Join me on a musical journey around the USA, Canada and Mexico via songs in the Americana/Country genres.
Growing up in England, I wasn’t really aware of Country Music but I developed a fascination for America and “The West” through the TV shows of the time. As I started to listen to American music of all genres I found myself mesmerised by the exotic places mentioned in the songs and longed to see Dallas from a DC9 at night, to go from Tucson to Tucumcari and to think about a calico bonnet from Cheyenne to Tennessee.
In the last 25 years I’ve been able to do a number of road trips in North America, including a coast to coast, a long distance cycle ride and Route 66, seeing at first hand some of the places I’ve heard about in songs.
So now I thought I’d put together the ultimate, virtual Americana road trip. Together we’ll travel from place to place via songs in the Americana/Country genres which feature states, towns, rivers and other geographical features.
Just one rule – songs mentioning multiple places can only be used once, otherwise I could just use “I’ve been everywhere” half the time.
From Okemah we turn back west and head 66 miles to the town of Spencer, home to 4,000 people and situated just 10 miles from downtown Oklahoma City.
The area had been opened up to settlement in the 1889 Land Run and two Indiana developers, Louis F. and Henry W. Kramer, who had acquired land close to the North Canadian River, eventually developed the site, founding a settlement which they named after their home county of Spencer, back in Indiana.
Spencer was originally a farming town, specialising in wheat, but after World War II General Motors opened a plant in the town and the Tinker Air Force Base was established. These days Spencer is a residential suburb of Oklahoma City.
Our song today is Townes Van Zandt’s classic “Tecumseh Valley”, here performed with Nanci Griffith. I’m not 100% certain that the Spencer mentioned in the song is the one in Oklahoma (there are quite a few other “Spencers” in the US) but given that Tecumseh was a chief of the Shawnee, who were resettled to this part of Oklahoma, I’ve made this assumption. Anyone know for sure ?
“She came from Spencer
Across the hill
She said her pa had sent her
’cause the coal was low
And soon the snow
Would turn the skies to winter”
From Seminole we head north-east for 33 miles to Okemah, the seat of Okfuskee County and home to just over 3,200 people.
The area around the future town of Okemah had originally been assigned to the Creek Indian Nation after their expulsion from their lands further east and was opened up to non-Indian settlement in 1902.
The town site was chosen by rail engineers at a point which was supposed to be the intersection of two railway lines, although only one line, the Fort Smith and Western Railroad, was actually constructed.
The new settlement, named Okemah after a Creek Indian chief, was incorporated in 1903 and became the county seat in 1908.
In 1911 Okemah was the site of an infamous lynching when Laura Nelson and her 14-year-old son, L.D.Nelson, who were being held on suspicion of murdering a police officer, were snatched from prison cells by a vigilante mob and hanged from a bridge over the North Canadian River. More details here.
Okemah was the birthplace, in 1912, of the singer Woody Guthrie, who was named after the future President Woodrow Wilson. Woody spent the bulk of his childhood in Okemah before moving with his family to Pampa, Texas (see Day 758)
Okemah has perhaps been a little slow in acknowledging its Woody Guthrie heritage but does now have a statue and a mural honouring its famous son. There is also the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, which has bern held in the town since 1998.
Okemah is also the home town of one-time Turnpike Troubadour and now solo artist, John Fulbright.
Our first song today is a tribute to Woody Guthrie
“Traveling across the country, playing on the circuit line
Sometimes I think about a man who was here before my time
Named for the 28th President with a Guthrie tacked to the end
Born in Okemah shoes with the Dust Bowl blues
A friend of the working man.”
The Okemah reference in our second song is also Woody Guthrie-related – this time in a comparison with Elvis Presley and his Graceland home.
I know that Graceland has sacred meaning
Deep, deep meaning for lots of people
For me it don’t mean all that much
Okemah means more that’s
Woody Guthrie’s home
From Shawnee we head 19 miles south-east to Seminole, a town with around 7,500 inhabitants, situated in Seminole County.
Both the county and the city take their name from the Seminole people, one of the so-called “Five Civilised Tribes”, who had been relocated to this part of modern-day Oklahoma from Florida in the 1820’s.
Prior to the founding of the town of Seminole, the Seminole Indians had established the Mekasukey Academy for Boys around 1893 and a settlement known as Tidmore grew up nearby. In 1906 a railroad line passed to the north of Tidmore and most residents of the town relocated to a new settlement next to the railroad tracks, and Seminole was born.
