“To the town of Agua Fria rode a stranger one fine day Hardly spoke to folks around him, didn’t have too much to say, No one dared to ask his business, no one dared to make a slip The stranger there among them had a big iron on his hip, Big iron on his hip”- Marty Robbins, “Big Iron”, 1959. Photographed at Rawhide western town and event center

The State of Music

Written by Craig Outhier Category: Lifestyle Issue: October 2017
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Arizona has inspired songwriters from Waylon Jennings to Wilco with its blazing sunsets, painted deserts and combustible politics. In this salute to the Grand Canyon State’s lyrical legacy, we find the stories behind some of pop music’s great “Arizona songs,” and bring them to life in a photo essay by PHOENIX visual artist Michael Woodall.

You should know a few things about history’s most famous Arizona rock lyric.

First, the incident that inspired it actually took place in Flagstaff, not Winslow. And the “girl, my Lord” was driving a Toyota, not a flat-bed Ford.

Sacrilege? Maybe, but consider the source: songwriter Jackson Browne, who in 2007 attributed the lyrics in question – from the 1972 Eagles smash “Take It Easy” – to a real-life roadside breakdown in Flagstaff. Standing in front of a Der Wienerschnitzel, Browne spotted a young woman in a Toyota, who in turn spotted him, and… well, the rest is revisionist music history.

Lyrically speaking, it was a good edit. After all, if co-writer Glenn Frey had been forced to croon about “a girl/maybe Ramona/in a double-cab Toyota,” would “Take It Easy” have cracked the Billboard Top 40 and launched the Eagles to superstardom? Possibly not.

“I got some ocean front property in Arizona From my front porch you can see the sea I got some ocean front property in Arizona If you’ll buy that I'll throw the Golden Gate in free” - George Strait, “Ocean Front Property”, 1987.

The important thing to remember: Browne was in Arizona and his visit did inspire him to pen a rock classic. There’s even a statue depicting Browne (or Frey – no one seems certain which) planted on a street corner in Winslow, offering bronzed evidence of the state’s unique and abiding influence on songwriters over the decades.

Since the earliest days of rock and country music, Arizona has moved songwriters with its special quality – a mystique of possibility, transition and rugged splendor found not only in well-known hits like “Take It Easy” and George Strait’s rueful breakup tune “Ocean Front Property,” but a generation of lesser-known songs that illustrate the Arizona experience, from the saguaro forests of Tucson to the painted deserts of the Navajo Nation to the ugly-beautiful heaps of depleted copper ore that have swelled to life in every mining town from Morenci to Globe-Miami.

Numbers are hard, if not impossible, to pin down, but Arizona’s lyrical presence in modern American music is certainly disproportional to its population. The state of Washington has about the same number of people as Arizona, but how many Washington songs can you name off the top of your head? Besides “Rocky Mountain High,” how often does Colorado figure lyrically in modern pop songs? A quick Google search of “lyrics about Arizona” turns up three times as many hits as a comparable New Mexico search. Wisconsin? Please.

At least partially, Arizona’s rich lyrical footprint can be attributed to the state’s proximity to the showbiz hub of Los Angeles, and its de facto function as a gateway to California for much of the country. We’re a road state – and many of the songs about Arizona exhibit the pang of dislocation and spiritual float that one experiences while navigating Arizona’s wide-open desert cosmos.

From Gorden Lightfoot’s “Carefree Highway” – in which the singer escapes his “sweet shattered dream” on the poetically-named North Valley roadway – to Wilco’s absent-lover ballad “Hotel Arizona,” the Arizona-as-limbo feeling is an occupational hazard for touring musicians; it seems likely that many of them have peered out a tour bus window, seen a solitary saguaro whiz by in a vast canvas of Sonoran desolation, and instinctively reached for a notepad to give form to that delicious sense of disconnection that attends any multi-hour Arizona roadtrip.

