Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for October, 2018


Today was our last day on the road. We were due to return the hire car to Dollar at Midway International Airport, and able to check in at the house in Chicago by 4pm.

So there was no rush this morning, enabling us to look around the stores on the site before leaving at a quarter past eleven under grey skies and a chilly 41 degrees. But at least it was dry. We headed east initially on Interstate 74 towards Bloomington where we would turn northwards on the I-55 (Route 66)  in the direction of the Windy City.

20181013_120912

It may have been the absence of rain, or the fact that it was Saturday and there were less trucks in evidence, or maybe just a less populous area, but the roads were much quieter than they had been the previous day. As a result, we were soon approaching Pontiac, where the  the automobile brand of the same name was founded, in search of  our first meal of the day, and the last we would have on the road during the trip.

20181013_121919

Although we passed several McDonald’s on the journey, we were tempted by an Arby’s sign in the distance, so resolved to pull in and have lunch there. Like Cracker Barrel, where we had eaten between Nashville and St. Louis, we hadn’t eaten in an Arby’s since our early years of touring the country by coach.

20181013_122245

Whilst the photograph below might not do it justice, and that one Facebook friend subsequently questioned the company’s hygiene record, my three cheese beef sandwich was delicious. Janet’s turkey based creation was equally welcome. Twice the price of a McDonald’s, but hardly one to clean out our slowly diminishing cash balance.

20181013_122957

Shortly after resuming our journey, warning signs alerted us to the fact that there had been crashes on the I-155 on the approach to Chicago that would necessitate us being diverted. As it happened, the incidents were cleared in sufficient time to keep the delay to our journey to a minimum.

Indeed, the highlights of the remainder of the drive were those fascinating signs hung high above the road, especially in built-up areas. If someone would like to pay me to criss-cross the United States for a year, I am convinced that I would be able to produce a riveting tome containing some of the most outlandish signs.

Many of them provide a fascinating insight into American society and culture.

20181013_144259

20181013_141257

20181013_141854

20181013_141616

20181013_141955

20181013_143207

For the first time on the trip, there were tell tale signs that we were entering a more heavily industrialised area.

20181013_135345

And constant reminders that we had rarely strayed from the Mother Road on our last two days.

20181013_143012

A condition of our car hire agreement was that we had to return the vehicle with a full tank of gas (the alternative would be to pay an astronomical additional amount at the end).

After driving around the area for about ten minutes in search of a suitable gas station, the deed was done and we set off for the Dollar car hire garage at Midway Airport.

20181013_145038

We handed over our Texas registered SUV with no issue before staggering (well, I was staggering as I had responsibility for the larger cases) over to the spot at the terminal where our Dollar representative had advised us we could pick up an Uber.

Not as simple as it sounds.

Firstly, Janet discovered that she had left her driving glasses in the car. When she returned to the garage, she was informed that it had already been transferred to valeting. Anyway, she managed to collect them eventually, only to be told by me that, in the meantime, I had realised that I had left my new phone charger in the car too!

No second expedition to locate the car again. The charger was somebody else’s property now.

Time to call the Uber. We were now in danger of checking in after our planned 4pm arrival time.

The first Uber driver, after appearing to get further away, rather than nearer, to where we were standing, then rejected the fare, leaving us to order another.

The second driver, Samson, then rang us to inform us that he was not allowed to enter the terminal without paying  to park (for all of a minute), meaning that we would have to walk (remember who had the heavy load, dear reader) several hundred yards to meet him outside the car park entrance.

After ten minutes and many expletives on my part, we connected up with Samson who then drove into the car park, sweet talked himself out of paying $2 for thirty seconds  “parking” and we were on our way.

20181013_162415

The decision not to drive once we had reached Chicago was immediately vindicated. The roads were frightening. But, aside from negotiating us through the horrendous traffic, Samson was a charming companion for the half an hour it took to deliver us to our home for the next four nights.

We met the agent, Jerry, who showed us round the property, including the extraordinary rooftop terrace which had good views of the downtown skyline………and an amazing church!

