Last fall my brother, my sister, and I hiked across the Chain of Rocks Bridge in Missouri, where we grew up. Now for pedestrians and bikers only, the bridge, completed in 1929, was once part of the legendary Route 66. A beautiful steel truss bridge (amazingly photogenic, from many angles) with an unusual bend in the middle, it allows for expansive views of the Mississippi as it winds up to the St. Louis Arch. Everything about it speaks of “once upon a time,” including the fairy-tale-like water towers emerging from the river below—like tiny castles constructed by naiads—and the Route 66 memorabilia, such as a “66 Auto Court” neon sign and a Texaco gas pump, displayed along the way.
Having seen this and having seen the Canadian-by-way-of-Chicago singer Melissa McClelland in action, I’m not surprised that Melissa has heard the siren call of what is now Historic Route 66. Her bluesy songs, delivered in a clear, confident voice, have a tone, both musically and lyrically, that harks back to another time. Even her demeanor (calm, poised, thoughtful) and her clothes (almost prim yet sexy dresses) seem retro. No wonder that the sole cover she performed during a recent set at the Living Room in NYC was Randy Newman’s “1903,” about a gentler era, when being connected meant calling across a backyard rather than twittering on a BlackBerry. Introducing her song “God Loves Me,” Melissa explained that it was inspired by the Luna Cafe, on the Illinois side of the Chain of Rocks Bridge, where she and her crew were served peach liqueur in jars and told about the prostitutes that once lived in the rooms upstairs. “Of course,” she said, “then I had to stay there.”
A couple of years ago, Melissa drove Route 66 from beginning to end, Chicago (her birthplace) to the Santa Monica Pier, stopping at such places as the Pig-Hip Restaurant, the Blue Whale Swimming Hole, and the Wagon Wheel Motel to talk to people who still remember the route as a main thoroughfare and the sudden changes its closing brought about. Along the way, Melissa paused to strum her story songs (“I try to bring it down to the details of a moment,” she says of her writing) while sitting with her guitar on railroad tracks, picnic tables, and the Chain of Rocks Bridge itself. Director Luke Hutton recorded the trip for a colorful, absorbing DVD called Pedal to Steel: Melissa McClelland’s Route 66.
If you can, check out the DVD. But if not, get a taste with Melissa’s video (below) for the gritty, slow-grooving, gets-in-your-blood “Passenger 24.” Her new CD, Victoria Day, produced by Luke Doucet, both her soulmate and bandmate, is being released by Six Shooter Records. (By the way, Melissa can’t seem to get enough: the night I saw her play in New York, she told me she was meeting her mother in Chicago to drive part of Route 66 together.)