For the next 20 years Seminole remained a small village and trading centre but then in 1926 oil was discovered in the area and the town boomed. A whole city of tents and shacks appeared virtually overnight and within a short period Seminole was transformed from a village with a population of under a thousand into a city of around 30,000 people. At its height it is said that Seminole oil wells were producing 2.6% of the world’s oil. More details here.
By the mid-1930’s however the oil boom was over and the population of the town stabilised at around 11,000. From 1970 onwards this figure has been falling gradually.
Our first song today was written by Oklahoma-born Woody Guthrie and is here sung by his son Arlo. It’s a tale of revenge and murder in the oil fields.
“Red he laughed as he clumb the bank and swung aside of a wheeler
The boys caught a tanker to Seminole and west to Amarillo
They struck them a job of oil field work and followed a pipe line down
It took them lots of places till the year had rolled around.”
It’s audio only for our second song today, from Cross Canadian Ragweed, which was inspired by a crash involving band member Cody Canada on the eponymous Highway 377.
“That devil he won’t get too far
Jesus let me drive his car
We drove him off that Seminole Bridge
Back to hell you son of a bitch
Jesus and me we made that Cadillac yell
We sent that demon screamin’ back to hell.”
From Norman we head just under 40 miles eastwards to Shawnee, the seat of Pottawatomie County and home to around 31,000 people.
Before 1870 the area around the modern-day town of Shawnee was Indian territory, but in the 1870’s cattle drives and railway lines began to cross the tribal lands and settlers also started to encroach illegally. A Quaker mission was built close to the site of modern Shawnee in 1871.
Eventually the land was made available to settlers via a Land Run in 1891 and settlers raced to stake claims in the proposed town of Brockway. These initial settlers then decided to rename their town Shawnee after the Indian tribe which had previously lived there.
1895 saw the arrival in Shawnee of the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad and other lines arrived in the first years of the 20th century, enabling the town to grow and develop as a centre for the cotton, potato and peach-growing industries.
Initially Shawnee was seen as a rival to Oklahoma City but that city raced ahead once it became the state capital and Shawnee’s subsequent growth was slowed.
Shawnee was successful, however, in becoming the seat of Pottawatomie County, although it took several controversial elections before the city was able to oust Tecumseh from this role in 1930.
Shawnee was the birthplace, in 1963, of the actor Brad Pitt.
Our first song today was written by Woody Guthrie and tells the story of the 1930’s gangster, Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. The song features on the classic Byrds’ album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” and here’s a live version by the Byrds’ main man, Roger McGuinn.
“Was in the town of Shawnee on a Saturday afternoon
His wife beside him in a wagon as into town he rode
And along come a deputy sheriff in a manner rather rude
Using vulgar words of language, his wife she overheard
And Pretty Boy grabbed a long chain, and the deputy grabbed a gun
And in the fight that followed, he laid that deputy down
Our second tune is Hank Snow’s version of another song from the gangster era, this one written by Jimmie Rodgers.
“Oh, come hear my story of heartaches and sighs
I’m a prisoner who’s lonely for his moonlight and skies
I have a sweetheart who’s waiting for me
Back in old Oklahoma I’m not far from Shawnee.”
We now head towards Norman, the seat of Cleveland County, situated around 37 miles to the north-east of Chickasha. With a population of a little over 120,000, Norman is the 3rd largest city in the state.
Like other communities in Cleveland County, Norman was established at the time of the 1889 Land Run. In the early 1870’s the area had been the camp site of a group, under the leadership of Abner Norman, who were surveying the “Unassigned Lands”. One of the team is said to have burned “Norman’s Camp” into a tree – and thus Norman was born.
The incipient town was boosted, a year after its foundation, by the decision of the Oklahoma legislature that the new University of Oklahoma would be located in Norman. Today, Norman is a classic college town and the University is comfortably the biggest local employer.
Norman is situated within the most tornado-prone area in the world and so it is perhaps fitting that the town should house the National Weather Centre, located on the University campus.
As well as being a college town, Norman has also become a “bedroom community” for Oklahoma City, which is 20 miles away.
Country star Vince Gill was born in Norman in 1957 and another famous son of the town was the actor James Garner.
