• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Born in the USA

Karl du Fresne tours the towns and iconic places that feature in American song titles.

Route 66. Photo/Thinkstock

The Texan woman sitting next to me on the flight from Phoenix to Houston was aghast. “You’re going to the armpit of America!” she shrieked, when I explained where my wife and I planned to travel over the following weeks. It wasn’t the first time we had encountered such a reaction. Our son, a US resident for many years, looked at our itinerary and commented drily: “Well, at least you won’t be too bothered by tourists.”

Okay, so El Paso, Wichita, Abilene, Tulsa, Amarillo and Muskogee are not places that crop up on most people’s bucket lists, but I had a very specific reason for wanting to see them. They are all named in the titles of popular songs, and for years I’d idly fantasised about writing a book that would delve into the background of those songs and reveal something about the towns and cities that inspired them.

Now here we were, flying to Houston (Dean Martin, 1965), from where we would drive to Galveston (Glen Campbell, 1969) and onto San Antonio (Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, 1938). After that it was to be El Paso (Marty Robbins, 1959), Amarillo (Tony Christie, 1971) and Abilene (George Hamilton IV, 1963). There were other destinations further along the road, but you get the general idea.

No one with an interest in American popular music can fail to notice that it conveys a strong sense of place. Ever since Stephen Foster composed My Old Kentucky Home in the 1850s, and probably well before then, American songwriters have used the names of states, towns and even rivers and mountains to evoke a mood.

It cuts across almost every musical genre, from black minstrelsy (Carry Me Back to Old Virginny) through jazz (Chattanooga Choo Choo), soul (Midnight Train to Georgia), blues (Sweet Home Chicago), folk (San Francisco Bay Blues), rock’n’roll (Memphis, Tennessee), pop (Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa) and, perhaps most of all, country (of which arguably the most famous example is Okie from Muskogee, though there are countless others).

Some songs pack in as many geographical references as they can comfortably accommodate, as in Route 66 (which names 12 cities), Sweet Little Sixteen (five) and Dancing in the Street (seven). There have been novelty songs, too. Perry Como’s 1960 hit Delaware played tricks with the names of 10 states. (“What did Della wear, boy, what did Della wear? She wore a brand new jersey …”) Hank Snow’s No 1 country hit I’ve Been Everywhere mentioned dozens of places, but doesn’t really count because it was originally an Australian song, which was adapted for the US market.

Many American songs convey a strong sense of nostalgic yearning, as in Old Cape Cod, Miss the Mississippi and You and, most famously, Hoagy Carmichael’s Georgia on My Mind. Then there are the innumerable songs that don’t name places in the title but refer to them in the lyrics: “Busted flat in Baton Rouge” (Me and Bobby McGee, Kris Kristofferson); “Almost heaven, West Virginia” (Take Me Home, Country Roads, John Denver); and “I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonopah” (Willin’, a truck-driving song by Little Feat).

I resolved to focus specifically on towns and cities that are named in titles just to keep things manageable. In doing so, I hoped to satisfy a long-standing curiosity about the American heartland: the America that lies beyond obvious tourist destinations such as New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and Las Vegas.

Las Vegas by night/Photo Thinkstock

Altogether, we undertook three road trips that took us to 28 towns and cities as diverse as Mendocino, in northern California (the Sir Douglas Quintet, 1969), Saginaw, Michigan (Lefty Frizzell, 1964), Bowling Green, Tennessee (the Everly Brothers, 1967) and Luckenbach, Texas (Waylon Jennings, 1977).

Our destinations were concentrated in the South, the Southwest and California. Many songs have been written mentioning places such as New York, Boston and Baltimore, but it’s in states such as Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Texas that the American musical pulse beats most strongly. It’s there that you find the origins of the most distinctly American musical forms – jazz, country, soul, blues and rock’n’roll. It’s there, too, that you find the promiscuous cross-fertilisation between musical genres that produced such distinctive styles as texmex, zydeco and western swing.

As for California, it has been the home of American pop music since its epicentre shifted from New York to Los Angeles in the early 1960s. LA is where Phil Spector and Brian Wilson revolutionised the sound of pop and where the fabled studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew – who included such luminaries as Glen Campbell and Leon Russell – worked around the clock providing the backing for hit songs by performers as diverse as the Monkees, the Beach Boys, the Fifth Dimension and the Carpenters.

Our travels took us to some well-known places – San Jose (Do You Know the Way to San Jose?, Dionne Warwick, 1968), Memphis (Johnny Rivers, 1964), Kansas City (Wilbert Harrison, 1959), New Orleans (Walking to New Orleans, Fats Domino, 1960) and Las Vegas (Viva Las Vegas, Elvis Presley, 1964) – but also to towns far off the normal tourist routes: the “armpit” towns that so shocked our fellow passenger on the flight to Houston.

In Lodi, the centre of an agricultural area in California’s San Joaquin Valley, we found a city still trying to live down the stigma of a 1969 song by Creedence Clearwater Revival, in which each verse ended with the words: “Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again”. It’s the line everyone remembers even when they’ve forgotten everything else about the song, which was issued as the B-side of Bad Moon Rising but became a minor hit in its own right.

We found Luckenbach, Texas (population: two) after our GPS guided us over dusty back roads, dry creek beds and cattle stops. A ramshackle collection of buildings in the middle of nowhere, Luckenbach has attained the status of a country music shrine on the strength of the song that took its name (aided, I suspect, by some shrewd promotion). There’s a dance hall, a bar, a souvenir shop and some chooks scrabbling in the dust, but not much else.

Trumpet players/Photo Thinkstock

In Saginaw, Michigan, birthplace of Stevie Wonder and Serena Williams, we discovered that the writers of the song made famous by country star Lefty Frizzell took geographical liberties. In the song, the town is on Saginaw Bay, on Lake Huron, but in reality it’s 25km away. Saginaw is a sad place, one that was in advanced decline even before the global financial crisis struck. Its crime rate at the time we visited was one of the highest in the US.

In a scruffy, semi-industrial neighbourhood on the outskirts of El Paso, we drank Dos Equis beer at Rosa’s Cantina. Rosa’s has been there since the 1950s; Marty Robbins spotted the sign from his tour bus (the main highway passed Rosa’s front door in those days, before being replaced by a freeway) and decided the name was just right for his song about a cowboy’s fatal infatuation with a dark-eyed Mexican girl named Felina. (And yes, there are hills nearby from which the cowboy would have been able to look down at Rosa’s, just as the song says.)

In Detroit (Detroit City, Bobby Bare, 1963), I made a pilgrimage to 2648 West Grand Boulevard. It’s not directly connected to the theme of my book, but it was here that Berry Gordy founded the Motown record label in 1959; here, in a claustrophobic basement studio, that all those shining soul hits of the 1960s were recorded by the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and others. Outside the studio door is a candy vending machine. The Baby Ruth bars, Wonder’s favourite, were always fourth from the right so he could find them without assistance.

In Nashville (Nashville Cats, the Lovin’ Spoonful, 1966), I joined a tour of RCA’s now-defunct Studio B, where Elvis Presley recorded Are You Lonesome Tonight? in 1960. He sang in a darkened studio to get the right mood, and if you listen very carefully you can hear him knock over a music stand just after he finishes. They doused the lights for our small tour group and played the song through the studio speakers, and although I’m not a hard-core Presley fan, I don’t mind admitting that standing there in the darkness, listening to the song he had recorded in the same room 52 years earlier, was an unexpectedly emotional experience. The armpit of America? Perhaps, but what an armpit.

Next week: Graceland.