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The Way Home: Mother Road Trio releases their debut album ‘On Route 66’

By Andrew Wisniewski

Ninety years ago this November, in 1926, Route 66 was established, becoming one of the original highways in the U.S. Highway System. Long since known as the Main Street of America and the Mother Road, the latter of which was coined in John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, the iconic artery originally ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. and served as a major path west, especially for those escaping the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. And even with its decommissioning by the federal government just over 30 years ago, it has remained a major part of American folklore, cross-country auto travel and big dreams.

Here in Flagstaff, a longtime popular stop along Route 66, local three-piece, the Mother Road Trio, have tapped into that deep sense of Americana through music. Combining elements of blues, swing, gypsy soul and jazz, the trio’s members—Sammy McRae (harmonica), Mike Shiner (upright bass) and Larry Czarnecki (electric and acoustic guitar) with all three sharing vocals—carry on the legacy of the ultimate highway and the many musicians who picked up instruments and crafted songs in its name, embodying the stories paved along the way.

One for the road

In much the same way many unique stretches of road makeup the solid foundation of Route 66, the Mother Road Trio is constructed on the back of an eclectic mélange of shared vision and musical styles.

It was during a Christmas party at the McRae house in 2013 to which everyone invited was told to bring an instrument that the three members of the trio met, and once they realized they were all into different styles of music, they grabbed their instruments and decided to, as Czarnecki says, “jam on some tunes.” They started harmonizing and interpreting songs—ranging from McRae’s love of hardcore blues to Shiner’s R&B and soul chops and Czarnecki’s rock ‘n’ roll backbone. The result was a sound that was warm and intimate, as if it was cut right from the fabric of the Mother Road herself.

“We just hit it off,” Czarnecki recalls.

With a shared common ground and an almost immediate passion and joy for the music flowing between them, the following January, the band officially took shape.

“We feel like that a lot, honestly,” Shiner says. “The three of us come from such diverse backgrounds, but we have our heads in the same space about what we’re doing [while] having fun.”

For Shiner, his musical background goes back beyond the Mother Road all the way to Massachusetts, where at music school in Boston, influences rained down from the likes of Earth, Wind and Fire and 12-person horn-based R&B and soul ensembles such as Tower of Power. You wouldn’t know it, but prior to becoming the lock-down rhythm section for the Mother Road Trio, he hadn’t picked up a stand-up bass since he was in junior high, and only purchased his current bass three months before meeting the other two members of the band.

Further inland, Czarnecki’s journey started at the eastern end of the Route 66 in Chicago, where at age 11 he picked up his first guitar. He later moved out to L.A. and fell into the city’s vibrant punk and jazz scenes, and eventually hard rock before making his way out to Arizona where he met McRae years later.

McRae, a third generation native of Bisbee, fell in love with blues sounds when he first heard Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 album, Green River, at the early age of 13. At age 17, he recalls getting to see East Coast rockers the J. Geils Band, going backstage, hanging out with them and meeting their harmonica player, Magic Dick. Before long he was wrapped up in blues and started self-teaching himself the instrument, which he notes required “lots and lots of listening.”

And in true Mother Road fashion, he “bought a Harley and went on a trip up to Canada, across the northern states all the way to Chicago to New York and back, and on the way played a harmonica,” he says.

Once in Flagstaff, years before the trio came together, McRae revived Monday Night Blues at Charly’s Pub & Grill, a longstanding popular blues jam session featuring local talents that blossomed downtown in the early ’80s.

“The bar would do like $3,000 in sales and the place was packed,” McRae recalls.

Though now defunct once again, Monday Night Blues was a way to carry on his love for the genre, and was a springboard for what the Mother Road Trio would become and the sound they would soon return to local stages.

Show ready

There’s nothing short of a clear sense that these guys love to perform together and are beyond ready and excited to put on the release show for their debut album On Route 66—which has been a long time coming.

Last fall, after gelling as one for the better part of two years and crafting a handful of original tunes, the trio finally stepped into Tempest Studios down south in Tempe. Over the course of four recording sessions and countless hours, the trio compiled a 10-track album complete with eight original songs and two covers, one of which, Bobby Troup’s classic tune “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” starts off the album by paying homage to the very road that lends the group its name. From there, the guys say the songs just came out. Thematically, they touch on the ups and downs of love and relationships to family and community to traveling the road itself, with all of the guys’ respective musical styles woven throughout.

“I think we were really looking to stretch out the styles on the CD,” Shiner says. “You know, this isn’t a country western … This isn’t a rock ‘n’ roll … This isn’t a bluegrass … This isn’t a blues CD. I mean, there’s not one thing you can nail down. So it stretched out quite a ways.”

As for the Mother Road Trio in the flesh, the live setting is truly the way to hear them. Tight and full of shared harmonies and vocals, they stay true to the instrumentation, capturing the love for their respected styles of music and that of the highway that runs deep within their sound.

“I think we pretty much caught what we do live on the CD, which is really what we wanted to do,” Czarnecki says.

On Saturday night, the trio will perform their biggest show to date at the Coconino Center for the Arts, which will see the stage in the intimate listening room transformed, with a 20-foot backdrop designed by Shiner’s wife and local artist Jocelyne Champagne Shiner, depicting Chicago to L.A., as well as lit-up highway signs, hub caps and other items reminiscent of the iconic highway. The evening set will feature songs from the album, in addition to five new, unheard tracks, and all-acoustic, amp-free tunes that will allow the band to interact with the crowd.

Each member will also have their own hat rack, and will switch out hats between songs, something the guys say was naturally instituted into their performances if for no other reason than for their love of hats.

“Every show we have hats that are different. So the style of what we do and what we play and what we wear, you know, it’s all part of it. We like to have fun with it,” Shiner says.

And as Shiner continues: When it comes to the hats, like the music, he says, “It’s really about having a good time and enjoying the people out there.”

Join the Mother Road Trio on Sat, Oct. 1 during the CD release party and concert for their debut album, On Route 66, at the Coconino Center for the Arts, 2300 N. Fort Valley Road. Doors for the all-ages show open at 6:30 p.m. and the music starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 the day of the show, and can be purchased at www.flagartscouncil.org or at the door on the night of the show. For more info, call 779-2300 or visit www.motherroadtrio.com.