Pampa: A Musical Mecca

Posted on July 8th, 2009

On my recent Panhandle excursion, I expected Palo Duro Canyon to be a highlight. I didn't think the town of Pampa would be next on the most-memorable list.

Located about 60 miles northeast of Amarillo in the absolute middle of nowhere, Pampa's biggest claim to fame is its Woody Guthrie connection. Guthrie lived here from 1929-36, and his legacy endures at the former drug store where he worked and plucked a guitar string for the first time.
One of the best things about my job as a travel writer is discovering unexpected stories. I certainly wasn’t planning to spend much time in the small Pampa shop with the hand-painted "Harris Drugs" sign above the entryway. The historical marker in front piqued my interest, and the reference to Woody Guthrie Folk Music prompted me to step inside.

The place was mostly empty, except for a few glass display cases with Guthrie memorabilia and several small flyers and photos on the walls. I was somewhat surprised to hear a distinctive Midwestern accent emerge from a kindly gentleman in the back of the room. "Come on in! Are ya familiar with Woody Guthrie’s music?" I admitted I was somewhat informed, but that a few of my favorite musicians (Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Son Volt's Jay Farrar) were devout disciples.

Pat Stewart introduced himself and proceeded to tell me about his undeniably strong connection to Guthrie and his music. He pointed to an old closet door behind him and proudly proclaimed that it once held the guitar that would forever alter Guthrie’s destiny. "He asked the store owner if he could have the guitar, and he told him he could if he learned to play it," Stewart explained.
After hearing more about Stewart's fascination with Guthrie's music and his recent decision to uproot his life from his native Saint Louis to buy the Harris Drug Store in Pampa, it dawned on me that this guy was more than simply passionate about Woody Guthrie's legacy. When I asked him why he made such a drastic move, he told me that nearly 40 years ago, his life was heading in an unspecified yet dangerous direction, and Guthrie's music saved him from going over the edge.

"So here I am, in the place where it all began, helping spread the word about Woody Guthrie's amazing life," Stewart said with a genuine sense of satisfaction. I told him I admired him for his dedication and conviction, and that I'd do what I could to help him on his quest.

If you ever find yourself anywhere near Pampa, make a point of visiting the old Harris Drug Store at 320 South Cuyler Street. Say "Howdy" to Pat, buy a Woody Guthrie CD or T-shirt, and listen to the fascinating stories of two men and their musical missions.
While in town, be sure to drop by the nearby Coney Island Cafe (114 W. Foster Ave.), a quintessential small-town diner straight out of the 1930s. This is as local as it gets (during my visit, a guy announced to everyone that "54 years ago on this very day my twin sister was born!") and the homemade pies are fruit-filled, buttery-crusted perfection. If you're feeling adventurous, opt for the cafe's special menu item: a baked ham sandwich on a bun with mustard, onions, and home- made chili. It’s like a chili dog taken to a whole new level.

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