Shortly after we had settled in, and Janet had put the first load of washing in, our housemates for the next three nights, Jerry and Alicia, and their two sons, Aiden aged ten and Ely three, pulled up outside in their rental people carrier.

We had first met Jerry and Alicia four years before when we entered our favourite hippie store, Land of the Sun, in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. We spent that evening in the Great American Music Hall eating fish and chips and watching Dark Star Orchestra reprise a legendary Grateful Dead concert at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1969.

Since then, we have got together whenever we visited San Francisco, visiting their home in Petaluma, attending football and baseball games as well as other gigs, and even spending Halloween together last year. And in May, Alicia stayed with us in Folkestone.

We were all hungry, so made it a priority to find somewhere to eat. There were several restaurants within a few hundred yards of the house, and once we had eliminated those that had a BYOB (Bring Your Own Booze) notice on their window, we plumped for an excellent Thai restaurant.

IMG-20181013-WA0000

On our return to the house, Jerry and I wentto the local Kroger supermarket to purchase provisions for our stay. This went well apart from the moment when, pushing the trolley (which was clearly faulty), I careered into a display promoting red wine, smashing one bottle and spilling its contents over my new cowboy boots.

Even though I was excused payment I was distraught! Fortunately, there was no lasting damage.

Aiden and Ely in particular had made themselves at home, ransacking the boxes of toys, especially miniature cars, they had found in the play room and gleefully running around the rooftop terrace as the sun set.

The weather forecast for the next two days, which we were to share with our San Francisco family, was looking good.

And we had plans!

 

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »


Within five minutes of the aforementioned photoshoot on the staircase at Magretta and Chuck’s Forget-Me-Knot bed and breakfast in St. Louis, Missouri, we were back on the road in a light drizzle that evolved quickly into driving rain. With a cool, strong breeze blowing too, it was undeniable that we weren’t in Louisiana anymore.

The dramatic temperature change even prompted us to ditch the car’s air conditioning for the heating!

We were both a little weary and lethargic this morning, a not uncommon feeling at this three-quarter point in a month long vacation. But spending a few days with our San Francisco friends and their two sons, who were joining us in Chicago, would no doubt re-energise us.

It was still the tail end of the rush hour, so driving was more challenging than it had been for the southern leg of the trip.

Another phenomenon that we had not experienced before – roadworks – slowed us down still further on I-55 (also Route 66), though we never reached the type of standstill that is a daily occurrence on the major motorways of the U.K.

At Litchfield we filled up on gas, the penultimate time we would need to do this before returning the car at Midway Airport in Chicago tomorrow.

Endless fields of corn and barns dominated the landscape.

I had remarked in a previous chapter that, even when the scenery might be bland for hundreds of miles, the directional and promotional signs that dot the highways of the United States are always a good read.

20181013_114709

Our history professor at the breakfast table earlier had self-disparagingly claimed his home state had little to commend it other than its connection to Abraham Lincoln.

And we were reminded of that on a number of occasions on the roadside.

20181012_123943

We had set out with the intention of visiting the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, but the dismal weather, and relatively slow progress, prompted us to decide to drive on to our destination, with only a brief stop near Chatham where we had McMuffins (for the last time) and coffee for the ludicrously low price of $7.49.

Arriving a little earlier in Peoria would also enable us to rearrange the suitcases as it would be the last opportunity to do so before our next flight (from Chicago to New York).

And for me to catch up on the blog!

We arrived at our Motel 6 (the cheapest accommodation of the whole trip at only $60 (£46) for the night), as the rain finally relented.

It was located in a typically American roadside complex of gas stations, a variety of stores and a handful of modest eating places, one of which, amidst the fast food outlets, was the fantastic Biaggi’s.

We had been disappointed on our last evening in St. Louis that we could not have the classy Italian we had craved, so to discover such an elegant establishment in such an unexpected place was a delight.

Our only reservation was having to endure the barman ‘s pretentious descriptions  of the dozens of exotic craft beers he was willing to dispense. It almost made me pine for  the days when all you could get was a Bud or Coors!

