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Preserving the historical legacy of Route 66: Rockabilly on the Route weekender

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Ever heard of Tucumcari? Yeah, I hadn’t either. But if you’re a rockabilly fan, you will start hearing about this little stop on Route 66 in New Mexico. The first annual Rockabilly on the Route Festival was held June 7-9, 2013 and featured live music, a car show, a cruise and burn-out, a pin-up contest, a burlesque variety show, and a gospel brunch. All events were located along 6.66 miles of Route 66. The Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson, was the headliner this year, along with The Chop Tops (CA), Danger Cakes (TX), and various other bands from the Southwest.

Rockabilly on the Route is the brainchild of Simon Cantlon of Vive Le Rock Productions and Ungelbah Davila of La Loca Magazine. Cantlon has been involved in the production of The Motels of Route 66, a documentary film exploring the stories behind the owners and travelers of those iconic motels. Davila’s La Loca Magazine, based in Albuquerque, is New Mexico’s first vintage lifestyle magazine. What better people, then, to organize a rockabilly weekender that pays tribute to the legendary culture, music, and history of Route 66’s heyday? Tucumcari was chosen for the festival in part because The Blue Swallow Inn and Motel Safari were featured in the documentary. Moreover, the festival’s proceeds benefited the development of the New Mexico Route 66 Museum which will commemorate the state’s 604 miles of the celebrated highway.

Tucumcari, then, is clearly an appropriate setting for a rockabilly event which honors the legacy of that bygone Golden Era. The Main Street still offers a window into the past with the vintage neon signs that adorn the hotels and remains of classic cars that rest (and rust) in people’s yards. The city of Tucumcari whole-heartedly embraced the event by closing down a stretch of Route 66, known affectionately as the Mother Road, for a classic burn-out and cruise that seemed straight out of a hot rod movie from the ‘50s.

I got a chance to chat with Miss Davila about Rockabilly on the Route, La Loca Magazine, how she got interested in rockabilly, and what the Albuquerque rockabilly scene is like:

What was your motivation for organizing Rockabilly on the Route?

Simon has worked with some of the motels in the past to put together an event for the Motels of Route 66 documentary. He thought it could be taken to the next level, and he found me through my magazine, La Loca. Once we got Wanda Jackson booked, it took on a whole new dynamic! It was do or die at that point!

How do you feel now that it’s over? Are there plans to do it again?

The whole thing exceeded our expectations, from how well things went, to the attendance. It was nothing but a positive experience all the way around. I’m still in shock in over it! We’re in the process of planning events for the next year. We thinking about adding some new activities next year, like bowling and movies.

What was one of your favorite things about organizing this festival?

Developing a lifelong friendship with Simon. I live in Albuquerque and he’s in South Carolina, so we did all the planning long-distance, and we worked together really well.

Also, here in Albuquerque, there’s a modest rockabilly scene. I was overwhelmed by the sense of community that brought people together. People came out of the woodwork to help in all sorts of ways.

And of course, meeting Wanda Jackson was amazing, since she was the first rockabilly artist I discovered when I was a teenager. I never even dreamed that anything like that would happen to me!

What was one of the most challenging aspects?

Because it was held in Tucumcari, it was a little hard to get the fund-raising and sponsorships going. We also had to convince the bands to come to this little-known place. But once we booked the performers, everything fell into place.

How did you get involved in rockabilly?

My family has always been into antique collecting, so it was a natural fit for me because I love older things. I grew up with my grandma and she curled her hair every day. I’ve always been around that sort of retro culture. Then, after high school I saw the documentary The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice about Wanda Jackson. That was my first introduction to the culture and I listened to Wanda all the time. I dated my first greaser … and it evolved from there!

What is the Albuquerque rockabilly scene like?

At Rockabilly on the Route, one hot rodder was saying how much he enjoyed the event because people were so welcoming and warm. Overall, the people are open, friendly, and nice; it’s not the style to be mean.