Of course, disconnection can have a dynamic upside: freedom, renewal and the possibility to reinvent oneself. These are the existential sensations that propel the Arizona songs people adore most, from “Take It Easy” to beatific name-check classics like “Route 66” and Steve Miller Band’s “Rock’n Me,” which momentously proposed that no journey could be more fun – or rhyme more conveniently – than the one from “Phoenix, Arizona all the way to Tacoma.” (There’s your Washington lyric.)

“Well, I’m a standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona and such a fine sight to see It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me” - The Eagles, “Take It Easy”, 1972. Models: Makenzie Gossage; David Dorn, provided by FORD Robert Black Agency.

Arizona proves geographically therapeutic in Glen Campbell’s iconic 1968 breakup tune “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which finds the musician measuring his newfound independence by ticking off the major cities he puts between himself and an ungrateful ex-girlfriend: “By the time I get to Phoenix she’ll be rising/She’ll find the note I left hanging on her door.”

Though the writer of that song, Jimmy Webb, never drove from L.A. to Phoenix and then to Oklahoma in a single day – as his protagonist in the song does – the Arizona connection did have personal resonance, since he wrote the song after breaking up with Susan Ronstadt, a cousin of Tucson-born superstar Linda Ronstadt.

As Webb told NPR’s Fresh Air in 2004: “It’s a kind of fantasy about something I wish I would have done, and it sort of takes place in a twilight zone of reality.”

Of course, Arizona’s effect on musicians is not limited to transient, lovelorn songwriters curled up in the back of RVs. As one of the last vestiges of the Old West, the state has natural appeal to country musicians who feel inspired by its rural rhythms and wild beauty. “I love you, Arizona,” Willcox native Rex Allen Jr. sings on his aptly titled “Arizona” (1980), an unabashed musical love letter to the state. “Your mountains, deserts and streams/The rise of Dos Cabezas/And the outlaws I see in my dreams.”   

After a fair amount of debate in the Arizona House of Representatives, the song was given the title of official “alternate” anthem of Arizona in 1982.

Tombstone-style shootouts and the outlaw mystique have also informed country songs set in Arizona. Raised on stories of the Old West told by his Paiute Indian grandfather, country crooner Marty Robbins imagined a duel for the ages in his 1960 country ballad “Big Iron,” pitting a killer named Texas Red against an Arizona Ranger with a “big iron on his hip” in the town of Agua Fria. The townsfolk anticipate an unceremonious death for the ranger, given the “one and 19 more” notches on Big Red’s pistol, but their worries are for naught – the quick-drawing ranger dispatches the villain before his gun had even “cleared leather.”

In classic country tradition, Arizona has also served as a backdrop for dark romantic torment, from George Jones’ 1962 “Open Pit Mine,” in which he sings of burying his adulterous “Rosie” under a Morenci slag heap with her lover, to Australian musician Jamie O’Neal’s heart-stung “There is No Arizona.” The 2000 No. 1 country single chronicles a narrator waiting for the man she loves to send for her from Arizona, but he never does.

Two more tried-and-true country idioms – melancholy and nostalgia – bleed through Waylon Jennings’ “Hey Willie” (1988), a late-career offering in which the outlaw country legend pines to reunite with his friend Willie Nelson: “Hey Willie, let’s pack up and catch us a slow train/And go back to Phoenix to a far brighter day/Where stars were for shining in the Arizona sky/And music meant more than fortune or fame.”

Phoenix also made a brief – and somewhat salacious – appearance in The Coasters’ classic “Little Egypt,” later covered in raucous rockabilly style by Elvis Presley. In the song, a bewitched Presley describes watching an exotic dancer perform a series of acrobatic stage maneuvers, before noticing “a picture of a cowboy tattooed on her spine/saying Phoenix, Arizona, 1949.”  

“She did her triple somersault and when she hit the ground She winked at the audience and then she turned around She had a picture of a cowboy tattooed on her spine Said, Phoenix, Arizona 1949” - Elvis Presley, “Little Egypt”, 1964.

