The academic life is an itinerant one, and sometimes you find yourself moving to a place you never anticipated.
This July I found myself packing up my stuff, for the fourth time since finishing my doctorate in mythical pre-crash 2008, getting ready for a 968-mile move to Amarillo, Texas. Unofficial capital of the Texas Panhandle—that West Virginia-sized protrusion on the northwest tip of the Lone Star State—the city takes its name from Amarillo Creek, which in turn borrows its name from the Spanish word for yellow. Originally spoken in a more Iberian way when the city was founded in the 1880s, the pronunciation has been phonetically Anglicized such that it rhymes with the English words “willow” and “pillow.”
Possibly because of this obscure rhyming power, more songs have been written about Amarillo than perhaps any other comparably sized American city. Supposedly, when Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield wrote “Is This the Way to Amarillo” in the early 1970s, they replaced the original place name “Pensacola” with the similarly four-syllabled west Texas urban center because of its greater sonority.
Although rhyme-ability is the usual explanation for Amarillo’s distinctive aural corpus, perhaps there is another reason. The city is a remote one, perched at 3,600 feet atop the Llano Estacado, a windswept plateau located between New Mexico’s Rocky Mountains and Oklahoma’s grassy plains. It also straddles Interstate 40, near the midway point of the fabled Route 66 that connected Chicago and Los Angeles after 1926. For cross-continent travelers, the city is the only significant urban stop between Oklahoma City and Albuquerque. Amarillo holds about 200,000 residents, with a slightly larger metro area. Yet the I-40 strip through the center of town stretches a robust 13 miles, from the storied Big Texan Steak Ranch (only semi-dishonestly boasting a “FREE 72oz STEAK”) on the east side to Stanley Marsh 3’s quixotic Cadillac Ranch—with its wheeled Detroit dinosaurs planted, Cheops-like, into the soil—on the west.
Amarillo is one of the biggest American cities not part of a larger urban conglomeration. Since the 1960s, urban scholars have theorized megapolitan regions, intertwined urban networks with a shared infrastructure, economy, culture, and history. In the United States, these “megaregions” include the Northeast (Boston to DC) and the Texas Triangle (Dallas-Houston-Austin-Oklahoma City), among others. Cities not part of such interconnected urban centers include El Paso, Charleston, and Lexington, Kentucky. Amarillo is roughly four or more hours from the edge of the Texas Triangle and about an equal distance from the margins of the Front Range (Denver-Salt Lake City-Albuquerque).
My own, completely unscientific observation is that such non-affiliated cities develop their own peculiar ways, whether in food or music or urban planning. It seems no wonder, then, that a bevy of songs has been written about a remote and unique city in a distinctive geographical region through which millions have passed in the last century. And the tunes seem to prove this. When George Strait sings about the city in his 1983 country smash “Amarillo by Morning,” he is a hard-luck cowboy whose saddle was stolen in Houston and his leg broken in New Mexico; to make matters worse, he misplaced a couple of romantic partners during the difficult journey. Now he pushes onward to a remote corner of Texas, where the hot sun offers its own sort of benediction. In 2014’s “Sweet Amarillo”—the latest of a pair of Bob Dylan fragments given new life by Nashville’s Old Crow Medicine Show—the narrator is “gunning the throttle for the Llano Estacado.” Anyone who has ever punched the accelerator to the floor trying to ascend the Caprock Escarpment heading west from Shamrock knows the feeling. Once you are up there, back with the sweetheart who once left for the rodeo, it’s nice to take a rest before heading onward.
Local opinion-mongers sometimes deplore the fact that so many songs sung in the key of Amarillo revolve around “losers, dopers, gamblers, whiners, drunks, and crybabies.” There is at least a grain of truth to the accusation. Emmylou Harris, in the opening track of 1975’s Elite Hotel, pleads with the city, asking why it and its pinball machines took her lover. In “Amarillo Highway,” Terry Allen sings of a pill-popping vagabond riding those four “hard” lanes of U.S. 87 up from New Deal and Plainview with a barefoot girl in the backseat and a cache of Lone Star beer in the trunk. Billy Joe Shaver—that marvelously rakish, self-proclaimed “Honky Tonk Hero” and “Wacko from Waco”—doesn’t do the so-called “Golden Spread” any favors when he says “Screw you” and departs for Tennessee, proclaiming “I’m a-leavin’ Amariller, and I ain’t a-comin’ back again.” (But at least Shaver concedes that Lubbock is even worse, which is the best kind of consolation prize for self-conscious Panhandlers.)
Why, they ask, can’t there be more songs like Alan Jackson’s “Amarillo,” incanted from the perspective of a respectable guy who has settled on the High Plains and would gladly welcome his lady back from her ambitious sojourn to Hollywood, even three decades later? For the simple reason that Amarillo draws its lyrical power not from a place of stasis but from a place of motion. Its allure is distant and transitory, not local or staid. It is a destination or a stopping point, a place to which one aspires or from which one must leave. The epistemic Amarillo bestows a vague opportunity for the restless, although it sometimes captures those enamored with its gritty charms. The real Amarillo—a place of wide-open avenues and expansive ranch-house developments walled off from the dust, wind, and neon-light strip malls—may be comforting, but since when was a residential subdivision song-worthy?
The other night on Facebook a friend’s friend from Houston (maybe he was the culprit who took that saddle or stole a cowboy’s wife) straightforwardly commented that West Texas is a “shithole.” Even though this is a place I never thought I would live, after spending some time here, I don’t think that’s the case. It certainly is remote, and sometimes the “smell of money” wafting up from the gargantuan feedlots in Hereford more than evokes a substance rhyming with “grit” or “quit.” But the place is also alluring. Perhaps it is that very characteristic that has given Amarillo—or at least its episteme—a surprisingly impressive musical canon.
Brian M. Ingrassia teaches history at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas. He is author of The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football (Kansas, 2012) and series editor of the Sport and Popular Culture Series at the University of Tennessee Press. This essay originally appeared at our sister blog Matters of Sense.