In “Boys from Oklahoma” Cross Canadian Ragweed are rather critical of the locals’ rolling technique and Norman comes in for particular “stick”. I wonder if the band ever did sell any CD’s in Norman !
“Them faggots down there in Norman they got a kinky streak
They like to roll their own but their Sooner wrists are too weak
They’ll sure start to puffing if you stick one in their beak”
We now head north-east from Chickasha and after 35 miles we cross over into Cleveland County, with a population of well over a quarter of a million, the 3rd most populous county in the state of Oklahoma.
Before the Civil War, the area of present-day Cleveland County was inhabitated by Creek and Seminole Indians who had been removed from their lands in the south-east of the US and resettled here.
The two tribes had sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War and were therefore forced to forfeit their right to these lands in the post-war Reconstruction period.
The land thus vacated, known as the Unassigned Lands, were opened to settlement via the 1889 Land Run. Various counties were formed at this time including the future Cleveland County. It was originally assigned the name of Third County, then became Little River County before finally being renamed after former President Grover Cleveland, the first Democrat to be elected to this post after the Civil War.
Our song for Cleveland County is from John Moreland, who we met way back on Days 53 and 59 during our first visit to Oklahoma. His relationship in this song is a tempestuous one, but he seems to be addicted to it.
“When I touch the hands of time
They won’t mind what and where I’ve been
Woke up in Cleveland County
And you’re picking up my pulse again”
From Ryan we head 77 miles due north to Chickasha (pronounced “Chickashay”), home to around 16,500 people and the seat of Grady County.
Before white settlement, land in the area had been granted to the Chickasaw Indians, one of the so-called “Five Civilised Tribes”, who in the 1830’s had been forcibly moved from their homes in Mississippi and Tennessee to present-day Oklahoma. The town’s name is the Choctaw Indian word for the Chickasaw.
Chickasha was founded in 1892 when the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad came through the area and grew rapidly as a regional centre for ranching and cotton production – the population had reached over 6,000 by 1902.
In 1941 an air force training school was opened in the town to train fighter pilots and after the Second World War this became the local airport. Chickasha was also the site of a Prisoner of War Camp during the war.
Chickasha is home to the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, which was founded in 1908 as the Oklahoma Industrial Institute and College for Girls.
Two songs today and they both sing the praises of the female population of Chickasha. The first is a modern song from an artist I had not previously come across.
“When the girls come out in Chickasha City
It’s like no other town
You can bet they’re all gonna be looking pretty
When the girls come out in Chickasha City”
Our second song goes back to the years of the Hollywood singing cowboys.
“I left my gal in Chickasha
Left that gal and went away
In my heart is a melody
And the darned old song keeps telling me
Get right back to Chickasha
To that gal and never stray
There’s a slick chick awaiting in my Chickasha home
From a Chickasha gal I’m gonna never more roam.”
Having crossed over into Oklahoma, we have two destinations today. Firstly we head around 40 miles to the north-west to Tillman County, home to around 7,500 people.
The county, whose seat is the town of Frederick, was created in 1907, the year Oklahoma gained statehood, and was named after Benjamin Tillman, a Senator from South Carolina.
The area had been part of a reservation for the Kiowa, Comanche and Apache peoples, created by the Medicine Lodge Treaty in 1867. Ranchers had then leased the land from the tribes and the area was later opened for settlement.
The county became a centre for agriculture and ranching and its population reached its peak of 24,000 in 1930, a figure which has been in steady decline ever since.
From Tillman County we turn back to the south-east and head about 80 miles to the small town of Ryan, population about 800, situated 2 miles from the Red River, and thus from the border with Texas.
Ryan was named after and founded by Stephen W. Ryan, who had settled the area in 1875. Having acquired some land through marriage to a Chickasaw woman, he then laid out a town site in 1892 when the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad built a station here. The town grew as a ranching and agricultural centre, reaching a peak population figure of just under 1,400 in 1920.
Ryan was the birthplace of the actor Chuck Norris and of Country star Floyd Tillman
Our song today, from Dave Carter and Tracey Grammer who we met way back in Indiana on Day 157, tells of the vagaries of the weather and the difficulties of survival in Tillman County.
“Chickasha trickster call to the funnel cloud
Demon come screamin over Wichita falls
Lines down, power out, ryan and points south
Time and direction don’t matter all when you’re
Raised on the river, washed in the blood
Blood run thicker than bottomland mud
And the wheel sinks deeper as the years spin round
Thirty bad summers in Tillman County.”
