The Mother Road
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.
The gift shop in Flagstaff's 66-year-old Museum Club is known around town as the Zoo, both because of its origins as a mysterious taxidermy museum and the rough-and-rowdy honky-tonk crowds that used to flock there during the club's '50s and '60s glory days.
"Flagstaff was only five hours away from Las Vegas, where the biggest gig in country music back then was a run at the Golden Nugget club," says Martin Zanzucchi, who bought the Museum Club in 1978 and painstakingly restored the rambling roadhouse to its original eclectic condition--stuffed bobcats, bears, owls, peacocks and all. "Acts like Buck Owens, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys would stop at the Zoo to pick up enough cash to get them the rest of the way to Vegas."
The bottle-throwing, longhair-hating honky-tonk fans who gave the place its tough reputation in the '60s have given way to a more sanitized, crisply attired Western crowd, which glides effortlessly around the bandstand and rock-studded old fireplace to the music of local bands and the occasional national act.
Tucson's cult country-rock legends the Dusty Chaps were frequent performers at the Museum Club back in the genre-bending mid-'70s, along with the like-minded Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen ("Hot Rod Lincoln").
Original Dusty Chaps singer Peter Gierlich and guitarist George Hawke reprise that wider-open musical era for the Route 66 collection with a new studio recording of "Don't Haul Bricks on 66," a freewheeling tale about the dangers of smuggling pot across the northern Arizona desert.
"The title was based on some graffiti that someone we knew had seen on a jail cell inAlbuquerque," recalls Hawke, who now plays in the Tucson band Los Lasers. "The rest of the song was a mixed bag of references to characters we met playing clubs along the road--a strange bunch of 18year-old millionaires flashing $100 bills and goofy nicknames like Pineapple and Toad."
Rambling musician, poet and sketchbook artist Jason Eklund paints a more sobering, weather-beaten portrait of the death of old U.S. 66 and the nostalgia-fueled drive to cash in on the road's reemerging popularity in his acerbic, hard-rocking rant "What's Left of 66," originally released on his 1995 debut, Lost Causeway (Flying Fish). This manic jug-band stomper levels a searing blast at the blighted miles of "corporate crapola" which have emerged in the wake of the progress-preaching interstate movement.
"You're not going to make any really newdiscoveries traveling Route 66--it's allbeen so conveniently packaged and catalogued for you," says Eklund, a road-tested wanderer who has spent the past seven years "hobo-cruising."
"They tore down all the really cool stuff," says Eklund, "like the Coral Court Motel [a classic glass-block, 1941 art-deco St. Louis motor court that was demolished in 1995] and turned everything else into some ridiculous commodity."
A conversation with Winslow's Diane Patterson and her sister Janice Griffith, however, offers hope that at least a few unheralded wonders are still waiting to be unveiled along Route 66.
Immortalized in the Eagles song "Take It Easy," Winslow was a bustling Santa Fe Railroad town and tourist destination long before Glenn Frey stood on any corners there.
"That song really put us back on the map," says Patterson of the Eagles' hit. "When I first heard it in a concert back in my hippie days in Colorado, we all just stood up and flicked our Bics and yelled like crazy."
She and Griffith have been instrumental in the design of the soon-to-be-constructed "Standin' on the Corner" Park (at the intersection of Kinsley Avenue and Second Street), made possible by a $2,500 grant to the city from Eagles singer Don Henley in response to a letter and set of "Standin' on a Corner in Winslow, Arizona" tee shirts Patterson and Griffith had delivered to the band during the Eagles' 1995 concert at America West Arena.
Griffith has also waged a seven-year crusade to further the restoration of Winslow's La Posada, a stately Spanish-style resort hotel built in 1927 by famed architect Mary Colter. A Southern California investor has shown interest in restoring the elegant, old hotel.
"I heard a rumor that they're even thinking about bringing back the old bandstand in front of the hotel," says Patterson, sighing. "Wouldn't it be great if we could have music again?"
The Songs of Route 66: Music From the AllAmerican Highway: Lazy SOB Recordings, P.O. Box 49884, Austin, TX 78764-9884; 512-480-0765; lazySOB1@aol.com
Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona, P.O. Box 66, Kingman,
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