An Incomplete Guide to Omaha Musical References: Part One | The Nebraska Index

Note: This is the first in a two-part series exploring music of and relating to Nebraska and rating it based on its portrayal of the state. Read part two. And check out the Nebraska-focused version here.

by John Wenz

Shortly after saying "bon voyage!" to Los Angeles, the band Rilo Kiley were singing "We'll move to Omaha, and work to exploit the bustling music scene." Because, after all, Omaha was the place to be during that time from about 2002 to maybe 2005. Saddle Creek was, for all intents and purposes, the face of college radio. 

But, obviously, this wasn't the first time Nebraska — or Omaha — was on the pop culture radar, even in incremental ways. 

So I'm embarking on a quest. Instead of looking to insiders seeking to expose Nebraska to outsiders, I'm focusing on outsider's perceptions of Nebraska. And I'm starting with Omaha, which people out west seem to think thinks is its own state. Or something. 

What follows is an incomplete guide to Omaha references in popular music, explicitly from outsiders. Sorry, C.W. McCall, Desaparecidos and 311. Also, we don't know what city the 402 "ho" in "area codes" was, so sorry, Luda, you're SOL here, too. And technically, Rilo Kiley were discussing their transplant status in "The Execution of All Things," and therefore aren't up for consideration.

There are three criteria at play here:

The first is Degrees of Omaha. This is the song's level of engagement with Omaha. For instance, a song's setting might be Omaha, giving it a higher rating than, say, a song about having left Nebraska. It also relates the degree to which the song is about Omaha.

Going beyond this is Portrayal of Omaha. Is the way this song depicts Omaha either accurate or flattering? Does it cast Omahans in a positive or negative light?

The third criteria is Overall Song Quality. While we may be critically engaging the songs lyrically, we're doing a strictly textual analysis. But there is the level of importance in delivery. Is this song something we should be proud to take on? Essentially, is it worth our time?

With these guidelines, here's half of an incomprehensive list of songs about Omaha:

1951 – Groucho Marx "Omaha, Nebraska"

If Groucho Marx needs an introduction, you need to not be on the internet. No relation to Karl or Richard, Groucho and his brothers were the forefathers of slapstick comedy, playing off each other in almost real-life cartoons throughout films such as A Night at the Opera and Duck Soup.

Degrees of Omaha: 2/5 

Given that we're told the location of this particular Omaha, Neb., is in the foothills of Tennessee, and that the narrator is to meet his sweety at the corner of DeLancey Street and Ave. B, which is seemingly non-existent (at least a lazy Google Maps search suggests as much) it's safe to see this is about an Omaha, Neb., but not the Omaha, Neb. 

Portrayal of Omaha: 5/5

Whatever Omaha this song is about, it's made out to be a bright-lights, big-city paradise of wonder,  love, free samples of the best thing in life and abundant wildlife. That is comparatively more awesome than, say, the Taco Bell on Dodge. So whatever Omaha this is, it sounds awesome, as long as these great outdoors aren't in the haunts of Hummel Park.

Overall Song Quality: 4/5

For what this is — goofy, absurdist comedy — the song works really well. But Groucho is a master of the absurd, and it's no surprise that this song works at the level it does.

Omaha Index: 11/15

1958 – Big Joe Williams "Omaha Blues" off Piney Woods Blues

Big Joe Williams was a Mississippi delta bluesman who was notable for the use of a nine-string guitar. This should be mind blowing to your cousins who still listen to Limp Bizkit and think the seven string is the apex of sonic wizardry. He had a career that started in the '20s and continued through his death in 1982. But like many a blues musician, he remained more or less underground throughout. 

Degrees of Omaha4/5

It's unfair to call it either about Omaha or not about Omaha. It's more about a lover he intends to visit in Omaha, specifically at 24th and Lake. I mean, that's where he's going when he gets to Omaha. So while it certainly relates to Omaha, it's not setting us firmly in Omaha. So it gets more points than Groucho for being about Omaha, but less than, say, some other song that is bound to be about Omaha.

Portrayal of Omaha: 4/5

I'm not standing between someone and their chances of getting love, man. This is America, after all.