Tomorrow would be the last day on the road.

And, as if to complete the set of different types of accommodation we had stayed at, we would have a whole three bedroomed house at our disposal!

Folkestone meets San Francisco in Chicago!

 

Read Full Post »


Our last breakfast in St. Louis and Chuck surpassed himself, with a divine Eggs Benedict following a sweet, refreshing bowl of strawberries.

But there was a difference at the table this morning. We were joined – after ten minutes – by the two couples that had checked in the night before, rendering the bed and breakfast fully booked.

Jim and his wife from Mobile, Alabama and a younger couple from upstate Illinois introduced themselves, though it is only Jim’s name that I now recall as you will learn the reason for shortly.

The Illinois couple, who had been to a music event in the city the night before, were professors of history and an artist respectively.  Although they listened intently to the story of our road trip, they were not so forthcoming about their own lives, seeming eager to hit the road.

But Jim was another “personality” altogether. A retired stockbroker who had made his money, and now an avid golfer, he was far more forthcoming about his accomplishments  and, more alarmingly, his political views.

Now, we had scrupulously avoided being dragged into any intense debates about the state of American politics and society on the trip, though, to be fair, we had only really met people who were of a liberal persuasion, and embarrassed about the current state of their country. In fact, our fellow shuttle bus passenger in Newark at the start of the tour personally apologised to us for her president.

IMG-20181024-WA0003

But Jim, as authentic a ‘good ol’ Southern boy” as I had ever met, came right out with it.

“So, what are your politics , right or left?”.

Fortunately, he levelled his question at our history professor, casting no more than a cursory glance in our direction. I think he had already resolved that we were pagan, socialised medicine loving, immigrant embracing, gun hating reprobates and beyond redemption.

Clearly discomfited by the direct, almost aggressive nature of the question, the history man replied, with an unnecessarily apologetic tone in his voice.

“Well, we are liberals”.

Presumably thinking he would sound tolerant and fair minded Jim rejoined:

“I told my friends when Obama became president, that you had to accept it whether you liked it or not”.

Awkward silence.

And the inducement for the younger couple to announce their intentions to leave the table.

To her credit, Jim’s wife did attempt to lighten the atmosphere, making excuses for his manner on a couple of occasions.

My attempt at injecting some screamed for humour into the moment came with stating that the only thing I knew about Mobile, Alabama, was the Dylan song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. 

Stifling a knowing chuckle, our Illinois diners wished us good luck for the remainder of our trip as we both rose from the table.

Jim?

He just looked baffled and not a little flustered at the reference alone to another spawn of the devil.

But, in the admirable spirit of fairness and cooperation so often preached by his president, Jim enthusiastically took the two photographs seen here with Magretta, Chuck, Spike and Haley.

IMG-20181024-WA0002

St. Louis had been a revelation, and somewhere we are keen to return to in the near future. It had also been a joy to share Magretta and Chuck’s home for the past three nights.

The weather gods had been kind to us too, even to the extent of postponing the rain until this morning.

But it would be a wet ride to our final overnight stay in Peoria!

 

Read Full Post »


The “Egg Master” himself, Chuck, was in control of the kitchen at our bed and breakfast on our second morning. After a refreshing bowl of grapefruit he delivered a consummate omelette with sausages, rounded off (literally) with delicious homemade scones.

The weather, if a few degrees cooler than yesterday, was equally glorious. There was not a cloud in the sky, perfect for a day at the zoo. We were staying nearly an hour’s walk from its home in Forest Park, and, at that time of day, Uber prices were prohibitive, so we decided to take the car.

One of the best features of the zoo is that it is entirely free, based on a public subsidy from a cultural tax district. However, it is $15 to park close to the entrance, so we drove around for a few minutes until we found a suitable parking spot on the road.

On our arrival, we had a pleasant five minute chat about both our road trip so far and life back in the UK with a charming greeter named Bonnie. But it was other personnel that we were more interested in engaging with, and we finally prised ourselves away.