From Wichita Falls we head 15 miles north and cross the Red River, entering Oklahoma for the fourth time. On this occasion we’ll be heading up through the centre of the state before crossing into the state of Kansas.
From the 1830’s onwards the future state of Oklahoma was Indian Territory, home to many Native American tribes who had been expelled from their lands back east. Later in the 19th century cattle drives and westward expansion of the United States meant an encroachment onto Indian territories and eventually, under the Dawes Act of 1887, tribes were forced to give up communal rights and instead had to accept individual plots of land. This freed up some 90 million acres which could then be opened to white settlement. This area, in the west of the present state, became the Oklahoma Territory.
Settlement of the land was achieved by a series of Land Runs, beginning in 1889, where settlers raced to grab plots on a first-come-first-served basis. Some settlers jumped the gun and became known as Sooners, a term which later became the nickname for all Oklahomans.
From 1890 the Oklahoma Territory in the west and the Indian Territory in the east existed side by side and thoughts turned to statehood. The Indian Territory made plans to form a state, to be called Sequoyah, but eventually the two territories were merged and, with the addition of the Panhandle (see Day 754), admitted to the Union as the 46th state in 1907.
Our first of two songs today is from Oklahoma native Jason Boland, who is top of my list of people I would love to see live. I came close once when I was in Fort Worth, Texas and Jason and his band were playing in town. Unfortunately, I already had tickets to see the Turnpike Troubadours who were playing the same night. Talk about Sod’s Law !
“They were an outlaw band from Oklahoma
Rolling through the night like a summer thunder
And the rain will wash us clean
Oh the rain will wash us clean”
In our second song today Kaitlin Butts’ protagonist initially feels she has to leave her small town in Oklahoma to make something of herself but soon realises that it’s how she lives her life which is important and not where she is.
“They drove all through the night and went home
To see an Oklahoma sunrise
Sitting on the porch, late at night watching their babies chasing fireflies
The little one looked up at the sky and says
‘I wanna be a star’
And they said
‘Baby, you can bloom no matter where you are
You don’t have to live in the sky to be a star’ ”
From Seymour, the seat of Baylor County, it’s about a 50-mile journey north-eastwards to Wichita Falls, a city of 105,000 people and the seat of Wichita County.
The first European settlers arrived in the area in the 1860’s and established ranches. Back in the 1830’s a certain John Scott from Mississippi had acquired ownership of the land where the town now stands and seemingly forgot about it and it was only years later, in 1872, that his heirs established a town on the site. They named their small community after a waterfall on the Wichita River.
Sales of lots in the town boomed after the arrival of the Fort Worth and Denver Railway in 1882, and the town became county seat the following year. As more railroads reached the town in the next few years, Wichita Falls was able to develop as a regional hub.
In 1886 the falls on the river which gave the town its name were washed away in a huge flood. Just over 100 years later, in 1987, authorities decided to build an artificial, multi-level cascaded waterfall to restore some meaning to the city’s name.
When oil was discovered in North Texas in the early part of the 20th century, Wichita Falls became an oil refining centre.
The city was given a further boost by the opening, in 1946, of the Sheppard Air Force Base which is today by far Wichita Falls’ biggest employer.
In 1979 the city was hit by one of the most powerful tornadoes ever recorded and suffered considerable damage. At least 45 people lost their lives and it is reckoned that 20% of residential properties were destroyed.
We had a couple of songs from Houston Marchman on our first visit to Texas back on Days 70 and 73. In this song, the protagonist has left his home and his mother in Wichita Falls to seek his fortune – it doesn’t seem to have gone too well !
“There’s an old woman crying for the trouble I’m in
The law don’t believe me I swear I went down in self-defence
Her heart breaks down again against prison walls
There’s a few more tears tonight flowing over Wichita Falls”
Our second song today, also just called “Wichita Falls”, is another from American Aquarium, a long way from their North Carolina home. Their protagonist is alone in the city, nursing a broken heart.
“I’m sending you a postcard from Wichita Falls
That’s where it all started baby
That’s where it all started falling apart
Oh, you went and broke my heart
Now every single day you’re running through my mind
Like a freight train struggling to the end of the line
So if you see her around, well just tell her I called
A nd that I’m sitting here alone in Wichita Falls”