You can get your kicks before you hit Route 66 if you start in St. Louis in the far east of Missouri.
WC Handy published his song St. Louis Blues in 1914, the first blues sheet music, inspired by a woman he heard singing here in the street way back in 1892. The National Blues Museum, in the heart of downtown, explores the history and impact of the music. It does this through a remarkable collection of photographs and videos and is well worth a visit.
The famous rock and roller, Chuck Berry was born here and, until he died in 2017, used to play every month at the Blueberry Hill club in the Delmar Loop. There is still a cluster of blues and soul places downtown on Broadway where they have live music most nights.
The city was known as the “Gateway to the West” in the era when pioneers were setting out to populate the rest of the US. It was the last outpost of civilisation before people ventured out into the unknown and the iconic Gateway Arch celebrates the early 19th-century explorations of Lewis and Clark and America’s westward expansion in general.
It was completed in 1967 and sits on the banks of the Mississippi, rising to nearly 200m, so can be seen from everywhere downtown. The structure is actually a giant doughnut sandwich made from stainless steel on the outside, carbon steel on the inside and concrete in the middle.
You can actually take a train around the arch, crammed into an eight-seater pod which takes four minutes to climb slowly upwards. At the top, you get out and view the city through 32 slit windows.
From St. Louis, I set out west on Route 66 to Springfield, where the plan for “the shortest, best and most scenic route from Chicago through St. Louis to Los Angeles” originated in 1926. Main transcontinental routes were meant to be multiples of ten, so it was originally designated as Route 60. However, Kentucky claimed that number, so it became U.S. 66, and spawned the famous song.
The Interstate Highway System, the brainchild of President Eisenhower in 1950s, replaced most of it and I-44, through Missouri, largely follows the original route. It takes me past the Route 66 Red Rocker, one of the world’s rocking chairs and a Vacuum Cleaner Museum before arriving in downtown Springfield.
The big attraction in town is the Wonders of Wildlife which includes a whole range of stuffed animals prowling western dioramas. It’s the creation of local boy made good, Johnny Morris, who started with a bait shop but now has a multi-million dollar business selling hunting and shooting equipment. Most impressive is the 1.5 million gallon aquarium, home to 800 species of sharks, rays, jellyfish and eels.
From Springfield, I leave Route 66 and drive south into the Ozark Mountains. The road begins to climb and the landscape gets wilder. I pass the town of Ozark, the fictional home of the Beverly Hillbillies, and arrive in Branson. The scenic natural beauty of the lakes and forests here, as well as the deep Marvel cavern, attracted early 20th century tourists. Silver Dollar City, a re-creation of a frontier town, opened in 1960 and music attractions include white gospel groups and old time dancing to string bands
Branson really took off when the Roy Clark Celebrity Theatre opened and began to bring in famous country music stars. They included Andy Williams, Glen Campbell and Tony Orlando who in turn built their own theatres. Now the town bills itself as “the live music show capital of the world”. It’s a bit like a mountain Las Vegas, without the gambling, and the coach parties love it. They even have a Titanic Museum.
Here I catch a number of shows including the Million Dollar Quartet at the Welk Resort Theatre, Raiding the Country Vault and Clay Cooper’s Country Express. The highlight though is a one-off appearance by black country music legend Charlie Pride who at 84 is still in fine voice. Of course, he sings all his hits but he also reminisces about growing up cotton picking in Mississippi and encountering country music greats.
Retracing my route back to Springfield, I wave goodbye to Route 66, which carries on west to Oklahoma City and point my car north, to Kansas City, schizophrenically straddling both Missouri and Kansas. The Missouri part includes the historic 18th and Vine district where, in the 1920s and ’30s, notable jazz musicians got their start. It was all down to a corrupt major called Pendergast who ignored prohibition and let the mobsters run the area. Charlie Parker was born in the city. Count Basie was a regular, and late-night jam sessions were the order of the day.
These days most of it has been demolished, although parts of the film Kansas City were filmed here, recreating the famous facades some of which still remain. The American Jazz Museum in a new building is slightly underwhelming but has potted histories of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. They do have live jazz here on a regular basis and there are plans to stage more music in the area.
You won’t find much music in the great open spaces that form most of Missouri. Outside the big cities, settlements are sparse and the undulating landscape can be hypnotic on those long drives. Wind down the windows, feel the breeze on your face and turn up the volume. After all, this is the home of some of America’s greatest sounds.
Tell Me More About Missouri
Visit Missouri has information about the state
Broadway Oyster Bar has nightly live music and excellent shellfish.
Beale on Broadway features R&B, blues & soul every night.
BB’s Jazz Blues Soups stages jazz, blues, big band and swing with a tasty Southern menu.
Explore St Louis has information about the city.
The Hilton Branson Convention Center is handy for the attractions and serves excellent steaks.
Explore Branson has information about the area.
The Raphael is a boutique hotel, close to the Country Club Plaza and has live jazz.
Visit KC has information about the city.
American Airlines flies to St. Louis and Kansas City from London Heathrow via Chicago.