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USC musician gets his kicks on Route 66

The Western swing band Cow Bop plays under the base of the larger-than-life catsup bottle in Collinsville, Ill. USC Thornton instructor Bruce Forman is in the black shirt, playing guitar. (Photo/Michael Gassman)

Bruce Forman, a musician and assistant professor of studio guitar at the USC Thornton School of Music, wrote this feature about the unique music festival along Route 66 that was sponsored by the school this summer:

Who would believe that some of the best concert venues in America are under a larger-than-life catsup bottle in rural Illinois and a muddy, windswept patch in the Texas Panhandle with Cadillacs buried nose-down?

My Western swing band Cow Bop has played these places and other unlikely stages over the past nine years, touring the length of Route 66. Every time we have done a Route 66 tour, we start with only $100 and make our way by performing anywhere we can — sidewalks, bars, hot dog stands, hair salons, honky-tonks, car dealerships, you name it — busking and living on tips.

“You guys are crazy!” is the usual response when I explain what we’re doing, but I can hear the vicarious longing in their voices. They all wish they could come along.

This summer I decided to turn my band’s Route 66 escapades into something bigger. I wanted to share the experience with my students at the USC Thornton School of Music, where I teach guitar. I envisioned a linear music festival stretching from Chicago, where Route 66 begins, to the pier in Santa Monica, Calif., where it ends.

I invited students, faculty and alumni musicians to celebrate the art of making music and learn how to stitch together their own tours, helped along by social media and the kindness of appreciative audiences. This “Music Licks on 66” tour also offered an opportunity for educational mentoring, with faculty and alumni playing with emerging young artists and challenging them to rise to a professional level, helping them develop their future careers where the rubber meets the road.

This linear festival concept is about embracing what radio learned almost a century ago, and TV after that: It is easier to bring something to people than ask them to come to you. In addition to performing gigs in unconventional venues in small towns — or out in the middle of nowhere — the Internet allows audiences anywhere in the world to buckle up their computer and come along.

The jazz combos, classical guitar duos, rock musicians and retro bands that took part will tell you it wasn’t always easy. I can’t tell you how many times we were blatantly — often rudely — ignored, rousted by irritated proprietors or sent scurrying by lightning and rain. One disturbing trend is having someone pull out a phone and take a picture or make a video of us and never look us in the eye or give a nod of recognition, much less put something in the tip jar. They merely click and walk away as if we were Mount Rushmore or an art installation. While Facebook, Twitter and especially smartphones make it possible to do a festival like this (and I am grateful, as none of this could have happened without them), they are not a substitute for a real human experience.

Those disheartening encounters made for good stories and helped us fully appreciate the many real connections we made to audiences. Whether it was the countless free meals, homestays and hometown tours we received, an amp tech in Tulsa, Okla., who rushed out from his day job to fix my amp in time for the first downbeat at The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame or one of the world’s foremost hat makers refurbishing our cowboy hats in Oklahoma City, the generosity and appreciation we received was heartwarming.

The world's largest catsup bottle in rural Illinois (Photo/Michael Gassman)

The world’s largest catsup bottle in rural Illinois (Photo/Michael Gassman)

A few of the bands on the tour (including ours) were treated like royalty as we played, stayed and watched trains at La Posada, a historic Harvey House in Winslow, Ariz. Two classical guitar graduate students at USC Thornton, the LA Duo, met up with us at our Oklahoma City concert at the Blue Door and walked out with a gig of their own. Further west at El Cafecito, in Grants, N.M., we had a fantastic meal bought for us because we strolled through the restaurant like mariachis. Yes, this America exists!

The act of making music is life-affirming, and the tenacity and commitment to the tour created lasting memories that will spark more possibilities for the future. After all, isn’t this the lure of Route 66? Embarking on a trip to new horizons, discovering and taking chances. Whether musicians are on stage at Carnegie Hall or underneath a giant catsup bottle, it comes down to telling a story, and first you have to have a story to tell.

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USC musician gets his kicks on Route 66

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