WITH 90 MINUTES UNTIL SHOWTIME, parking is already scarce at the Curry County Events Center. I hurry toward the front gates, passing out-of-towners as they help their children down from dusty pickups and young couples dressed in pearl snaps and cowboy hats, huddled close against the brisk April night. A long line of ticket holders snakes into the Clovis Music Festival, which draws thousands to this annual celebration of the town’s musical history.

Inside, I sidestep the flow of bodies pouring in the double doors to have a look around. The large oval arena, home to traveling circuses and rodeos, bustles with activity. A raised platform with giant speakers dominates one end, along with stage lights and rows of floor seating by the stage. At last, the lights dim, a roar from the crowd fills the arena, and an announcer grabs the microphone for a quick shout-out.

“Norman Petty’s success as a record producer, and the legacy he left behind, has led us here tonight,” the announcer says, spotlighting how the Clovis native’s contributions to early rock and roll still reverberate throughout this town just nine miles west of the New Mexico–Texas border.   

Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and others used the Norman Petty Recording Studios microphone.

Uncle Kracker takes the stage to kick off the evening with his large ensemble band. Their rollicking, catchy songs shrink the massive venue to an intimate honky-tonk bar. Best known for his 2001 hit “Follow Me,” the Detroit singer has an affable brand of country-tinged pop that warms up the evening and leaves the crowd shouting for more. The night crescendos with the Grammy-nominated Eli Young Band from Denton, Texas. Beads of sweat form on the brows of the rhythm section. They pump out country beats that chug along behind James Young’s bright, rock-inspired guitar work as singer Mike Eli hunches forward to howl out love songs to the crowd.

Although the festival still carries a small-town charm, attracting national acts has become a hallmark of the town’s outsize impact on rock and roll. “We are known for the ‘Clovis sound,’ ” says Kim Tipton, the city’s events coordinator. “That’s how the festival got started.”

Founded in 1987 as the Norman & Vi Petty Music Festival, it has evolved from an event centered around Petty, to a festival that reflects Clovis as a whole. Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, the Fireballs, and other acts traveled to Clovis to record at the Norman Petty Recording Studios in the 1950s and ’60s, and many of their hits continue to influence modern-day artists.

Vintage equipment at Norman Petty Recording Studios.

Yet Clovis has been a destination centuries before Petty put his musical stamp on this town. Evidence of nomadic hunters, known as “Clovis man,” who occupied the region, dates back some 13,500 years; they may have been some of the earliest ancestors of Indigenous people in the Americas. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway arrived in 1906, buying up land for a townsite and railroad facility that became incorporated just three years later. Even in the late 1950s, when Petty’s state-of-the-art studio was churning out chart-toppers, Clovis was close enough to West Texas to draw its budding rockers and far enough from New York to not threaten the establishment.

Today, the city’s musical lineage provides a steady drumbeat for visitors. Its history attracts local and traveling musicians year-round to the charming downtown, where restaurants and breweries provide lively venues for them to play, and a couple of historic theaters—the Mesa and the Lyceum—have been revitalized for a new generation.

“I’ve really been excited about the big downtown explosion that we’ve had,” says Christy Mendoza, director of Clovis Community College’s Cultural Arts Series, which is held in the renovated Mesa Theater, now known as the Norman & Vi Petty Performing Arts Center. “We’ve got restaurants and breweries opening up—there’s karaoke, there’s music—it’s an exciting time.”

The historic Clovis Hotel, now apartments, was built in 1896.

THE NEXT DAY, I GO LOOKING FOR THE CLOVIS sound. Located in a former grocery store, Norman Petty Recording Studios rests on a quiet stretch of West Seventh Street. A sign posted outside details Petty’s origin: “At thirteen, Norman began cutting records at his father’s filling station.”

I walk in the front door and step into the 1950s. The building’s interior looks frozen in time—a red-and-white soda machine in the front room, an antique jukebox with blue and green lights in the corner, and rows of seven-inch acetates in glass frames occupy the walls.

I meet Kenneth Broad, a friend of the Pettys who has helped administer the estate since Vi’s death in 1992. He’s carried on the Petty legacy by keeping up with the publishing business and studio repairs. “I’m probably the last one with a full acquaintance with Norman Petty,” Broad says. “There’s no one left that has the story embedded in their mind as much as mine.”

