TUCUMCARI – Driving out Interstate 40, as the miles and the barbed wire clicked by, I was playing my own road trip game: Let’s think of words that rhyme with Tucumcari.
By the time I rolled off the interstate and onto old Route 66, I had collected wary, aerie, fairy, marry, vary and scary.
When I sat down with Bob Beaulieu, a beaming man with a trim white mustache who used to be a real estate appraiser in Southern California and is now a retiree and Tucumcari town booster, he agreed that there are probably a lot more towns in the world that would be easier to write a song about than Tucumcari.
When he left California and told people where he was moving, “They couldn’t pronounce it even after I said it,” he said. “Tucum-who?”
But that fact has not stopped songwriters from bestowing their gifts on the eastern New Mexico spot. In droves.
“I don’t know what it is, but folks seem to come through Tucumcari and it seems to grab onto them in some fashion, and when they leave they take a piece of us with them and they remember it,” Beaulieu says.
It could have something to do with the unforgettable, four-syllable and often unpronounceable name (from Apache for “lookout”). Or the memorable collection of neon preserved in the desert clime. Or the uncanny habit people in Tucumcari have of waving at tourists like they’re old friends.
Whatever it is, it has been enough to produce a 14-song CD “Songs of Tucumcari” – each song containing Tucumcari in the title.
Beaulieu compiled the CD while he was working as the executive director of the Tucumcari/Quay County Chamber of Commerce. It’s been popular with tourists, selling at $15 a pop with the proceeds benefitting the chamber.
But a compilation of 14 songs about Tucumcari – surprising as it is – isn’t what brought me tootling down the highway humming “Tucumcari Here I Come.”
The news that put my pedal to the metal was that there are even more songs about Tucumcari. Unlikely as it sounds, plans are under way for a 14-song sequel to “Songs of Tucumcari.”
I will go out on a limb here and say that never before have 28 songs been devoted to a town of 5,200 people.
Danford Cross, a Vermont transplant who opened a music store in a funky little corner shop across from the train station here, has been in a unique position to observe the collision of Tucumcari and popular culture.
He’s on the Route 66 tourist route, and he recently broke the news to a disbelieving group of South Koreans that John Wayne is dead.
Tucumcari today (or tonight) is a sprawling town with miles of motels, gas stations and restaurants that cater to travelers popping in off I-40 and Route 66 enthusiasts from all over the world slavishly following the Mother Road.
Cross credits Tucumcari’s heyday in the early years of America’s love affair with the automobile with its prominent role in song.
“At one time, this was tinsel town,” Cross told me, gesturing to a stretch of empty parking lots. “Lots of lights, a lot of neon. A lot of places to play music.”
So Tucumcari found its way into songs, even though, as Cross puts it, “It’s a mouthful to rhyme with something.”
Cross co-produced the “Songs of Tucumcari” CD and helped negotiate the rights, most of which were given for free or a small fee.
A lot of the Tucumcari songs are about traveling through.
Here’s the opening verse from “Tucumcari Tonight” by the Colin Sphinctor Band: “It’s just a little town in the middle of nowhere, but I can’t wait till it comes into sight. There’s a pretty little girl who’s waiting for me, yes it’s Tucumcari tonight.”
That’s not to be confused with “Tucumcari Tonite” by the Road Crew (“We got the top laid back and the wind in our hair, Tucumcari tonight”), which is also on the CD.
Just so no one can accuse the Chamber of Commerce of boosterism, “Tucumcari” by Randy Kaplan (sample lyric: “The oldest hooker in America is here”) and “There’s Nothin’ To Eat in Tucumcari,” a three-minute lament by vegetarian Andy Mason, both made the cut.
The next CD will include a song by 79-year-old Minnesotan DeWayne Hald, a snowbird who has been stopping overnight in Tucumcari on his way to Arizona for years.
Hald told me over the phone from his home in St. Cloud that he was sure he was a trendsetter when he penned his “Tucumcari.”
“I thought I was doing something really original,” he said. He had no idea that the line of songwriters who have written about Tucumcari winds around the block.
Hald’s song, like so many others, tells the tale of a man on the move.
Why pick Tucumcari, I asked him? Why not nearby San Jon or Glenrio, which rhyme with lots of words?
“Tucumcari’s got a nice ring to it,” he said. And if you listen to Hald’s “Tucumcari,” you’ll find that he manages to rhyme it with “itinerary.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or email@example.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal
Photo Credit – RICHARD PIPES/JOURNAL