Also, in Albuquerque, our scene is diverse. It is not as cliquish as other cities’ scenes I’ve heard about. You don’t have to be a greaser, or a rockabilly, or a psychobilly, to fit in. People have their own lives and no one is super fanatic about it, so people get along because they’re generally interested in the same things. It’s something I feel is very special and unique about the Albuquerque scene.

Finally, in New Mexico, our connections with our ancestors and our grandparents are really strong. A lot of us were raised by our grandparents who were listening to rockabilly back in the day. They still do the retro thing in their own way, with creativity and style, because they grew up poor. I talked to one girl who learned from her grandmother how to curl her eyelashes with a spoon. We all have rusty cars in the yard. You’ll see people here who look like they’re greasers, but they’re just still dressing that way after all these decades. So parts of the ‘50s are very much still around us and we feel very tied to the past through our families.

Tell me about La Loca Magazine.

I had it online for 3 years, starting in 2010. We got a lot of fans, so we decided the next step would be to print the magazine. We launched it in June 2013 and we’re doing it bimonthly, and it’s going great! It’s a rockabilly and vintage lifestyle magazine because people in Albuquerque have a wide variety of interests. First we’re New Mexican and then we’re whatever else. So the magazine features a lot of aspects of our cultural heritage, like recipes and things we’d get at our grandma’s house. So the magazine is first and foremost about being New Mexican, and then how that connects to rockabilly and the vintage lifestyle.

Why do you think rockabilly is still a popular subculture, some 50-plus years after its heyday?

For one thing, rockabilly symbolizes the invention of cool. It was a time when the media started using this image of the rebellious greaser – in music, on TV shows, in the movies, in magazines. So it’s an accessible image of the rebellious youth idea, one that we can look back on easily through popular culture.

I think the 1950s are also a source of American pride, because it represents a time when the U.S. was inventing rock’n’roll, television, putting a man on the moon, etc. Granted, there were some bad things happening in the 1950s, but we were on the verge of change. We were overcoming some obstacles. It was the beginning of the sexual revolution, and rock ‘n’ roll represented the melting pot of America’s cultures. The children of immigrants were identifying as Americans. We’re facing a lot of the same obstacles today that we faced then, like war and disillusionment. So during these tough times, it’s exciting to look back to that era when we were at a strong point and we identified as a melting pot of Americans.

What bands should we be on the look-out for?

I love Albuquerque’s rockabilly bands – it is such an overlooked little town and scene, but the rockabilly bands are great: Mr. Right and the Leftovers, The Shadow Men, Cowboys and Indian.

Any final thoughts?

The vintage scene in New Mexico is so interesting and unique. These small New Mexican towns should be appreciated for what they are, not what they should be or could be. Tucumcari is small town America. What we’re trying to do with Rockabilly on the Route is promote the economic sustainability of these rural New Mexican towns. Tucumcari has this great history of Route 66, and we want to keep it preserved. People go to other weekenders and they have to watch black and white movies on TV in order to re-live the past. Here you just step outside the motel. It’s got that historic feel. So we really hope that Rockabilly on the Route can help to promote interest in the historical legacy and culture that this town offers because we feel it’s very special.

Keep an eye out for the second annual Rockabilly on the Route when you can help support and experience the historic legacy of the iconic Tucumcari on Route 66. Having Wanda Jackson as the first year’s headliner was an impressive feat, so I’m excited to see who they book next year. Plus, as Miss Davila points out, rockabilly fans ought to love getting intimately acquainted with a town that seems to be a time capsule of the 1950s. Take your classic car out there and cruise down Rockabilly 66. If you can’t wait until next year, book Wanda Jackson’s suite at the Motel Safari (with one-of-a-kind autographed rock’n’roll memorabilia) and tour the historic sights on your own. Or check out a night of local rockabilly in Albuquerque and pick up a copy of La Loca Magazine. As rockabilly fans, we should be proactive about supporting different scenes and contributing to the preservation and commemoration of the era that ushered in the rockabilly music that we love and cherish.

Click here to donate to New Mexico’s Route 66 Museum.

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If you went to Rockabilly on the Route, please leave a comment about what you liked best about the weekender!

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