Clovis High School sweethearts Norman and Vi married in 1948 and went on to form the Norman Petty Trio with guitarist Jack Vaughn. They scored a pair of hits—1954’s “Mood Indigo” and 1957’s “Almost Paradise”—that eventually paid for the construction of the $100,000 studio, which was originally intended to record the trio. But when West Texas musicians got word of Petty’s work, the studio began turning out tunes like Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be the Day.”

The Clovis Music Festival draws national acts. Photograph by NMTD.

I join the morning’s tour group, which comprises mostly people in town for the festival. Our tour guide, Maryline Bigham, wife of David Bigham, who sang backup vocals for Holly and Orbison as a member of the Roses, begins in the control room. The small space feels even more cramped due to masses of silvery, antique recording equipment—all of it analog and single-track—carefully placed along the shelves with labeled spools of tape that still hold songs recorded there. Through the glass portal in the front wall, we can look out into the recording room. An electric bass guitar used by the Fireballs on their hit single “Sugar Shack” rests on a stand. Bigham flips a switch. A speaker kicks out the instrument’s thumping rhythm as it leads into Jimmy Gilmer warbling, “There’s a crazy little shack beyond the tracks ...”

In the recording area, Bigham notes the slightly curved shape of the paneled walls that Petty used to deaden any unintentional echoes during a session. Beautifully preserved guitars, drums, and amplifiers from the 1950s ring the large room. A vintage mic that captured the vocals of Orbison, Holly, Waylon Jennings, and others drops from the ceiling. She also unearths some rare musical artifacts, including the celesta, or bell piano, responsible for the chime melody in Holly’s “Everyday,” and Vi’s blocky Musicwriter, a kind of typewriter for music and liner notes that helped the Pettys secure royalties on the songs they made.

We move into the studio’s back apartment, where Buddy Holly and the Crickets slept on a set of foldout trundle beds after nights of studio work. A small midcentury kitchen and lounge area looks like it did decades ago, with comfy antique couches below scores of black-and-white photographs and keepsakes.

Assistant city manager Claire Burroughes and city manager Justin Howalt in the Lyceum Theater.

Throughout the tour, I’m struck by the inspiration and precision of Petty’s studio design. “Norman had an ear that was a gift from God,” says Randy Petty (no relation), president of Friends of Norman Petty. The nonprofit was formed to raise donations, maintain the building, and help with tours. “He heard things and processed them in his mind different than anybody else. He was a prodigy—it just flowed from him.”

Yet Petty’s rise in the music business was not without adversity. In the 1950s, Broad says, the Mafia had influence over the industry. “They tried to wipe out Norman Petty,” he says. But working as an independent producer, writer, and engineer in Clovis helped insulate Petty from much of the big-city music politics of the day. He would prepare all the songs in Clovis, then shop them around to record labels on trips to New York.

And while Petty had become recognized in the industry, back home was different. “He was very famous in New York,” Randy Petty says. “But in Clovis, nobody knew who he was.” Folks only started to take notice after Norman’s death from leukemia in 1984, when Vi pushed to ensure his legacy by renewing the recording copyrights, founding the music festival, and offering studio tours. “There was no recognition,” Randy Petty says. “I don’t think anybody knew that Buddy Holly came out of here.”

from left Some of the musicians who recorded in the Petty studio; Many even stayed in the studio’s back apartment.

NORTH MAIN STREET HUMS IN THE LATE AFTERNOON. Visitors to the Clovis Music Festival seem to have bolstered the usual weekend crowd. The historic Mesa Theater’s iconic vertical sign rises high on the 200 block. Petty owned the Mesa in the 1960s, where he recorded bands and broadcast radio shows. In 2021, Clovis Community College received $900,000 in state funding to help renovate the theater. Now it’s the Norman & Vi Petty Performing Arts Center, which hosts a variety of live acts throughout the year.

“My mother remembers going there as a child,” says Mendoza, director of the college’s Cultural Arts Series. “It’s bringing back a part of our past and combining that with our future.” The new performing arts center fits nicely into Clovis’s growing Main Street while hosting everything from zydeco music to live theater. “Our theme is bringing the world to you,” Mendoza says. “We try to bring performances that people in Clovis wouldn’t normally see.”