Overall Song Quality: 3/5

I'm no blues aficionado but this seems like a fairly standard song, though the guitar work is fairly interesting. I'm not going to be humming it too much but I'll probably give it a few more curious listens.

Omaha Index: 11/15

1965 – Bob Dylan "I Shall Be Free No. 10" off Another Side of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan was and occasionally is one of the most important songwriters of our times, whose career spans nearly 50 years and has touched almost every corner of popular music.

And on this particular song, he was apparently high out of his goddamn gourd.

Degrees of Omaha: 3/5

In a song full of goofy non-sequitars, we're given the simple line, "And I'm gonna ride into Omaha on a horse, out to the country club and the golf course, carry The New York Times, shoot a few holes, blow their minds." Which is only sort of passing, but also puts you pretty visually in the Millard area, where a young Dylan is blowing some golf-dad minds. On a horse. 

Portrayal of Omaha: 3/5

Given that the three lines about Omaha did manage to set us there, I'm willing to give the song a few points. But it's view is unuanced, as if Omaha's business class is all the city has to offer to the world, and Omaha's special sprawl was nothing but golf courses, which I'm sure the strip malls would come to resent.

Overall Song Quality: 3.5/5

Considering the overall quality of the album (which includes the amazing "To Ramona" and "It Ain't Me" among other classics), this song comes off more as goofy filler than unbridled genius. As a departure from his more confrontational material, it's fine and pretty fun, but doesn't have the emotional resonance that the other songs on the album have. But none of them talk about Omaha.

Omaha Index: 9.5/15

1965 – Roger Miller "Kansas City Star" off The 3rd Time Around

Roger Miller was a goofball '60s country singer you more than likely know more popularly for "King of the Road" or "Dang Me" and maybe for making goofy non-sensical noises in every other song. He also apparently once performed in the White House for Nebraska's only president, Gerald Ford (he was born there). 

Degrees of Omaha: 3.5/5

The bright lights of Omaha are too much for our dear narrator — no, he'd rather stay in Kansas City and be some Kansas City version of Bozo the Clown or Soupy Sales or whatever. But despite the presence of Omaha in the midst of some weird glossalalia that may be the signs of some degenerative brain disorder, it's less about Omaha, and more about rejecting Omaha. 

Portrayal of Omaha: 2/5

Man do we ever sound stiff. What a clown, this Roger Miller guy, huh? The song is (I guess) obstentially about not selling out and going and working for Jack Hanna or whatever. But he seems pretty down on Omaha. We don't need his word salad shooting mouth 'round these parts, anyway.

Overall Song Quality: 3.5/5

Roger Miller was always a bit of a one-trick pony and this isn't his worst trick. He also seems to have had somebody brush his mane before the show and feed him a carrot. So sure, why the hell not call it an alright song?

Omaha Index: 9/11

1967 – Moby Grape "Omaha" off Moby Grape

Moby Grape were big wigs of the '60s San Francisco psychedelic scene, sort of brushed under the rug of Clear Channel's revisionist psychedelic history, which aims for the fairly safe, fairly innocuous dad rock ends of dudes doing a lot of acid and putting bullshit to tape. 

Degrees of Omaha: 1/5

The song is called "Omaha." That's about it. 

Portrayal of Omaha: 2.5/5

There's no real sense of place or time within the song, and no overt context clues about whether Omaha is a good or bad thing. The song is completely valueless in these regards. So I guess the most accurate answer is, "Why not?"

Overall Song Quality: 5/5

These critical darlings have a deserved place in history, even if it's only record geek history. It's a culmination of a lot of the era and one of the finest relics of those bygone times.

Omaha Index: 8.5/15

1971 – John Prine "Hello in There" off John Prine

John Prine is an indomitable force in Americana who started his career in the early '70s and never really looked back. He's always been the songwriter's songwriter, who generated more accolades and clout than he ever has record sales. 

Degrees of Omaha: 2/5

It mentions Omaha! That's for sure. That gives us a distinct advantage over the last song, which didn't really mention much of anything. But it's not about Omaha being a here-and-now place so much as where the narrator's grown children have gone off to, a far-flung distant location. It's all part of the aging he feels in relation to his life, as the walls of communication break down in his marriage and he's left with a couple old pals wherever he is, which I'm assuming for argument's sake is Minot, N.D. 