20181011_113842

Recently voted Best Zoo and America’s Top Free Attraction, St. Louis Zoo is recognised as one of the world’s leading zoos in animal management, research, conservation, and education.  After it was established in 1910, new exhibits, areas and buildings were added through the decades to improve care of the animals, the range of animals and habitats shown, as well as education and interpretation.

Around three million visitors a year now enjoy more than 16,000 animals in the Zoo’s care, many of them rare and endangered (the animals that is, not the visitors).

20181011_111319

The zoo is structured around seven discrete areas, namely River’s Edge, Discovery Corner, Lakeside Crossing, The Wild, Historic Hill, Red Rocks and the recently opened Grizzly Ridge. There are fourteen eating and dining options dotted around the park as well as eight places to shop.

20181011_120604

We were immediately struck by just how welcoming and contented the animals appeared. We were accustomed, for example, to watching polar bears pacing backwards and forwards in a seemingly agitated state, rather than sitting comfortably and “smiling” into visitors’ cameras.

Most of the residents, with the customary exception of the big cats who were sleeping and/or hiding, seemed only too happy to pose for photographs.

20181011_112325

20181011_142413

20181011_125100

20181011_122449

 

20181011_141255

 

20181011_143202

A delightful feature, especially for the children, is the two foot narrow gauge Emerson Zooline Railroad with passenger trains pulled by locomotives that encircle the zoo, stopping at the more popular attractions.

I spent the whole day chasing it around the park, trying to get a decent picture. Finally, I managed to capture these shots!

20181011_144842

20181011_144856.jpg

With Halloween less than a month away, there were many scary and ghoulish exhibits either already set up or in the process of being built throughout the park.

20181011_115822

20181011_135744

 

There is a ongoing debate over which is the better zoo – St. Louis or San Diego. We had visited the California park in 2006, and the passing of time renders comparison difficult. I seem to recall that San Diego appeared bigger and busier, but, if pressed, I would argue that St. Louis was a pleasanter day out, especially as the animals had been so accommodating.

It was now time to hop in the car and drive downtown to take those photographs of the Gateway Arch while the weather was still beautiful.

I had already planned to take a photo of the Old Courthouse with the Arch as backdrop, but I hadn’t noticed the fountain and statue before, which, I think, made the image even more spectacular.

20181011_154755

20181011_161608

It was too late to take a riverboat ride on the Mississippi.

20181011_160732

20181011_160628

It was our last night, and we wanted to eat locally. There were a number of restaurants on South Grand Boulevard, around a twenty minute walk from our B & B. We set off with the intention of dining at a popular Italian restaurant, Gian-Tony’s, but we were not enamoured of its interior from outside.

After a fruitless ten minutes peering through other windows, we came across Rooster. A modern brunch spot of some repute, the menu was perhaps a little limited for a last night meal, but, after a lengthy wait, we did enjoy our salmon savoury crepe and   chicken and goat’s cheese salad respectively.

20181011_210045

On our way back to the B & B, we fell fortuitously into Riley’s Pub on Arsenal Street where the gin and tonics were not $12, not $10, not even $5 but $3!!! Needless to say, we had more than the planned one.

20181011_221343

Apart from our last night and Chuck’s next culinary masterpiece at breakfast, our St. Louis adventure was over – at least for now.

As with the previous cities, we had only scratched the surface of its appeal. Yes, we had climbed the Arch, roamed around the wonderful zoo and explored the City Museum. But we had not seen any of the other fine museums, taken a tour of the ballpark or the blues museum, or tackled the shops and restaurants of the Delmar Loop neighbourhood, regarded as one of the most vibrant streets in the country.

So we will certainly be back!

But first, there was a glass of port and Stephen Colbert to contend with.

Read Full Post »


According to most online reviews, one of the biggest benefits of staying in our St. Louis accommodation was the size and quality of the breakfast. And our landlady, Magretta, advised us on our first evening, that, such was his talent, she referred to her mild-mannered Japanese husband, Chuck, the “Egg Master”.

