The Mother Road and The Muse: Nationally Accredited Composer Travels RT 66 for Inspiration for Namesake Orchestral Suite

America’s Mother Road, boasting an impressive 2,000 miles across the nation, is once again the center of attention as the 100 year anniversary quickly approaches. Dr. Nolan Stolz of the University of South Carolina has turned his attention to Route 66 as well, shifting the road into a muse for an orchestral suite to be completed just in time for the centennial celebration in 2026. Dr. Stolz is a Las Vegas native, spending the beginning of his life just south of the famous roadway, and made use of the road during his brief move to South Dakota before settling in South Carolina to share his passion for music. The composer has completed an orchestral suite previously about Lincoln Highway, another historic road in America. “I had never really paid it much attention,” he said of Route 66 in the beginning, adding he has played the song as a musician countless times and driven the road a handful, but it was the Pixar movie Cars that really sparked his interest. “I need to visit this before it disappears,” he said. The loss of important history, enjoying things while they’re here and the hope for progress in the future were major themes of the movie, and the same themes resonate in his orchestral work as well. 

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Dr. Nolan Stolz stands with his “Route 66 Suite” car at Sapulpa’s iconic Rock Creek Bridge on the original Route 66/Ozark Trail.

Dr. Stolz has been traveling the route since July 1st of last year, planning for a total of thirteen months on the road. He returns to his home base in Missouri to recharge before heading out again in search of inspiration for his music pieces. He started his journey in St. Louis, and has been driving up and down, visiting towns and attending concerts and symphonies. “I want to get to know the orchestras that are in these cities,” he said, mentioning how disappointed he was that the Tulsa Symphony had to cancel their latest performance due to the snowy weather. 

One particular movement of the suite is titled ‘66 Ghost Towns’, embodying the small towns choked out by new highways and abandoned schools or cemeteries. The esteemed professor related a story about the ‘town that wasn’t a town’: Mud College. Despite having close to thirty buildings, a school and even a cemetery, the community lacked a Post Office and therefore was never an official town. Now, all that remains is perhaps one building and the inaccessible cemetery between Stroud and Davenport. Dr. Stolz says it’s very inspiring to bring light back to these forgotten towns that relied on Route 66 before the newer highways were built. He makes sure to always remain respectful while exploring the road and never trespasses into homes or locked areas. There is a magnet on the side of his car that reads ‘Route 66 Suite’ so folks know he’s not there to cause trouble but is rather just ‘one of those Route 66 people’. Dr. Stolz recounted how friendly people are when they realize he’s there for their road, including business owners providing discounts or even freebies as thanks for bringing the road more recognition. Some towns are extremely proud of having America’s main street under their care, but some towns just treat it as any other road. The professor added that Tulsa has wholly embraced Route 66 to an impressive extent, going so far as to put ‘Route 66’ on things that have nothing to do with Route 66. “What I like about Sapulpa,” he added, “is that they’re so close to Tulsa but they’ve retained their own identity. I feel that’s very rare.”

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About 400 miles of the mother road resides in Oklahoma, that being more than any other state in the nation. Numerous towns along the route are extremely proud that they sit along the original highway, covering buildings in murals and signs. Some parts of the road are hidden, however, and Dr. Stolz had the privilege of exploring a section of Route 66 that only two other people had traveled before him – other than the family that lives along it. This particular stretch was established in 1926 with the rest of the road, but was phased out around 1938 when a new highway was built. Now, it’s a private road and the owner has only allowed three people – Dr. Stolz and two well-known Route 66 authors – to travel down it since then.

The trip has been exciting, but not without rainy days. The composer and Black Sabbath scholar has had to fix his tires five times, four of those being in Oklahoma. With the road being almost 100 years old, there are incredibly narrow areas, spots with debris in the road, nails, bolts, and other various junk that can wreck some good tires. Dr. Stolz also had to have an emergency gallbladder removal while on the road, but hasn’t let anything stop him from completing his mission. 

While visiting Sapulpa, the professor keeps up with the TeePee Drive-In renovations currently underway, and even has a video of cleaning the large screen on his Patreon. “I’m really excited for that,” he said, saying the drive-in really embodies the beginning and end movements of the suite. The final piece, titled ‘The Show Will Go On’, represents the theaters, opera houses, and music halls of Route 66, and the TeePee Drive-In is a perfect example of that theme of remembering the old, and embracing the new.

Stolz stands in front of the TeePee Drive-In Screen, currently undergoing renovations.

Dr. Stolz has yet to write a single note for his suite, but that’s with purpose. He plans to complete his travels before spending a year to reflect and write the perfect orchestral suite that represents the soul of Route 66. He gathers photos and videos that he posts to a Patreon for Route 66 enthusiasts, and those who are interested in the behind-the-scenes of composing such a large piece of music. He plans to complete the suite in time for symphony boards and orchestras to add the music to their 2025 – 2026 or 2026 – 2027 seasons for the road’s centennial celebration. 

“I take all these photos and videos and then I go to my studio and get inspiration, kind of like a realism painter who takes a photo,” Dr. Stolz said, “I’ve curated my own version of RT 66 that I find inspiring and then I will write the music about that.”