Minutes after Harley Russell unlocks his Sandhills Curiosity Shop and turns on the lights, he hands a worn Martin guitar to my dad. Russell’s shop contains several guitars, but it’s not a music store. Despite its name, nothing inside of the small brick building located just off old Route 66 in Erick, Oklahoma is actually for sale. Russell encourages guests to take all the photos they want, and he assures me that every enamel sign on display is real—but this is not a museum either.
“It’s the backdrop for my Mediocre Music program and insanity show,” Russell says.
But there is nothing mediocre about one of Route 66’s most interesting characters. The glow surrounding Russell’s eclectic property may have dimmed slightly after the death of Russell’s wife and better half, Annabelle, in 2014, but the Sandhills Curiosity Shop—and its eccentric owner—still attracts travelers from all over the world.
Just a performer
Russell wastes no time tuning his own guitar before launching into a duet with my dad. Chairs and couches form a circle in the middle of his shop, and visitors are encouraged to join in on the impromptu jam sessions (Russell calls every man who enters the shop during our visit “baby boy”). After he’s warmed up, Russell strikes out on his own, performing rousing renditions of “(Get your Kicks on) Route 66” and “Detroit City.”
What Russell lacks in technical skill, he makes up for in passion—and his philosophy is to, when in doubt, just sing louder. “I have to work on filling my room up vocally,” he says. “I have to work on developing volume. I don’t even consider a style, I don’t even consider the quality. I consider the volume. Most people don’t know quality when they see it.”
Russell doesn’t consider himself a singer or a guitar player, but he’s been doing both since he was young. A sign from the Quartz Mountain Lodge, located about 60 miles southeast from Erick, hangs in Russell’s front yard. He was 12 when he started working in the resort’s cocktail lounge, and he began playing in honky-tonks and clubs soon after. Despite his stacks of records and impressive sound system, Russell says: “I don’t even listen to music. I don’t have a CD player. I don’t go anywhere. I don’t know anybody. The only reason I know people is if they come here.”
He once wanted to be a session musician, but he says he just wasn’t good enough. When I ask him how he defines himself now, he says, “I’m just a performer—some kind of performer.” He pauses for a moment and then adds, “I don’t really know. I know I’m not a guitar player. We always want something to relate to other than our real selves—now that’s one you can think about. What do you think I am?”
The Mediocre Music Makers
Russell was born in 1945 in Erick, a small one-stoplight town with a population that hovers around 1,000. He returned in 1986, long after Interstate 40 had bypassed the town, taking much of the Route 66 traffic—and tourist dollars—along with it. Russell had been living in San Antonio, Texas, but took refuge in his hometown after his fourth divorce. He only intended to stay for six months, but then he met Annabelle. They fell in love and dubbed themselves the Mediocre Music Makers.
If Harley is the frontman, Annabelle was both the beauty and the brains behind their unique operation. Relying solely on tips, the Russells were able to amass an impressive collection of antiques and petrobilia that would make any collector salivate. “People ask me how I do it,” says Russell. “And I say, savvy and money. You have to have the savvy to find it and then you have to be able to make a deal on it—that is, if it’s even for sale.”
As their local celebrity grew, tour groups began to flock to Erick, located just eight miles from the Oklahoma-Texas border. The Russells welcomed people from all over the world, often dressed in matching red-and-white-striped overalls. Annabelle, a talented visual artist, created elaborate, custom welcome signs that still sit in faded stacks around the shop.
“Me and my wife built this together,” Russell says. “She was a big deal. She was a great designer. I learned a lot from her, a lot.”
After battling cancer for three years, Annabelle died in 2014. Although Russell keeps her remains close, five years later her absence still looms large. “Life without her is nothing but a living hell, honest to goodness,” Russell says.
Photos of the couple are everywhere—in frames and in piles on tables—and Russell is still trying to make sense of his life without Annabelle. But he says that she wanted him to stay in Erick, and he has no intentions of leaving. “The two shallow substitutes that people unconsciously take for happiness are activity and acquisition,” he says.
Redneck capital of the world
After spending a few hours with Russell, I’m no closer to figuring out just who he is, but I’m certain about one thing he is not: crazy. We’ve been warned about Russell’s penchant for colorful language by fellow Route 66 travelers and Russell could easily be dismissed as a hillbilly hoarder—but he clearly knows what he’s doing.
Over the years, Russell has his perfected his “redneck” persona. A hand-painted sign on the front of his shop reads, “Welcome to Erick, Oklahoma, the redneck capital of the world. Yee-haw!” When I inquire about where he lives, he offers to show us. It’s not hard to guess which house belongs to Russell, because it too is covered in vintage signs and packed with treasures.
“Welcome to the redneck castle and sanitarium,” Russell says as he unlocks his front door. “It’s the kind of joint that mentally deranged people like myself live in.”
In a 2016 documentary, residents of Erick credit Russell with helping to bring life back into the depressed town. But when I ask about what his neighbors think of the defacto sign museum in his yard, he laughs. “That’s not the first time I’ve been asked that question,” he says. “Hell, me and my wife have both been shot at, we’ve been turned into every agency you can be turned into, that would get you closed down, in trouble, and thrown in jail and out of town. We’ve had all kinds of people open up places and try to sabotage our business. We’ve withstood internet bullying 356 days a year, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. That’s just a few things.”
It’s just me and my dad, but he gives us the full behind-the-scenes tour: “Here’s the redneck porch, the redneck living room, and the redneck bedroom,” he says. “I’ve got to warn you, the kitchen is roach infested. Be careful when we get into the redneck kitchen.” A bowl on the counter is indeed filled with roaches—but not the insect kind.
We squeeze into his small, windowless bedroom, careful not to disturb his sleeping black lab. Every inch of wall space is covered in artwork and signs, and dozens of Russell’s signature overalls sit in a pile at the foot of the bed. “I bring 50 people in here at a time,” he says. “People love it.”
A bowl on the counter is indeed filled with roaches—but not the insect kind.
To steady himself for the tour, Russell takes a shot of Jack Daniels, a sip of Coke, and a toke. He’s quick to point out that he’s smoking medical grade marijuana, legally acquired through the proper channels for some unnamed ailment. There are more ashtrays scattered around Russell’s shop and home than at Mary-Kate Olsen’s wedding, each overflowing with a combination of cigarette butts and those roaches he warns us about.
“I’m over the top for a lot of people and it don’t bother me one bit,” Russell says.
Before we move on to the bathroom, which Russell has dubbed the “sewage lagoon,” he backtracks and throws the pair of overalls he’s been carrying onto the pile. “I forgot, these need to go here—where they belong.”
Welcome to America
To many Route 66 enthusiasts, Russell belongs on the ever-shrinking list of authentic, old Mother Road deities. He clearly loves his visitors but Russell plays it cool. “I can tell you for sure if I was going down Route 66, I wouldn’t come in here,” he says.
But people do come, and Russell is there seven days a week from April until November to welcome them—wearing his signature overalls and sometimes not much else. “In the summer it’s 92 degrees in here—I don’t have a shirt on at all,” Russell says.
Several people wander into the shop during the course of our visit and Russell greets each with the same level of enthusiasm, repeating the phrase “take all the photos you want” so many times I lose count. Just as we’re leaving, a couple from Colombia pulls up on motorcycles covered in Route 66 regalia. Russell launches into his welcome speech in Spanish, before switching back to English. “Welcome to America, baby!” he says.
If you go
The Sandhills Curiosity Shop does not have regular hours, but if Harley Russell is around, he’ll open the shop for you.