But it was Magretta herself who was responsible for our important first meal of the day on our first morning. The elegant dining table was laid out immaculately with the best china as the first course of melon was delivered. This was followed by scrambled egg and bacon, presented in an unusual and attractive way, and topped off with unlimited supplies (if we could have eaten them) of aebleskivers (Danish pancake balls). We joked at the time that, for the first time on the trip, we would not be in need of lunch – and we were proved right!

Throughout the meal we were watched over by Spike the terrier, though he had been trained not to beg for food. Mind you, I am sure he would have pounced gleefully on anything accidentally dropped from the table.

Although there were two other rooms in the house, we were the only occupants for the first two of our three night stay. So we enjoyed the full attention of our hosts.

20181010_105025

We were already aware of the Gateway Arch, the reputation enjoyed by its world class zoo, and, of course, its key role in the history of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll (Chuck Berry was born there), but St Louis was probably, of all the cities we were visiting, the least familiar.

And it was a dull, drizzly morning when we climbed into our Uber car to head downtown. In view of the much improved forecast for later that afternoon, we decided to spend the morning exploring an indoor attraction, namely the City Museum, which had been recommended by Magretta.

20181010_110225

We didn’t know what to expect, so were astonished by this former International Shoe building, whose exhibits consisted principally of repurposed architectural and industrial objects.

Opened in 1997, the museum, described as “one of the great open spaces”, attracts three quarters of a million people per year, and it was not difficult to see why. Whilst we were unable to access the rooftop theme park due to the intermittent rain, there was plenty of interest and entertainment in the remaining four floors of this eclectic, quirky space.

We spent the first part of our tour underground in the “enchanted caves”, a maze of tunnels which was a child’s paradise, judging by the number that ran around squealing with delight and popping up unexpectedly from below or through walls as we walked around.

20181010_111547

Every corner turned, every staircase mounted, revealed something new and surprising.

20181010_112224

20181010_111953

20181010_112948

20181010_113656

20181010_114812

Amidst all the industrial exhibits, including bank vault doors and machinery used to make fuselages for small airplanes, there were many more frivolous pieces such as a circus school, the world’s largest pair of men’s underpants (seven feet high by seven feet wide) and the world’s largest pencil (76 feet).

I did say it was quirky, didn’t I?

Another was an approximately seven foot high statue of the mascot of the Big Boy hamburger chain – a chubby boy in red and white checkered overalls holding a double decker cheeseburger.

20181010_113935

True to the forecast, the day was taking a turn for the better as we left the museum and walked down Washington Street towards the waterfront. But it was time for a drink (not lunch – Magretta had seen to that), which we had in Tigin, a friendly Irish pub, before heading to the Gateway Arch for our ride to the top.

Clad in stainless steel and built in the form of a weighted catenary arch, it is the world’s tallest arch and the world’s tallest man made monument in the Western Hemisphere. It was built as testimony to the westward expansion of the United States and officially dedicated to the “American people”. Unsurprisingly , it has become an internationally recognised symbol of St. Louis, as well as a popular tourist destination.

20181010_144310

The Arch was designed by Finish-American architect Eero Saarinen in 1947 and built between 12th February 1963 and 28th October 1965 for $13 million ($77.5 million in today’s currency). It opened to the public on 10th June 1967. 

The first part of the tour, as so often in the United States, was a movie, Monument to the Dream, detailing the history of the Arch’s construction. We were astounded  to learn that there had not been a single fatality, not least as the film showed men, cigarettes poking out of the corners of their mouths, casually strolling along girders hundreds of feet in the air without the hint of a safety harness.

The tram ride to the top lasts four minutes, a more manageable journey than the 1,076 emergency stairs. Alighting at the top, passengers climb a slight gradient to reach the observation area with its sixteen narrow windows either side.

The views are exhilarating, especially those of the Mississippi River, Busch Stadium, home to the St Louis Cardinals baseball team and the beautifully restored federal courthouse.

20181010_161247

20181010_161344

20181010_161143

By this time, we had resolved to devote our second day in town, which was forecast to boast a clear blue sky, though cool, to a visit to St Louis Zoo, but allow us enough time to return to the Arch to take some more photographs, from ground level on this occasion.

