The Mother Road

A new compilation disc celebrates the mythology of Route 66

There used to be a place to go dance in this town ...
--"Used to Be," the Red Dirt Rangers

The throbbing hum of the nearby interstate, the occasional bark of a stray dog and the piercing whistle of the high desert wind are the only music playing tonight along the crumbling main streets of Glenrio, Texas, and Two Guns, Arizona.

It wasn't always like that.
Now nearly abandoned, the town hearts of Glenrio and Two Guns were once bustling tourist stopovers along U.S. 66, known in its midcentury heyday as "The Main Street of America."

From the mid-'20s through the early '60s, Route 66 was a pulsing artery of commerce and culture, both of which flowed freely over the road's 2,200-mile course from the foot of Chicago's stately Art Institute to the neon glow of the Santa Monica Pier at the other end of the road. Gas stations, diners, motor courts, tourist traps and dance halls sprang up all along the road soon after its inauguration in 1926, jump-starting the night life of old cowboy and railroad towns like northeastern Arizona's Winslow.

"Winslow just rocked when I was a little girl," recalls Diane Patterson, who now runs a Route 66 memorabilia and souvenir mail-order business called Roadworks from her old frame house on West Third Street--the road in Winslow that used to be 66. "They used to call this place Little Las Vegas because it never closed. You could always hear music drifting up the road at night. Everyone played here--Bob Wills, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash. It was wild!"

Route 66 lost its official federal-highway designation in 1984, when the final stretch of Interstate 40 bypassed Williams, Arizona--an event that, ironically, galvanized many of the old 66 towns for action.

During the past decade, a dogged corps of small-town residents, business owners and pop-culture fanatics has united in anattempt to polish the image of the famed highway to lure nostalgic tourists back to the desolate Route 66 business districts.

The latest attempt to enshrine Route 66 as a retro landmark--and, simultaneously, boost its hip quotient with the '90s lounge-nation crowd--comes with the recent release of the first-ever Route 66 tribute CD, The Songs of Route 66: Music From theAllAmerican Highway (Lazy SOB Recordings).

The CD was produced by Austin band Asleep at the Wheel's David Sanger, who somehow managed to avoid the venerable highway until his hard-traveling western-swing band's 1992 Route 66 tour, sponsored by Coors.

"With the band, I traveled on interstates all the time," says Sanger, who grew up in Claremont, California, at the point where old 66 turns into Foothill Boulevard on its way into Los Angeles. "This was a completely different way to travel. You were just on a road, but you felt so much better when you were on it. Trying to follow the old alignment--taking a left here, being careful not to miss a sign here--sometimes, I'd find myself pulling over and asking people sitting in their front yards, 'Where's Route 66?'"

Sanger got the idea for the compilation in 1992, when he first heard Alan Rhody's and Kevin Welch's "The Mother Road." "I was amazed to learn that this was only the second popular song ever recorded about Route 66," says Sanger. "So I decided to start my own label to put out a CD with songs about the old road."

Kicking off with a space-age send-up of Nelson Riddle's theme from the '60s Route 66 TV series, the compilation takes the listener on a tour of diverse images and vignettes from the near-mythic highway. Bobby Troup lays down a scatted lead vocal over a rippling jazz piano on a rare live cut of famed "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66," which also gets the after-hours L.A.-blues treatment from smooth, velvet-voiced Charles Brown.

Efforts to license Asleep at the Wheel's and Nat "King" Cole's swinging versions of "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66" from Capitol Records came up short. Luckily, Sanger had many more from which to choose. Route 66 Magazine publisher PaulTaylor estimates that more than 75different artists have waxed versions ofBobby Troup's highway ode. The list reads like a who's who of modern rock, schlock and soul: the Cramps, Anita Bryant, Louis Jordan, Rolling Stones, Sammy Davis Jr., Replacements, Chuck Wagon and the Wheels and--most recently--Depeche Mode.

Taylor, a retired ad/PR executive who started the 64-page bimonthly in 1993 from his retirement home in Laughlin, Nevada, says his personal favorite, a barbershop-quartet rendition by the Most Happy Fellows, didn't make Sanger's cut. It lost out to a laid-back blues version by Charles Brown for Alligator Records and a long-out-of-print live cut by Troup. "I found that one on an old album I picked up at a tiny store in downtown Kingman," recalls Sanger. "It's the only place I've ever run across it."

Oklahoma City's Red Dirt Rangers set a bittersweet tone with the swirling "Used to Be," whose themes of loss and wanderlust are revisited by alternative country singer/songwriters Kevin Welch ("The Willy Rogers Highway"), Alan Rhody ("The Mother Road"), Mary Cutrufello ("The Long Red Line") and Jimmy LaFave ("Route 66 Revisited").

The Songs of Route 66 was first shipped in November 1995, and it has already sold out of its small initial pressing of 1,000 CDs and 1,000 cassettes. Many of its sales have come through Route 66 souvenir shops in old roadhouses along the way from Chicago to L.A. that in the highway's busiest era more likely would have purveyed live music than tapes and key chains.

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