The King might have been telegraphing something here. Assuming the tattoo was the dancer’s birth year, that would have made the eponymous dancer 14 or 15 years old when Elvis recorded the song in 1964. A CPS lawsuit in the making? Certainly. But that also happened to be the age of Presley’s future wife, Priscilla Wagner, when he met her on a U.S. Army base in Germany in 1959. Bad boy, Elvis.

Shootouts and statutory angst are well and good, but Arizona’s most obvious contribution to pop music is pastoral in nature – spectacular Sonoran landscapes, epic sandstone cathedrals and uplifting sunrises. Not coincidentally, songwriters have frequently used them for artistic inspiration. According to songsmith Jim Vallance, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry was inspired to write “Sedona Sunrise” – from the band’s 2006 album Devil’s Got a New Disguise – while visiting his mother in the Arizona high desert. Moved by the “serenity and beauty” of the New Age resort town, Perry evoked the image of the morning sun crowning over Sedona’s signature red rock mountains as lyrical shorthand for the radiance and power of love: “It’s as clear as a sunrise in Sedona,” the song goes. “It’s the fire in her eyes/It’s the tear when she cries.”

Gen Y singer-songwriter John Mayer – he of the flush-faced chart-topper “Your Body is a Wonderland” – pays ironic homage to Arizona’s famous skyscapes in “3x5” (2001). Recalling a trip to Arizona, Mayer likens a pastel-pink desert sunrise to “colors of a cowboy cliché.” It’s both sly self-reproach – how jaded do you have to be not to enjoy a sunrise? – and sober realization that life sometimes does imitate art.

Of course, Arizona’s musical identity is more than the sum of its sunsets. The raw elemental beauty and vast, eye-pleasing desolation of the desert are natural magnets for songwriters. In the 1988 song “The Painted Desert,” 10,000 Maniacs dress-twirler Natalie Merchant takes a bittersweet journey across the picturesque badlands of Northern Arizona, eulogizing a troubled romance with the refrain “The Painted Desert can wait ‘til summer/… When I’m sure the rains have ended, the blooms have gone.” With references to Flagstaff, Tucson and Phoenix – not to mention “cowboy gear sewn in Japan” – the song is redolent of Arizona places and people experienced first-hand.

“I’m going down there to Globe-Miami I’m going up on the heaps of slag ‘Cause a bottle of cold Bohemia That’s the best water I ever had”- Frank Black, “The Real El Rey”, 2006. Photographed at Old Dominion Mine Park; model: Phillip Aaran, provided by FORD Robert Black Agency.

Where Arizona-focused songwriting is concerned, Tucson-based alt-rockers Calexico are remarkably prolific – if there were such a thing as a musical poet laureate, they’d be on the shortlist. With songs that vividly evoke such regional treasures as Cochise Stronghold (“The Black Light”), saguaro forests (“Slowness”) and, yes, Phoenix native Stevie Nicks (“Not Even Stevie Nicks…”), the Calexico oeuvre feels like a forever-evolving disseration on the state. One shining example: the 1999 song “Bisbee Blue,” which lead singer Joey Burns says is ostensibly about a “version of turquoise known only to that part of Arizona,” but more thematically celebrates the distinctive ecology of the mining town turned artist colony.

“Essentially, the song is just looking back at what makes Bisbee so special,” Burns says. “As a destination, it’s just as unique and funky as the turquoise that comes out of the ground there.”

Songwriters do not evoke Arizona strictly to celebrate the pretty and poetic; some are equally preoccupied with the state’s seamier or otherwise desolate side. Pixies frontman Charles Thompson IV, who participated in an archaeology dig at Shoofly Village outside Payson as a University of Massachusetts college student in the early ‘80s, harbors a complex and long-standing fascination with Arizona that spans his entire 30-year career, beginning with the Anasazi-influenced Pixies tune “I Bleed” (1989) and the nearly lyric-free “Havalina” (1988) – an intentionally misspelled paean to Arizona’s resident wild ungulate, which Thompson mischievously describes “walking… on the plains of Old Segona.” (Also intentionally misspelled.) Later, Thompson wrote “Cactus,” a slightly sinister vision of romantic hunger in which he instructs his Arizona lover to “bloody your hands on a cactus tree” and “wipe it on your dress and send it to me.”