Once down on terra firma, we spent a fascinating hour or more roaming among the exhibits of the outstanding Museum of Westward Expansion at the foot of the Arch.

Aside from the excellent information videos and displays, the recreations of a covered wagon and a full size buffalo particularly impressed me.

20181010_171328

20181010_174014

Magretta’s ample breakfast was, by now, finally wearing off, so we began the search for a dinner spot. We found a modern Mexican restaurant, Gringo’s, a couple of doors up from the National Blues Museum, which had unfortunately closed for the day. Once again, the meal (mine was a satisfyingly chunky burrito) was excellent and the service hospitable without being effusive.

20181010_183247

We called an Uber to return to the house, where we found Magretta and Chuck diligently packaging items for their online crystal sales business. Spike and Haley were dutifully sat at their feet.

One of the many other nice touches about this accommodation was the communal room on the floor below us which contained reading material, snacks and decanters with port and sherry in them! It had already become Janet’s habit to take a glass of port back to our room to watch the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which had itself become part of our daily routine (when we not still out on the town of course).

We had throughly enjoyed our first day in St Louis.

And we were going to the zoo tomorrow –  how about you?

 

Read Full Post »


Firstly, regular readers will be delighted to learn that this account will be considerably shorter than the majority of posts on the road trip. It was the longest ‘road” day, 309 miles from Music City USA (Nashville) to the Gateway to the West (St Louis). And, despite driving in four different states, a largely uneventful one.

I kept my promise to finish the sandwich we had had “boxed” in Ole Red’s on Broadway the night before, though, even heated in the microwave, it was much less palatable than it had been twelve hours before.

After a confusing episode over the correct recycling bin in which to place glass, paper, plastic and trash, we left the bungalow at 10am.

 

At first, on the outskirts of Nashville and towards Clarksville, the traffic was heavy, which is a relative term given the emptiness of roads on much of the trip.

We made an early “elevenses” stop at a drive-thru Starbucks near Trenton.

Trucks were our constant companions as we crossed the stateline into Kentucky. Fedex was particularly prominent, at one point four appeared to be travelling in convoy.

Squashed critters and burnt out tyres, unsurprisingly in the light of the poor road surface in places, dotted the hard shoulder.

The temperature gauge approached the mid eighties, despite the scudding clouds. There was a hint of autumn in the changing of the leaves on the trees that stood sentry on either side of the highway.

The bridge over the Red River injected some welcome variety into the endlessly bland scenery.

As we drove deeper into Kentucky, the roads became emptier, and we were back to enjoying them by ourselves for miles on end.

The road signs, always a fascination for me, became the only distractions for dozens of miles.


We had broken the back of the journey by the time we reached Mount Vernon, and our thoughts turned to lunch.

Cracker Barrel had been a regular stop on the two coach trips we had taken in the late nineties, but we had not patronised much in recent years.

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store is a chain of combined restaurant and gift stores with a Southern country theme. It operates 645 stores in 44 states. Its menu is based on traditional Southern cuisine with appearance and decor designed to resemble an old-fashioned general store, with reasonable prices. We both plumped for an American fried breakfast.

It was clear that the store was already heavily geared up for both Halloween and Christmas.

Kentucky begat Illinois begat Missouri as we entered the environs of St Louis. After three hours of empty roads it came as a shock to encounter the early rush hour hubbub of a major city.

Nevertheless, our trusty Google sat nav delivered us effortlessly to our home for the next three nights in an attractive suburb. In keeping with the diversity of accommodation we had booked on this trip, we were now staying in a bed and breakfast.

I was immediately impressed that the owners, Magretta and Chuck, were politically motivated, as indicated by the placards in the front garden. Chuck, along with amiable dogs, Spike and Haley, gave us a thorough guided tour of the property before we settled into our rooms.

20181010_103536

Although the features in the property were generally old, we were graced with the presence of a whirlpool bath. Most of the time we had been on the road, we had become accustomed to either a short, shallow bath or a shower. This proved quite a challenge, at least for me as I could not help myself sliding around in it once I had negotiated climbing into it in the first place. Application of the jets proved well beyond my capability.

