Arts Remembrance: At 40, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays’s “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls” Still Enthralls

By Jason M. Rubin

Nothing that guitarist Pat Metheny had done previously hinted at this sprawling 1981 masterpiece.

Notwithstanding the Arts Fuse’s yearlong spotlight on the great albums of 1971, there’s a 40 year anniversary that’s equally worthy of celebration. Released on April 27, 1981, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls is the first and only album credited to longtime collaborators Pat Metheny (electric and acoustic guitars, bass) and Lyle Mays (piano, organ, synthesizers, autoharp). Brazilian percussionist/singer Nana Vasconcelos completed the lineup. Why is this recording so significant? The most impressionistic entry in the musicians’ combined and respective discographies, the album illuminates different (and fascinating) facets of their artistic personalities.

Of course, venturing into surprising new territory was par for the course for Metheny. As Falls Wichita was his seventh album. It came right after 80/81, an outing with jazz royalty Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette, Dewey Redman, and Michael Brecker, and right before Offramp, a Pat Metheny Group (PMG) recording on which Metheny first made use of a guitar synthesizer (Vasconcelos stayed on this and the next PMG album as well). Still, nothing Metheny had done previously hinted at this sprawling masterpiece.

The nearly 21-minute title track comprises the entirety of Side One. This is movie-music, a cinematic composition the meaning of which is ambiguous at best. At various times, this writer has thought it represents westward expansion or sex. Trying to figure this out is, of course, merely an intellectual exercise, irrelevant to the music’s quality and impact. Nothing can replace the experience of listening to the music, but here’s my aural travelogue of the piece.

“As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls” begins with muted crowd noise, over which comes a steady pulse on the bass, followed by a gently strummed theme on guitar. From the outset, the listener understands that this music is in no hurry. It starts slowly and unfolds patiently. The guitar theme becomes louder, more forceful, as the crowd noise picks up to challenge it. The two forces seem to fight for prominence until both come to a stop at 2:35.

Now guitar and autoharp, joined by shakers, begin to move away from the theme, but it’s a soft, tentative exploration. This is so unlike the usual blast of bright Metheny notes — none of the speedily picked, highly articulated runs for which he is known. It’s almost like a meditation, sound for its own sake, an amorphous pillow of vibrations that appears benevolent, though one suspects it will lead to a forceful climax at some point.

At some point, but not yet. At about 4:05, a new theme emerges on plectrum guitar, somewhat eastern in flavor. Five minutes in, Mays’s synths contribute layers of harmonic support. At six minutes the theme fades, replaced by a more PMG-like percussive base driven by an electronic rhythm, shakers, and bass drum. The synths hover in the background. There is no melody here; throughout this section, the listener is in a Tangerine Dream-like trance, though the propulsive percussion suggests movement, direction, and intention.

Ten minutes in, the synths are front and center — they seem to be whistling, calling forth some as-yet-unseen power. At about 11:30, Mays comes in with a benediction of sorts on organ; it hints at a procession. Metheny’s bass returns to apply thick globs of Jaco-ian splendor. The anticipation is peaking as various elements begin to coalesce.

Finally, at 12:47, the long, slow musical tension is released. The electric guitar plays a more emphatic reprise of the theme heard at 4:05, supported by synths, percussion, and, for the first time, an actual drum kit groove. Majestic as it is, the segment ends so soon; it fades away after 14 minutes. A darker-sounding synth is all that remains.

Punctuating the stillness is an unexpected sound of numbers being recited: 38, 42, 55, 3. This was a happy accident: it was Mays counting the seconds so that he would be able to organize the layers of synths that would be the foundation for the rest of the tune. Its incorporation into the album’s mix was unintentional; Mays thought it would be muted. Hearing a speaking voice in this quiet section is striking yet also somehow assuring. We have come out the other side.

The last five minutes of “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls” is the come-down, the afterglow if you will. Crowd noises return, gradually giving way to the sounds of children’s voices. Gentle guitar strumming, angelic synths, and organ ease us through. Percussion takes a back seat as the chordal instruments lead us to the end. By the 18-minute mark, Mays’s arsenal of synths is out front. The title track concludes as it began, in mists and clouds, shadows and fog. Still, the children’s voices are audible, pointing to future possibilities.

Given the sweeping landscape of Side One, the four cuts on Side Two, ranging in length from 2:41 to 8:17, could be mistaken for filler. But each is a gem unto itself. “Ozark” is a rollicking piano piece punctuated by autoharp. Mays takes an amazing solo on this one. “September Fifteenth” finds Metheny and Mays again on acoustic instruments, paying homage to Bill Evans (who died during the making of the album) drawing on all the lyricism and depth one would expect from Evans himself. “It’s for You” begins with strummed chords on 12-string guitar and synth figures. Vasconcelos comes in at 2:30 to supply a compelling wordless vocal that presages the style that PMG embraced after this recording. About halfway through, Metheny finally unleashes a powerful solo on electric guitar. This is the first time he’s really let loose on the album; it lasts to the end of the track. The final tune is “Estupenda Graça” (Amazing Grace). This is another showcase for Mays, with Vasconcelos on vocals and percussion. It is short and sweet, a fitting amen to a tremendous album.