Portrayal of Omaha: 2.5/5

I'm placing this once again in value neutral territory in regards to Omaha. He misses his kids. They're far away. They're all the way in Omaha! And so he's like, drinking whiskey in his tool shed or whatever.

Overall Song Quality: 5/5

A masterfully narrated classic that's just a bit of a tear jerker in the same vein as About Schmidt — a man confronting the loneliness of mortality and the failure of purpose. 

Omaha Index: 9.5/11

1972 – Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band "Turn the Page" off Back in '72

Bob Seger is Bob Seger and if you're reading this or own a radio or have older influence in your life or have seen a commercial for Ford pickups you probably at least have a vague idea who Bob Seger is. He's one in a fine line of heartfelt, Midwest songwriters with an eye toward the arena. 

Degrees of Omaha: 3/5

Lyrically, we're initially placed east of Omaha, which is Iowa. So whatever. However, this serving as the focal point in setting our place, we're led to believe this is a common benchmark in the progress of our traveller. Thus, Omaha is a necessary (if interchangable) focal point in the song, and a perfect way to illustrate the road weariness of our traveller.

Portrayal of Omaha: 2/5

Torn. I bet if Seger were playing Omaha and you were paying too much at the Qwest Center for a Bud Light and he started playing this song, he would emphasize the Omaha because man, he's in Omaha, here, with you! But a textual analysis of the song (a fancy English major term for "I looked up the lyrics.") shows that he might be using Omaha as another blip on the map. That focal point could be meant to illustrated being the middle of nowhere. And we're Omaha, dammit. So anyone reading between the lines might begin to explore deeper the existential dread that Bob Seger is giving to Omaha, and wonder if it's really such a great place to be, out on the road again, if that highway is long and lonesome and there's nothing behind and nothing ahead but this ongoing road.

Jesus man, just finish your beer.

Overall Song Quality: 4/5

If you're drunk in a townie bar anywhere in Western Nebraska and you admit to not liking this song, you might as well show them that you're also a card carrying member of the Gay Al-Qaeda Members for B. Hussein Obama. This is about where music topped out, if you ask some of them. And less flippantly, this is a perfectly acceptable, utilitarian classic rock song. 

Omaha Index: 9/15

1973 – Waylon Jennings "Omaha" off Honkytonk Heroes

Waylon Jennings began his career as one of The Crickets playing under Buddy Holly. Had he not given up a plane seat on a fateful February night in 1959, the world might never have known his outlaw country streak that came later. He's the Waylon of Waylon & Willie, a whiskey-soaked everyman always a few dollars behind and a few steps ahead of a warrant. 

Degrees of Omaha: 5/5

He never knew it at the time, but he'd miss Omaha. Here he is, thinking that Omaha was a thing of the past, but he's finding that at the end of the day it's a place he calls home. Sure, it wasn't "good enough for him" at some point, but here he is, tired and ready to return a prodigal son. Omaha is the destination, but it's also firmly the place. He's been on those streets and he's ready to return.

Yes, that does describe like, every country song ever. But since this is an outlaw country song, he's also done time. 

Portrayal of Omaha: 5/5

Here again, we see somebody that only thought they were chasing some dreams out west, like every young hooligan in the 1960s. But in the end, were they chasing dreams, or running from their problems? Given the trouble awaiting our narrator in San Francisco, it sounds like their problems caught up with them and they realize that where they need to be to close a chapter in their life is the throes of the town they came from again.

Overall Song Quality: 5/5

Seventies-period Waylon was an unstoppable force plowing the outlaw country movement through the stale, hokey, cowboy lore and into a rougher-hewed brand of country that laid the groundwork less for the modern pop-country of today than alternative country, cow-punk and other brands of shit-kicker music. This song is the reflective and sensitive side to that movement.

Omaha Index: 15/15

1973 – Grand Funk Railroad "We're an American Band" off We're an American Band

Grand Funk Railroad were one of the '70s biggest hard rock groups, known for the "wild, shirtless" lyrics of Mark Farner, the "bong rattling bass" of Mel Schacher and the "competent drumming" of Don Brewer, according to respected music critic Homer J. Simpson. The string of hits included this song and another, a cover of "The Loco-motion," both charting at number one, as well as other big hits like "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "Closer to Home."