As it had been a relatively long day on the road, we decided to eat in the neighbourhood on our first evening. A ten minute walk found us at the Shaved Duck, where we had a lovely meal, served by a delightful young woman, and with a guitarist playing a gentle blend of folk tunes as accompaniment.

20181009_204033

A slightly longer stroll brought us to the Tick Tock Tavern, a quirky but friendly pub where gin and tonics were only $5 (we had paid as much as $12 in earlier locations).

We had two full days in St Louis with a generally benign weather forecast ahead of us.

 

 

Read Full Post »


Our final day in Music City USA, and we planned to visit two MORE of its most iconic institutions – Historic RCA Studio B and the “mother church” of country music, the Ryman Auditorium.

Despite checking before we left home whether there would be a concert in the Ryman while we were in town, we only discovered as we got ready this morning, that Roger McGuinn of the Byrds was performing the album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which effectively prompted the phenomenon of country rock in 1968, at the Ryman that evening.

There appeared to be mixed messages online about whether there were any tickets left, and whether those that were available had restricted views. After much discussion, we decided to take our chances and ask at the box office when we arrived in town.

20181008_110531

Our RCA Studio B tour was not scheduled to start until 11.30am, which enabled us to call at the Ryman beforehand. We were told that while there were no tickets left, but we might wish to call back later to establish whether there were any returns. We decided at that point that we wanted to spend our last few hours in town absorbing the atmosphere a little longer.

After coffee in Cafe Lula, we made our way back to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, from whence we boarded the shuttle bus to Historic RCA Studio B.

20181008_115205

Aside from Elvis, among the “1,000 Hits”, recorded at the studio were All I Have to Do is Dream and Cathy’s Clown by the Everly Brothers, He’ll Have to Go by Jim Reeves, Only the Lonely and Crying by Roy Orbison, Oh Lonesome Me and I Can’t Stop Loving You by Don Gibson, The Three Bells by The Browns and Coat of Many Colors by Dolly Parton.

Opened on Music Row in 1957, the studio received the RCA custom tube recording console two years later, enabling it to establish the Nashville Sound, home too to the most prestigious session musicians anywhere. It is Nashville’s oldest recording studio and continues to inspire modern artists such as Carrie Underwood and Martina McBride.

20181008_120833

Our enthusiastic, or rather manic, guide, George, recounted the history of the studio at great speed, leaping around while playing some of the most popular recordings made there.

Perhaps the most awe inspiring part of the tour was the opportunity to sit at the ebony finished Model B Steinway piano. Whilst, to a layman, it looked like any piano, this was a legendary artefact of musical history. Built in New York in 1942, it was sold to NBC a year later and made its way to RCA in 1957.

It had been Elvis’s favourite piano, bought for him by Priscilla. This was the piano that HE played when he wanted to record a song.

And, unlike, Graceland, we could actually TOUCH it! And, not just touch it, but SIT on it!

 

20181008_122605.jpg

For reasons I cannot now recall, our visit lasted twice as long as any other that day.

Continuing our tour of the live music bars on Broadway, we found ourselves next in Robert’s Western World, a far cry from the frenetic rocking establishments owned by modern country stars like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean.

20181008_135636

John Shepherd, minus Lois at the time of our visit, had been playing Robert’s for more than forty years and had been a key figure in saving Broadway from the bulldozer when city officials seriously considered doing so.

Between his renditions of classic country songs, he was a gentle and engaging raconteur, an oasis of calm in the cacophony elsewhere on the street.

20181008_131500

The bar itself was a living museum too to country music history.

20181008_131741

It also served to remind us that time was running out for the most important decision to be made while we were in town.

To buy or not to buy new cowboy boots.

20181008_134323

But we had somewhere else to be first – the “mother church” of country music itself, the Ryman Auditorium on 5th Avenue.

Formerly home, between 1943 and 1974, to the Grand Ole Opry, and before that, the Union Gospel Tabernacle, this is hallowed ground. This is where bluegrass was born and Johnny Cash met June Carter.

