LUBBOCK -- We remember Buddy Holly as a lanky kid whose rock 'n' roll seems eternally young. He was 22 when he died in 1959 in a plane crash that also killed Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. The song "American Pie" recalled this tragedy as "the day the music died," but Holly's influence lived on in the Beatles (Paul McCartney owns Holly's song catalog), in Bob Dylan (who saw Holly perform two nights before the crash), and in a majestic array of hits that had me psyched to make a long-dreamed-of pilgrimage to the singer's West Texas hometown and to the studio across the New Mexico border where his magic was made.
I fell in love with Holly when I was a kid attending summer camp in Maine. A counselor played Holly's music every morning in his cabin while I stood outside. Songs like "That'll Be the Day," "Rave On," "Peggy Sue," and "Not Fade Away" (covered by the Rolling Stones for their first hit) burrowed into my brain. The Beatles also covered his "Words of Love," and it seems that every generation of rockers since has paid its homage.
Lubbock is a hardscrabble town in the Texas Panhandle that has bred a disproportionate number of stars such as Waylon Jennings, Joe Ely, Delbert McClinton, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. It's in the middle of cow country, though with a population of 200,000 and Texas Tech University (24,000 students). It's a melting pot of Caucasians, African-Americans, and Mexicans. Holly could trace his roots on his mother's side to the explorer Sir Francis Drake, though his father (Buddy was the youngest of his four children) had much less colorful jobs as a carpenter, a tailor, and a short-order cook.
The story comes into focus at the Buddy Holly Center , a lovely, low-key museum in a former train depot. I walk by exhibits showing his Fender Stratocaster , his home turntable, and his record collection spanning the Everly Brothers, Ray Charles, and Jimmy Reed . There are the fans-only items such as his baseball mitt, fishing pole, and high school yearbook (he sang in the Lubbock High School choir), along with the thick plastic contact lenses he couldn't wear because they hurt his eyes. He set new standards with the black horn-rimmed frames that became his trademark.
"No rock stars wore glasses back then," says Eddy Grigsby, curator of the museum. "He was the first one to do it. He tried to perform without glasses and he almost fell off the stage. He said, 'They're going to have to love me for my music, not for the way I look.' "
On an eerie note, the museum includes the glasses he wore on the night of the crash in Clear Lake, Iowa. The nose piece is broken and one of the lenses is shattered. It reminded me of John Lennon's broken glasses pictured on the cover of Yoko Ono's "Season of Glass" album.
A large metal sculpture of Holly's glasses sits in front of the museum. It's right next to a courtyard where the center holds weekly Thursday concerts in his memory. Mostly Lubbock bands play, including the Thrift Store Cowboys , who will also perform at T.T. the Bear's in Cambridge on Aug. 19 .
"Lubbock is a good place to get your act together," says Daniel Fluitt of the Thrift Store Cowboys , who works at Ralph's Records , where I stop by to purchase an obscure Holly disc. Regarding the Texas scene, he adds, "Austin is saturated with bands, so sometimes it's easier to get started here."
My pilgrimage took me to the Fair Park Coliseum in a field on the edge of town, where Holly opened for Elvis Presley three times and once took him afterward to see "the sights of Lubbock" -- and maybe even found him a date, wrote Holly biographer Bill Griggs .
But the most poignant stop is Lubbock Cemetery, on an afternoon when the sun is blazing. Holly is among the more than 60,000 people buried there. A sign says that fans have traveled up to 10,000 miles to view his final resting place and suggests , " It is customary to place a guitar pick on the headstone so that the music lives on." He is buried next to his parents, Lawrence and Ella Holley, beneath a flat, nondescript stone (the first one was stolen) that has a guitar carved on it and is adorned with such fan trinkets as picks, sea shells, candy, pennies, a necklace, and Hawaiian leis. "To live in hearts left behind is not to die," is the inscription on his dad's adjacent gravestone.
My trip would peak another day, two hours' drive down a farm road in Clovis, N.M. Holly and his band the Crickets would sometimes drive their motorcycles on this same road to a small studio (formerly a grocery store) owned by Norman Petty , who also recorded the likes of Roy Orbison and the Fireballs . It was recommended by a Lubbock DJ named Hi- Pockets Duncan (those who saw the Broadway musical "Buddy" might remember that name) and is where Holly recorded his greatest hits.
The studio has not been used since the late '60s (Petty died in 1984), but it's been kept in pristine condition. Studio manager Ken Broad, who books tours a month in advance, ushers me into the control room and sits me in the same swivel chair where Holly listened to playbacks on the original Altec speakers. Broad puts on "Heartbeat," which just happens to be my favorite Holly tune, and I'm immediately on cloud nine. "Some people have sat in that chair hyperventilating and in tears," he says. I try to control my tear ducts, but I'm clearly overwhelmed.
He cues more songs and tells me Petty's wife, Vi, played the Baldwin piano and the celeste on some Holly songs. In the studio, he points out the original RCA microphone that Holly used, then guides me to a living room in the rear of the studio, with beds where Holly and the Crickets slept. But they couldn't have slept long. "They'd work all night and most songs were cut at 5 a.m.," Broad says.
An added treat is that David Bigham of the Roses -- the vocal group that backed the Crickets and also toured with Orbison -- shows up to say hello. He lives next door in the apartment where the Pettys once lived. Concerning the sessions, Bigham says that "Norman would have [the Crickets] practicing for hours before they recorded." Petty charged not by the hour but $75 per side. Some songs might take a night, some a week, but the price was the same.
How well did Bigham know Holly? "I didn't speak to Buddy much because he and Norman always talked business when they weren't recording," he says. "Buddy always had big plans and was thinking far ahead into the future."
A short future it was, but to steep yourself in the Holly legacy is to tap into an eternal present. Tracing his roots made me fall in love all over again with his music. And listening to it while traveling across the Texas Plains was like hearing it for the very first time.
Steve Morse, a freelance writer in Cambridge, can be reached at email@example.com.