This is the way to Amarillo

Andrew Gumbel turns off the Texas highway and finds that the town celebrated in song by Tony Christie - and now Peter Kay - is friendly, but bemused by its fame in Britain
Click to follow
The Independent US

It's late in the evening at a rowdy bar in downtown Amarillo, Texas, and the crowd is chugging down beers and draping green plastic jewellery over each other's necks in honour of St Patrick's Day. If ever a group of people was ready to burst into song, I think, surely this is it.

It's late in the evening at a rowdy bar in downtown Amarillo, Texas, and the crowd is chugging down beers and draping green plastic jewellery over each other's necks in honour of St Patrick's Day. If ever a group of people was ready to burst into song, I think, surely this is it.

So I ask if anyone can do me the chorus from the tune currently sweeping the British charts thanks to Peter Kay's cover version, the tune that - to believe the tabloid newspapers, anyway - has not only given an unexpected boost to Tony Christie's near-moribund lounge-crooner career but also put this particular cow-town in the Texas Panhandle firmly back on the cultural map.

"Who knows '(Is This The Way to) Amarillo'?" I ask, with as much St Paddy's day jollity as I can muster.

Ricky, a tough Latino kid in his early twenties who recently got off the hook for some legal trouble he declines to specify, looks at me like I am insane.

Trinh, a Vietnamese American woman in her early thirties, looks like she wants to help out but just can't manage it. "I've lived here all my life but I'm Vietnamese, so maybe that's why I haven't heard of it," she offers by way of explanation. She wonders if it would be entertaining to a visiting English reporter if she and her friends got really, really drunk and took all their clothes off instead. I take a quick gulp of Guinness, tell her English people don't do things like that, and move on.

All round the bar I go; to the toilets where the man in line directly in front of me confesses that he conceived his first child right here in the lone lockable stall. Way too much information, and entirely the wrong kind. Thence to the white-bearded man sporting tartan and bagpipes who offers to play a tune if I'll cough up a few bucks. A tune like "Danny Boy" or "Amazing Grace", that is. Still no leads on anyone who can give me so much as a line from the chorus of Amarillo's most famous song.

A few people think I mean "Amarillo by Morning", a minor hit by the country singer George Strait. The mention of Tony Christie leaves them entirely blank.

A young woman with translucent white nail polish thinks she can pinpoint the problem. "You say this song is big in England? Well, I'm from Texas and I've never been out of the country. It must be some English thing," she says.

My new friend sounds less than certain, but she's closer to the mark than she knows. Tony Christie's song was a monster hit in the United Kingdom, and quite a few other countries, in the autumn of 1971, but it never made much of an impact in the States.

Admittedly, "(Is This The Way to) Amarillo?" was penned by two Americans - the irrepressibly prolific Neil Sedaka and his boyhood friend and writing partner Howard Greenfield - but after giving it to Christie they never found an American recording artist to replicate his success on the other side of the Atlantic.

Sedaka himself recorded a version on his 1977 album A Song, but it left little impression outside the hard core of his fans and was never anthologised on any of his endless greatest hits compilations.

Listening to the song, it's not hard to see why it hasn't resonated in the city it eulogises so effusively. Sedaka and Greenfield, part of the song-writing factory that churned out hits from the Brill Building in New York City, don't exactly betray an intimate knowledge of Amarillo other than the fact that it's on a plain, reachable by highway and populated by the kind of people who wear cowboy hats. One wonders: had they even been there before they wrote it?

Another song that bears distinct similarities is Little Feat's trucker anthem "Willin'", released the year before "Amarillo", which talks about taking the road from Tucson, Arizona, to Tucumcari, New Mexico, and on to Dallas where a certain sweetheart is waiting. The Sedaka/Greenfield song talks about keeping going "through the wind and rain", while the Little Feat number talks about being warped by the rain, driven by the snow and kicked by the wind.

Interestingly, the road from Tucumcari to Dallas runs straight through Amarillo, but Little Feat never thought to mention the city in their long list of truckstops and way stations en route to true love.

"Are you surprised?" asks an elegant older woman called Laura, who finds it astonishing that anyone would find the slightest thing in her home town to celebrate in song. We have moved on now, away from the beery crowd at Bennigan's bar and on to a much classier martini bar and jazz joint on Polk Street, the main drag in downtown Amarillo.

Laura is the proprietor of Butler's, one of a dedicated handful of business owners determined to revive the dilapidated storefronts and neglected Pueblo Deco-style, century-old buildings downtown and give the place a bit of character. Despite that dedication, she displays what I later gather from others to be a typical Amarillo character trait - profound self-deprecation.

When I ask her if she thinks Amarillo is a romantic town, she screws up her face into a sneer of sheer disgust and can't bring herself to say a word. When I ask others the same question, they are by turns dismissive or merely polite. "It depends what you mean by romantic," one young aspiring artist tells me cautiously. "I don't know if you'd associate it with love, but plenty of people here have a big heart." In the same breath, he describes his city as a "little speck" hardly worthy of attention.

The jazz combo is about to come on, and the piano player happens to be an old schoolmate of my friend and companion for the night, so we hop over to ask him if he knows "Amarillo". Finally, we hit pay-dirt.

"Neat tune!" he says (his name is Martin) and, without prompting, launches into a sweet, down-tempo rendition of the chorus. He says he's going to get together with a friend of his and record an a cappella, Bobby McFerrin-style version and then send me the MP3 by e-mail. I can't wait.

