Once upon a time in the not-so-old Southwest, before the interstate was laid down four lanes across, when rail travel was still the high life and Highway 70 was the southernmost route for travelers on wheel or foot, the town of Duncan hosted the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, Patsy Cline, Ray Price, Slim Whitman, Spade Cooley, Bob Wills and Luke Wills, as they passed through from Austin to Tucson, from Los Angeles to Memphis. They stopped in Duncan to play for a night at the little back highway spot called Apache Grove, thirteen miles out toward the big copper mine at Morenci, before moving on to the next city. Even the young Bob Dylan played there in an homage to his creative forbears. The Apache Grove is still there out on Highway 75, though it’s been years since live music rocked its walls.
Among those greats, Bob Wills and his band The Texas Playboys carved out a niche in the history of American music by blending traditional “country” music with the big band sensibilities arising from African-American musical lineages. In his spare time, Wills listened only to big-band jazz and, unschooled though he was as a musician, incorporated much of its sophistication, as well as its playfulness, into his own arrangements. Wills is a hero and an icon to many contemporary musicians. Willie Nelson is seen as the principal carrier of the Bob Wills flame into the present day. Listen to Willie’s recent collaboration with the jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis to enjoy the latest fruits of this cross-fertilization. The Texas band Asleep At the Wheel has devoted a big part of its career to keeping the Bob Wills’ genius a living part of contemporary musical vernacular. Their show, “A Ride With Bob: The Bob Wills Musical” still goes out on the road every year. See http://www.aridewithbob.com/.
Duncan has one native son who has made the big-time: singer-songwriter Troy Olsen, now based in Nashville. Troy’s parents used to run the Stage Stop gas station and convenience store around the corner from the hotel. Check him out on Youtube, Spotify or Pandora.
Just 40 miles away, in the city of Thatcher (chain motels and big box stores -- stay in Duncan!) there are musical events worth noting. Eastern Arizona College sponsors a concert series with performers from around the world.