20181008_143248

After an ingenious immersive journey through the Ryman’s history in the Soul of Nashville Theater Experience, we entered the 2,362 seat auditorium only to witness Roger McGuinn scuttling across the stage in preparation for soundcheck for this evening’s performance. At that moment, I seriously regretted not pursuing the search for tickets.

20181008_145504

Videos and display cases abounded around the corridors. As always, I was drawn to the Hank Williams’ exhibit.

20181008_145649

20181008_145743

Porter Wagoner, lynchpin of the Grand Ole Opry, the man who introduced a young Dolly Parton to the world, and with whom he sang throughout the late sixties and early seventies, was represented by one of his notorious Nudie suits.

20181008_145702

The Ryman may not quite have given me the goosebumps that Sun Studio in Memphis achieved, but I can understand how venerated it is to country music enthusiasts, especially those who spent the forties and fifties sat around the family radio listening to the weekly broadcast from the Opry.

One of the locations we had promised ourselves to visit, having seen it flash by so often on the Nashville television show, was the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge over the Cumberland River.

20181008_151741

The bridge connects downtown to the residential suburbs of East Nashville, where we were staying. Built between 1907 and 1909, it was closed to automobile traffic in 1998 and restored for pedestrian use, providing outstanding views of the river and and downtown skyline.

20181008_151842

It is such a civilising thing that I only wished more cities followed suit and enhanced the pedestrian experience this way. Of course, traffic congestion renders it a difficult proposition.

20181008_151948

20181008_152334

20181008_153738

As the sun resolved to retire for the night, our thoughts turned to dinner. From the moment we saw it, we had planned to eat at Blake Shelton’s Ole Red bar before we left town. Previous attempts had been rebutted due to long lines, but we had timed it perfectly this time, and were escorted to the first floor dining room where we had an excellent table overlooking the stage.

Unsurprisingly, one of Blake’s proteges on The Voice USA, was performing at the time. Zach Seabaugh had been a semi-finalist on the show at the age of 16 in 2015, and it was not difficult to understand why. With the voice of someone twice his age and an authoritative picking style, he is undoubtedly a talent.

20181008_154706

The food was standard bar and grill fare. My sandwich was massive but tasty, so much so that I took the unusual, but so American, course of ordering a “box” to take away. With an early start in the morning, and a three hundred mile drive to St Louis, it would double up as breakfast.

20181008_161306.jpg

 

20181008_184622.jpg

Ever since we arrived, Janet had wanted to have a drink on one of the rooftop bars on Broadway. After a couple of failed attempts to find a seat, we settled down atop the especially lively Nudie’s Honky Tonk. Although it was Monday evening, the  street was buzzing with activity in all directions.

It gave us the perfect excuse too for one final look at the fascinating “Batman” building.

20181008_184835

20181008_185125

As we contemplated calling the Uber for our return to the bungalow, there was still one issue to be resolved.

The cowboy boots!

I had spent the entire stay dipping in and out of boot (and hat) stores, agonising over whether I could justify the outlay for the pairs I took a liking too. The hand stitched (in Mexico) pair that I had been most attracted to were $329 (£253), which I felt might be too expensive.

Eventually, in Boot Country, I found another, admittedly plainer, pair that I liked, which were only $199. I felt less guilty about that.

But wait!

It was buy one pair, get two free!

A touch over £50 per pair!

I was particularly take with a grey/blue pair, intended for a special occasion, and a brown version of the same for everyday wear.

The only remaining conundrum was finding Janet a pair! After all, I couldn’t be so greedy as to have all three pairs.

After much trying on and soul searching, she eventually found a pair that suited her.

20181009_083232

Janet, I and three bags of boots scrambled into our Uber and headed back to East Nashville before we spent any more.

After a slow start, Nashville had completely won us over. The only disappointment had been that we hadn’t visited the Grand Ole Opry or some of the attractions and bars beyond the downtown area.

Ah well, we will just have to return for a longer trip in the future!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »