t some massive commercial success, it became one of the foundational rock tracks of the decade. Others have covered it, from Waylon Jennings to Metallica, giving the song a new lease on life and representing it in a different style on several occasions.
13. All I Owe Ioway – From State Fair
State Fair is a musical set in Iowa that follows a family on their own trip to the Iowa State Fair. One of the most beloved tracks of the production is All I Owe Ioway. The tune discussed the characters and the state as a whole. Each person has their own ideas about what they hope is waiting for them at the fair.
It also spends time talking about the natural beauty of Iowa. Truly the best part of the song is the way it captures what the state looked like during the early days and even pronounces the state’s name as “Ioway,” just like it was in Iowa Stubborn.
14. I’ve Been Everywhere – Johnny Cash
I’ve Been Everywhere is a little bit of a cheat on any state song list, as it lists way more places than any one track has a right to. It was originally written by Geoff Mack in 1959 and contains a list of places the singer had visited during their lifetime. Several covers of the song have been produced, including versions from Hank Snow and the legendary Johnny Cash. Davenport is the city that gives us an Iowa reference in this one.
15. Dubuque Blues – The Association
The Association was known for some pretty big hits during the 1960s, but their lesser-known songs of the 70s were still regionally popular. Dubuque Blues was one of those tracks that found a home in Iowa but didn’t quite make it onto the mainstage of the country. Released in 1969, it came during the tail-end of their careers but was another great song about Iowa.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.