Degrees of Omaha: 3/5

Grand Funk party with some groupies (four young chiquitas, in fact) in a hotel room in Omaha, ensuring the band's place in the pantheon of feminist history firmly in the "shithead" camp. Also, only a few lines of the song take place in Omaha, but Omaha seems a part to the overall spirit of the song.

Portrayal of Omaha: 3/5

Omaha is not spoken of in a way one would describe as disparaging. These boys just want to party! But many groupies at the time were below the age of consent, which conveys negative sexual stereotypes both to the band themselves — who sang this song without a hint of irony — and the groupies, to whom the band conveys sexual liberation as still being under the subservience to men. Therefore, while, from the band's perspective, Omaha is a great time, the behavior exhibited has a negative affect on the culture at large by perpetuating stereotypes of rock star behavior.

Overall Song Quality: 2/5

I used to be the kind of person who read a lot of music criticism (I still have a couple books of it on my shelf) and one of the passages that always stuck out to me was Robert Christgau's assessment of the Eagles, which is very Lebowskian in nature. Namely, he said, "Another thing that interests me about The Eagles is that I hate them."

A completely disinteresting fact about Grand Funk Railroad is that, aside from "Closer to Home," I find them to be mostly a generic, pedestrian mess of arena chest thumping and hard partying that elicits a big yawn. These dinosaurs are why the punks attempted so hard to overhaul the dominant rock culture, often in vain. Terrible band, terrible music.

Omaha Index: 8/15

1977 – Everly Brothers "Omaha" off The New Album

The Everly Brothers were pre-political pop-folk, rising to prominence in the early ages of rock 'n' roll with songs like "Bye, Bye Love" and "Wake Up, Little Susie," which, if nothing else, shows a clear influence on later acts such as Simon & Garfunkel. They emphasized a squeaky clean image and vocal harmonizing. This song, originally recorded in 1968, was released in 1977 in what, in typical music industry fashion, can be described as a "contractual obligation collection of rarities." There's nothing more rock than that. 

Degrees of Omaha: 5/5

Much like Waylon Jenning's song of the same name, this song is reflective on Omaha as the ultimate place, eschewing faded memories of other places they've been. Unlike Waylon Jennings, the Everly Brothers would never portray themselves as having been in prison, especially after that time they and their date fell asleep at the drive-in and almost sullied their reputation as all-American boys. Omaha is central to the song.

Portrayal of Omaha: 5/5

"The rest of the world doesn't matter, when you find what you're after," says the song, summing up its views on Omaha. If the Everlys were about the image, the place where such an image can find its home is in the place of "Bells and candles — clocks that chime." Because in 1968, we were in danger of losing our true national heritage — grandfather clocks. 

Overall Song Quality: 2/5 

This song is saccharine dreck, the kind of innocuous fluff out of place in the era it was released, and neither lyrically brilliant or musically innovative. There's a reason it stayed in the Everly Brothers vaults while other songs prospered. It's boring, and sometimes, boring is a crime.

Omaha Index: 12/15

1978 – Tom Waits "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" off Blue Valentine

Tom Waits went from bar room crooner to avant-garde Tin Pan Revivalist … and he's never really stopped. He's continued to add layers onto his deep and storied career, garnering acclaim with the release of each new bit of material, and showing no signs of slowing down or stopping. 

Degrees of Omaha: 2/5

At some point, the song's narrator, a prostitute writing her former customer (or maybe lover) reflects that she was with her parents in Omaha for a spell. The stay isn't long, though, as everyone she used to know is dead or in prison.

Portrayal of Omaha: 1/5

Everyone she used to know in Omaha is dead, in prison, or her parents. Omaha is one big prison of the undead and the only refuge is Minneapolis. 

Overall Song Quality: 5/5

Tom Waits' '70s work hung out on the same skid rows as most Bukowski novels, and this is a classic of the pre-weirdness Waits.

Omaha Index: 8/15

But wait, that's not all! Next Friday, we'll delve into the later half of things, where one Canadian teenager will rule them all with a totalitarian fist. 

John Wenz is a Hear Nebraska contributor originally from North Platte, now stationed in Philadelphia. He's not wearing any pants. He can be contacted at