For trivia buffs, the title, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, is credited to bassist Steve Swallow, with whom Metheny played in Gary Burton’s early fusion bands. Metheny first came to Boston in the early ’70s: at the age of 19 he became the youngest teacher in Berklee history. Now 66, Metheny continues to perform and record. His latest album, Road to the Sun, was released last month. The guitarist will appear at The Wilbur in Boston on November 7. Lyle Mays, sadly, died in 2020 after a long illness. Nana Vasconcelos passed away in 2016.

Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for more than 35 years, the last 20 as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-centusy English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, includes an updated version of his first novel along with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason is a member of the New England Indie Authors Collective and holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.


  1. Ryan on April 23, 2021 at 1:38 pm

    Yeah, not a bad record! LOL

  2. Dave on April 23, 2021 at 3:32 pm

    And one of the best back covers in history. (so is the one on the PMG record American Garage)

  3. Robin Capper on April 25, 2021 at 7:07 am

    It was a couple of years later that I first heard it, courtesy of fellow design student, and became a fan of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays to this day. Still an audio adventure even after decades of listening.

  4. Reggy on June 10, 2021 at 2:48 am

    On my top ten albums for all 40 years, maybe higher up than ever before.

  5. Rissa Warner on September 1, 2021 at 10:55 am

    Thank you for your story! I love this album & listen to it still regularly, but I love hearing your perspective on it!

  6. Rick on September 6, 2021 at 2:37 pm

    In May of 1981, this punky 14y wondered in his buddies parent’s record store -Record City here in Bethlehem PA.

    I had some extra money from cutting grass and such and wanted to treat myself to just one record.

    I wondered around and looked at my standard fare of Zeppelin, Beatles, Sabbath, Priest, April Wine, Rush… but the cover of “As Falls Wichita So Falls Wichita Falls” suddenly caught my eye.

    I was intriged with the phone, telephone, car lights……The other side of the record was just as intriging to me so I was ready to buy the album on the photos itself. I asked my friend’s mom at the counter about this album and she said “it’s this stellar mid-western Jazz Fusion guy but it’s weird.” I plopped down my cash and home I was headed.

    When I got home, I was quick to tear off the plastic and cue up my new turntable that Santa just brought my a few months prior. I was literally a kid in a candy store!

    Within 60 seconds of the sounds, I knew that this was the best cash that I spent on an album since “Van Halen” that came out three years earlier.

    I listened to “As Falls…” at least five times that day and I was hooked. The next day I raided my piggy bank(which I rarely did)and I bought “American Garage.”

    A few weeks later I returned to “Record City” and bought “Watercolors.”

    Fast foward to today, this 54y has been a dedicated fan of Mr Metheny and company esp Mays, Egan, Gottlieb, Nana and Wertico for decades now.

    I even had the pleasure of meeting Mr Metheny here in Bethlehem at his concert at Lehigh’s Grace Hall(1995)and in NYC at a Bleeker Street record shop(1996). He actually remembered me cause he mentioned that we chatted at Lehigh the prior year. I was stoked to say the least.

    Thank you Mr Metheny for bringing the world such incredible music and beautiful album covers.

    • Dean on November 11, 2021 at 8:58 pm

      I enjoyed your story. I wonder if a 14 year old of today could get hooked on this music. As a 60 year old man, I’d like to think this music will live on with future generations.

      • Patrick Brennan on March 6, 2022 at 9:21 am

        Check out Rick Beato’s wonderful review of September 15….he’s helping it live on ! His sit-down with Pat is delightful

    • Gary Krall on December 11, 2023 at 4:41 pm

      I live in Bethlehem and I remember that concert at Lehigh. He played here a couple of times and once at Lafayette at the Williams Art Center. I had the pleasure of seeing the PMG perform AWFSFWF live a few times during their tours in the early 80’s. I especially remember one at the Mann Music Center. Much of the material performed on those tours ended up on the live album Travels. Funny you should mention Record City and the Westgate Mall. I remember the woman who owned the store very well. She was a very nice person and very knowledgeable on music. I had my own “moment” with records purchased there. Yes’s Relayer and Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway were released very close to one another – November/December 1974. I purchased them on the same day at Record City. I think I was 16 then. Its too bad record stores are almost completely gone. Another one just closed last weekend in Allentown – Double Decker records. We had quite a few good stores here in the Lehigh Valley. Toones, Speedy’s and Phantasmagoria, in Allentown ; Record City, Play it Again records, The Renaissance in Bethlehem and few more I’m probably omitting.

  7. Mike on January 6, 2023 at 10:21 pm

    What happens when you ask Google to search for 38 42 55 3? Just for fun, I do this every few years. This time, I landed on this fantastic article.

    AFWSFWF is easily in my top five album list. Thank you for articulating what makes it so darn good.

    • Allen on December 1, 2023 at 8:57 am

      Just did exactly that!!!

  8. JM Hoff on April 30, 2023 at 4:32 am

    Best road music to drive a ‘71 Toyota along the Eel River on highway 101 north to Eureka. Four lanes of sweeping curves. Matching the music’s swelling dynamic and electric and keyboard waves. Best experienced on a cool PM with touches of sun and brushes of fog on the redwoods

  9. Stephen Andros on June 10, 2023 at 10:20 am

    Everyone has their illusion about this song.

    I imagine this as the sound track for your final moments in the journey of your life.

    A glimmering bright light before you, and the sounds of the children you leave behind, as you transition to…?

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