Martin, though, is an exception. Even the local newspaper, the Amarillo Globe-News, called the song "cheesy" when it wrote an article earlier this week about the craze sweeping the United Kingdom. Only as an afterthought - perhaps because the reporter couldn't quite believe it - did it suggest that the popularity of the Tony Christie number might be good for local tourism.

Amarillo, it is true, is a little short on instant charm. It is stranded in the middle of nowhere, halfway between Albuquerque and Oklahoma City in one direction, and halfway between Denver and Dallas in another. Approaching by highway - the only way to approach, as all the songs point out - the clutter of billboards read more like a plea than advertisements. The flashing neon signs for $25 motel rooms; the offers of free doughnuts and coffee; the promise of food both fast and filling - all of them carry the unmistakable subtext: "Please, please stop here!"

Behind the appeals for instant gratification in the food and sleep department comes a second row of advertisements appealing with equal fervour to more intimate needs. On the one hand, the strip joints and porn providers, and on the other, fundamentalist religion. "Are You Passionate About Christ?" asks one sign, quickly followed by the promise of "Adult Pleasures" and "Girlz Girlz Girlz". Amarillo seems to be a city suspended perilously between salvation and damnation. Perhaps not coincidentally, Randall County, on the south side of town, has the highest concentration of Republican Party voters anywhere in Texas, George W. Bush's home state.

This was the quintessential cow-town, founded in the late 19th century at the intersection of two railroad tracks and in between two tributaries, the Salt Fork and the Prairie Dog Fork, of the Red River. The earliest ranchers were old Union fighters from the Civil War looking for their next adventure, making Amarillo very different from Lubbock, 120 miles to the south, which is a cotton town settled by Confederate veterans.

The handful of powerful families who still control Amarillo's economic interests - chiefly, beef, oil and helicopter manufacture - like to tout themselves as descendants of those first ranchers, but the uncomfortable truth is that the original settlers were largely swindled out of their hard-earned land and capital by a cabal of Eastern bankers and lawyers. (Larry McMurtry touches on that theme in his prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove, whose character Woodrow Call is based largely on the pioneering Amarillo rancher Charles Goodnight.)

Big agribusiness companies have long since overtaken the cowboys as the controllers of the local beef industry, which accounts for a staggering 20 per cent of all beef consumption in the US. One of the town's few real tourist draws is the Big Texan Steak Ranch, where customers are invited to munch their way through 72-ounce steaks. If they can lick the plate clean in under an hour, the steak comes free of charge - a challenge successfully taken up by about 5,000 people over the past 45 years, the youngest of whom was just 11 years old.

Beef is serious business here. When the animal rights group PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) put up billboards a few years ago stating that Jesus was a vegetarian, it caused no end of stink, and prompted the billboard company to take down the posters as fast as fast as it could manage. Oprah Winfrey also upset the city grandees when, in reaction to the Mad Cow scare a few years ago, she declared on her daytime show that she was never eating another hamburger. The beef industry sued her under an obscure law essentially making dead cattle eligible for redress under state libel laws, Oprah moved her operation to Amarillo for the duration of the trial, and emerged triumphant after rousing public opinion on to her side both on the air and off.

One of the wealthiest men in town, Stanley Marsh, is also one of the most eccentric, and he has parlayed his love of vintage Cadillacs into a bizarre roadside exhibit in which 10 of his old cars have been buried nose down in cement, supposedly at the same angle as the Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt. Visitors are invited to spray paint them in graffiti all they want.

The business leaders who run Amarillo have grand ambitions to keep expanding the city - one of my bar interviewees brashly declared it would one day have a music scene to rival Austin, the state capital, although he refused to be drawn on when. But their problem is that the city sits on a very limited water supply that could easily run out in the next half-century or so. That, unfortunately, is the price of being stuck on a desert plain.

"This place will revert to grazing country," predicted Jeff Blackburn, my guide around town and a fourth-generation Amarillo native.

Tony Christie's song does get one thing right, perhaps inadvertently. There are willow trees in Amarillo, one of the few species that can grow in the unforgiving climate. The ritzier residential neighbourhoods are also lined with Chinese elms, which are hotly sought after. As Blackburn told me: "A tree in Amarillo is the equivalent of an ocean view."

THE STORY OF THE SONG

By Robert Webb

The Texas panhandle town of Amarillo was originally called Ragtown by pioneer settlers in 1887. Luckily for Tony Christie, the name was later changed to the Spanish word for yellow, the colour of the town's river banks.

Back in 1971, "(Is this the way to) Amarillo" was bought by holiday-makers, who had just returned from Spain, where it had spent a heady six months at number one.

Earlier in the year, Christie's manager had been on an American trip. He called by Neil Sedaka's Manhattan apartment and asked if he had anything for his newest signing. Sedaka told him he was working on a song with his co-lyricist, Howard Greenfield, and banged out the tune on his baby grand.

Christie had no idea of the way to Amarillo, but he liked the song. And the name itself, a pop singer's God-send, had probably been chosen by Sedaka and Greenfield, because it rhymed with "willow" and "pillow"? Anyone as well versed in American popular song as they were could not have picked those particular words without thinking of the old Patsy Cline number "Walkin' After Midnight" ("I stop to see a weepin' willow/Cryin' on his pillow/Maybe he's cryin' for me..."). Cline had recorded a Sedaka and Greenfield number, "Stupid Cupid", in 1960, so the homage might have been deliberate.

Comments