Just a few blocks away, the Mission Revival–style Lyceum Theater is also undergoing a transformation. Opened in 1921 for vaudeville and movies, the Lyceum closed in 1974 and was taken over by the city in 1982. But after a $500,000 Saving America’s Treasures grant and matching award from the New Mexico MainStreet program, the city has $1 million to revitalize the Lyceum. “This is the last part of the revitalization,” says Claire Burroughes, assistant city manager. “We’re hoping to have it open later on this year.”

“Norman had an ear that was a gift from God. He heard things and processed them in his mind different than anybody else.”

—Randy Petty, president of Friends of Norman Petty

With plans to show both first-run movies and live performances, the Lyceum is set to reemerge as a cultural touchstone for Clovis. “The downtown area is the heart of the community,” Burroughes says. “Having these kinds of historic buildings is a connection to the past.”

Across the street from the Lyceum, I find Levine’s, an outdoor patio attached to the brewery and restaurant Red Door on Main. Opened almost two years ago, Levine’s occupies the empty space between two buildings, literally bridging the gap in the downtown’s economic development. The rough bricks and concrete give the venue a trendy, industrial feel.

An acoustic duo performs outside by the shared wall with the Red Door. People drinking and listening fill the tables and chairs as the guitarist carefully picks notes that float under the singer’s soulful melodies. “Historically, Clovis is a place that fostered musicians and artists,” says Hannah Henrichs, the Red Door’s manager. “We’re trying to be that place for Clovis, a place where musicians can come and play.”

Inside the Red Door, lamps illuminate the bar’s dark-wood interior. A corner of the dining room serves as the indoor stage, so live music can continue during colder months. “We welcome them all,” Henrichs says, “any musician that wants to play in this area.” After opening almost two years ago, Red Door is one of the newer additions to Clovis’s live-music scene. But at least four other restaurants and breweries within two miles put on shows most weeks.

Matthew Ancira performs at K-Bob’s Steakhouse.

Over on Mabry Drive, K-Bob’s Steakhouse hosts live acts Thursday through Saturday. “We have folks that come from as far away as Lubbock and Amarillo to play,” says general manager Dan Boyd, who has even noticed a few bands covering Holly’s “Peggy Sue.” “That music history continues,” he adds.

The legacy extends to East Grand Avenue, where visitors can stop by the Norman & Vi Petty Rock ’n’ Roll Museum, packed with memorabilia and artifacts detailing the artists and all their hits from the Norman Petty Recording Studios.

“People from all over the world come here to tour the museum and see the original recording studio,” Tipton says. The chamber of commerce, which runs the museum and a re-creation of the studio, is planning an exciting update. “You can actually record in it, both analog and digital,” she says.

Once the studio is up and running, hopefully by the end of year, a new generation of musicians will have the opportunity to cut records and tune in to the Clovis sound.

Read more: Constructed by artist Steve Teeters in 2002, the giant metal Buddy Holly glasses can be found on NM 150, just a few miles north of Taos.


April 18: Pink Floyd Laser Spectacular
April 19: Micky & the Motorcars, Kip Moore
April 20: Bowling for Soup, Gin Blossoms

Foxy Drive-In, a favorite hangout for many of the musicians who recorded in Clovis, now draws plenty of families.



Eat. Order the taquitas from Foxy Drive-In, which opened on West Seventh Street in 1956, where many of the artists who recorded with Norman Petty would go for a snack. Snag a steak at the Rails in the town’s renovated historic train depot. Stop by Taco Box, a Clovis staple since 1969, for the famous Frijole Burrito. Get a fancy tea and chat at Lina & Ally’s Tea Shoppe.

Stay. Check out Prince Street, where most of Clovis’s hotels are located, and find a variety of familiar options including Hilton, Marriott, Holiday Inn, Fairfield Inn, and Comfort Suites.

Shop. Spend the day shopping at Main Street Crafters Mall for a wide assortment of antiques; Wild at Heart for women’s and children’s clothes; Bullet Bob Has It for a smorgasbord of collectibles; the Frugal Frog, which opened in December, for colorful glass and handmade items; the Finishing Touches for fine gifts for loved ones; and Twisted Rayne’s Boutique for women’s apparel and accessories.

Listen. Catch live music at Red Door on Main/Levine’s (every weekend), K-Bob’s Steakhouse (Thursday through Saturday on the heated patio), Kelley’s Bar & Grill (most Fridays and Saturdays), or the Rails (on the patio when weather allows), and Bandolero Brewery. The Norman & Vi Petty Performing Arts Center hosts events throughout the year.