Of course, I’m referring to the 90s.
The 90s held the best kinds of music. It was the time of punk rock, britpop, grunge, and more importantly, alternative rock (we are named Alternative Echo, after all).
It was the perfect decade for lesser-known bands to strike gold and become overnight sensations.
Enter: “The Way” by Fastball.
Released as the first single off 1998’s All the Pain Money Can Buy, “The Way” catapulted Fastball from a no-name band to international stardom.
Fastball member Tony Scalzo penned the lyrics after gaining inspiration from a newspaper article about the tragic story of a missing elderly couple.
Lela and Raymond Howard left their Salado, Texas home in June 1997 to embark on their journey to the Pioneer Day Festival in Temple, Texas– just 15 miles away. It was a trip they made every year. It should have been a quick drive. But they never did make it to that festival.
Raymond had recently suffered a stroke, while Lela was showing signs of dementia. Even so, as the song goes, “they made up their minds, and they started packing. They left before the sun came up that day.”
Their family and law enforcement began searching. A news report from the time states the disappearance continued to “mystify relatives and law officers from Texas to the East Coast.”
Scalzo was captivated by the headlines and decided to write up what would soon become Fastball’s greatest hit. It wasn’t until after the band had settled on recording the song that the Howards’ vehicle was found at the bottom of a canyon near Hot Springs, Arkansas– hundreds of miles from their original destination.
The couple did not survive the crash.
It’s a sad story to write a song about, especially considering the characters in this story were real. Still, Scalzo managed to romanticize their deaths, to the point of maybe even bringing peace to the situation. Instead of focusing on devastation and loss, Scalzo focused on a happier ending.
Anyone can see the road that they walk on is paved in gold
And it’s always summer
They’ll never get cold
They’ll never get hungry
They’ll never get old and gray
The song envisions the couple in Heaven now, indicated by the streets of gold. The chorus continues, saying they’re happier where they are now, than they were here on earth.
I’d always wondered what their family thought of Fastball’s song once they heard it plastered all over the radio a year later. Were they happy their parents’ story was immortalized in one of the decade’s biggest hits, or were they angry it was even being focused on? Did they immediately turn off the radio once it came on, or did they listen to it in full, thinking back on happier family memories?
In an interview with WUSA9 in 2017, I finally got my answer.
“I was just blown away,” said Rhonda Alford, Lela’s granddaughter. “I just couldn’t believe somebody would do something like that for my grandma.”
Lela’s son, Hal Ray Copeland, said, “I liked it, really. I liked the song (a lot).” He later added, “My cousin said (Lela) left a star. On TV all the time, a song about her. She would have loved that.”
“The Way” peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart in 1998, while claiming the top spot on Billboard‘s Modern Rock Tracks chart for seven weeks.
The song was voted as one of VH1’s “100 Greatest Songs of the 90s,” and the album All the Pain Money Can Buy went platinum in 1998.
Whether you’ve known the background story for years, or you’re learning about it for the first time now, this song definitely deserves another listen. A great tune and an even greater tribute.