In a 1992 Phoenix New Times interview, Thompson – who performs solo under the stage name Frank Black – said that he “visits Arizona quite a bit,” including “hangouts in the Payson and Globe-Miami areas.” Years later, Thompson’s fondness for Central Arizona manifested on “The Real El Rey” from his 2006 solo disc Fast Man/Raider Man. “I’m going down there to Globe-Miami,” Black sings, fancifully imagining himself “going up on the heaps, the heaps of slag” left over from Gila County’s strip-mining heyday. And treating himself to a “cold Bohemia” for his trouble.

In the same New Times interview, Thompson batted down the notion that he is Arizona-fixated. “I’d like to think geographical location doesn’t affect music,” he said. “Too much credit goes to things like that. It’s too romantic in a faddy kind of way to say things like the New Jersey boardwalk is the reason someone’s music sounds a certain way.”

Arizona’s fractious political landscape has also motivated songwriters. Seminal hip-hop group Public Enemy confronted the 1990s legislative controversy over whether to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a public holiday with “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” a clenched-fist parody of Campbell’s similarly titled country hit: “I’m on the one mission/To get a politician/To honor or he’s a goner/By the time I get to Arizona.” Later, country novelty act Ray Stevens penned “God Save Arizona” to illustrate his displeasure over federal overreach: “She can handle the illegals/Protesting malcontents/God Save Arizona/From our own...government.”

Perhaps the most grim of Arizona visions comes from Bright Eyes singer Conor Oberst, who dreams of “dying in Mesa, Arizona… where all the green of life had turned to ash” on the 1998 track “June on the West Coast”.

Citing Arizona’s border-state frictions and intense, otherworldly ecology, Calexico frontman Burns ambivalently characterizes the state as “a great place to learn about the human condition.” Consider the song “Blacktop,” in which he sings “blowing dust annoys the urbanites/their reaction is to blacktop the desert” – a fairly straightforward indictment of the heat-island culture. “When do we say enough paved space is enough?” Burns elaborates. “Being part of a city is also about allowing nature to be part of our design.”

Oddly, the fanciful idea that California will someday recede into the ocean, endowing Arizona with hundreds of miles of Pacific coastline, is a recurring theme in popular songwriting. Disenchanted with the L.A. grind, Tool frontman (and part-time Jerome resident) Maynard James Keenan invites kindred spirits to “flush it all away... learn to swim, see you down in Arizona Bay” on the song “Aenema”; while Black, ever the Arizona fabulist, imagines an inland sea dotted with “the islands of Phoenix… in 2016” on “Space is Gonna Do Me Good” (1994).

The most famous specimen of this odd subgenre is George Strait’s 1986 song “Ocean Front Property,” in which the indefatigable Texan muses on the idea of buying beachfront real estate in landlocked Arizona. To Strait, it’s an absurdity akin to telling his soon-to-be ex-lover than he won’t miss her when she leaves him: “Girl, your mem’ry won’t ever haunt me… From my front porch you can see the sea/I got some ocean front property in Arizona/If you’ll buy that, I’ll throw the Golden Gate [Bridge] in free.”

Apocalyptic imagery aside, it’s still the depiction Arizona as a mecca for wind-blown, full-throttle self-actualization that dominates the music industry’s thematic body of work about the state. And like all great showbiz tropes, the music often feeds the myth, instead of the other way around. It’s interesting to note that Jackson Browne later recanted his 2007 interview and insisted it was Winslow where his car broke down all those years ago – even though Winslow is 60 miles east of the interchange to Sedona, where he was headed.

But, then, Flagstaff didn’t build him a statue. So which story do you want to believe?