What constitutes Real American Music? Last week, I spent hours mulling over this topic. Knowing I would be visiting with family throughout rural Virginia and North Carolina, I had planned on simply trawling XM Radio's seven dedicated country stations for the duration. But compact cars rented via Hotwire don't come with satellite radio. So I sought sounds for my adventures in Real America (i.e., every place that isn't our Urban Archipelago) elsewhere.

When I hit the gym with my cousins one morning, CMT was blazing on the television. My initial excitement over the new Julie Roberts video, which I mistakenly thought was a racing send-up called "Men and NASCAR," evaporated when I realized it was just a poor-little-me weeper titled "Men and Mascara." (The punch line? They both "always run.") However, the rowdy "Get Drunk and Be Somebody," from Toby Keith's White Trash with Money, gave me ample incentive to power through my workout—so I could flee.

Like many Americans, I clocked in more time behind the wheel than on the StairMaster during my travels, including several three- to five-hour hauls. Here, the handful of hastily picked promo CDs that I'd packed to review while away from Seattle quickly proved useless. Extended solo drives require music to sing along to. Loudly. So I picked up a $2 copy of a dubious Czech export labeled Tina Sings Country. It seemed incongruous to hear the Acid Queen, recording circa 1979, tearing up "Stand By Your Man" after finally breaking free of Ike, but I played that damn thing over and over as the miles ticked past on Route 81.

I thought about purchasing the new Bruce Springsteen for the road, too. Contentious politics or no, the Boss is still popular out where my kinfolk reside. But after a few minutes at a listening station, I just couldn't get into We Shall Overcome, his set of Pete Seeger songs. I have no quarrel with either icon, but Seeger's artistry was already feted by contemporary artists in more inventive fashion on the 1988 anthology Folkways: A Vision Shared, and "Froggie Went a Courtin'" and "O Mary Don't You Weep" just didn't seem like highway-friendly fare.

Instead, I opted for The Boxing Mirror, the latest by storied Texas rocker Alejandro Escovedo. Even with the hopelessly arty John Cale holding down production duties, this 11-song disc delivered more of the brooding, earthy vibe I deemed an appropriate soundtrack for stretches of my journey. From the uneasy crawl of the opener, "Arizona," right through to the faded majesty of the title cut, here was another CD that I could simply let repeat ad infinitum without losing interest; Escovedo's plaintive, bluesy voice is impossible to zone out.

I intended on spending my Southeastern sojourn soaking up mainstream country radio, and ended up fixating on albums by a black woman and the son of a Mexican immigrant instead. I still can't distinguish Big & Rich from Rascal Flatts, but I reckon I found Real American Music, regardless.