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!

 

 

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 »


After the frenzy and hubbub of last night on Broadway, we expected to encounter a calmer scene when our Uber driver deposited us downtown on a warm Sunday morning.

And it was certainly quieter (in volume terms), though surprisingly busy.

We had booked tickets for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum yesterday, so entered the imposing building where we endured a lukewarm coffee before joining the growing numbers flocking into the museum itself.

20181007_140107

The architecture of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, with its unique design and materials, is a celebration of country music and Southern culture. Many of its features reflect this visibly, for example the front windows which reference black piano keys and the cylindrical shape recalling the railroad water towers and grain silos found in rural settings (many of which we had seen on the road).

The building is one of the world’s largest museums and research centres dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of American vernacular music, and it has amassed a huge musical collections since its chartering in 1964.

Beginning on the upper floor, the first special exhibition we came across was a celebration of the career of Emmylou Harris, whom it so happened, had been performing for us at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco a year ago to the day.

The highlight for me of an informative and colourful display  was the section recounting the period she collaborated with Dolly Parton and the lovely Linda Ronstadt. Not so sure about the hairstyles though!

20181007_112445

As I explained in the previous day’s blog, I am somewhat of a traditionalist when it comes to country music, and amidst the comprehensive displays given over to the entire history of the genre, I was drawn to two of the legends in particular, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.

20181007_114437.jpg

20181007_115249.jpg

Any self-respecting museum showcasing country music has to put one of Elvis’s cars on display, doesn’t it? They are certainly not confined to Graceland.

20181007_115608

Not least because of the massive scale of the museum, we were selective in exploring what we wanted to see, avoiding the Judds and Little Big Towns exhibits.

But any reference to Willie Nelson and I’m there!

Those people who only know him from his more recent, rebellious persona, might have trouble identifying him in his younger, sharp suited, clean cut days, as this television performance framed by a mock up of the world famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway showcased.

20181007_122927

Of all the special exhibitions currently on display, the Willie & Waylon: Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s, one was the most fascinating for me. This was the more recognisable Willie that is so universally loved nowadays.

What was particularly interesting was the close crossover with the country, even psychedelic, rock movements of the late sixties and seventies.

20181007_123035.jpg

The Country Music Hall of Fame Rotunda is a lovely space that recognises all its members from then original inductees, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Fred Rose in 1961 to Alan Jackson, Jerry Reed and Dan Schlitz in 2017.

Indeed, there was a ceremony underway at the time of our visit, where citations for all the members were being given as part of the process for inducting the 2018 performers.

20181007_130931.jpg

Anyone familiar with the history of country music will be familiar with the phrase “will the circle be unbroken”, a popular hymn from the early twentieth century which became the inspiration for one of the Carter Family’s most celebrated songs, “can the circle be unbroken”.

It is fitting, therefore, that the question should be at the heart of the Hall of Fame’s concept of continuous growth and relevance.

20181007_131842

Even though we skipped some exhibitions, we still spent three hours in the museum and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone with an interest in music, not just country.

Back in the real world, we were greeted by two familiar sights – the “Batman” building and a “Honky Tonk’ party in full swing.

20181007_141204

But at this point, a drizzle turned into an unexpected downpour. As we had eaten little, and the rain quickly began to look as if it would persist for some time, we resolved to dive into the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch.

20181006_135154

Sat under a Dave Matthews guitar (which thrilled our San Franciscan friend, Alicia, whom we were scheduled to meet in Chicago later on the trip), we had a delicious lunch, washed down by two cocktails each, before the rain desisted.

20181007_145540

We were now ready to tackle another museum before night fell. The Johnny Cash Museum may be only a fraction in size of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, but I am prepared to claim that it is one of the best I have ever visited – a magnificent tribute to not only a great singer, songwriter and performer, but a great American.

20181008_130212

If you want a simple but telling analysis of someone’s contribution to the world, you need rarely go further than read Bob Dylan. His eulogy to Johnny Cash is a perfect example.

20181007_171651.jpg

The museum covers all aspects of his life – not only his extraordinary career as a musician, but his, perhaps less successful, film and television performances, his patriotism, humanitarianism, Christian belief and influence on so many other people.

20181007_174221

The feature of the museum that most appealed to me was the “Cash Covered” exhibit in which you could select a Cash song and then don headphones to listen to multiple recordings of that song by other artists. Unsurprisingly, I made a beeline for the rendition below.

Both Janet and I could have spent all day on this exhibit and the “In Concert Theater” alone.

20181007_173221

Equally impressive is the ‘Hall of Records” which houses his gold and platinum discs.

20181007_180904

20181007_180926.jpg

20181007_181005.jpg

As you return to the store and cafe, you are haunted by his astonishing rendition of Trent Reznor’s  (of Nine Inch Nails) magnificent song.

Oh Johnny, you will never let me down or make me hurt.

By the time we dragged ourselves out of this moving salute to a true icon, dusk was falling, and time to listen to some live music.

20181007_182559

We returned to AJ’s Good Time Bar on Broadway where a large crowd was already enjoying a band playing a more modern version of country than we had experienced the night before. Screens on the walls in the ground floor bar depict performances on floors on the upper levels.

I resisted the temptation to inflict my version of Crazy Arms or I Fall to Pieces on the audience and we left after one drink.

20181007_190702

We had been invited by our current landlords to come along to the acoustic concert on their backyard that was scheduled to run until 9pm. Without staying out later, there was no way we could avoid attending as our bungalow was in the backyard!

We sat outside the bungalow to the side of the main garden which housed a sizeable crowd. We witnessed two acts – a duo who were engaging and a woman from San Diego, whose greatest quality was that as he sung and played so quietly that she couldn’t really be heard!

And Janet got bitten!

Despite this slightly surreal experience, we were warming to Nashville by now and looking forward to visiting another two historic places – RCA Studio B and the Ryman Auditorium.

Tomorrow would also be decision day on the most important aspect of our trip to Nashville.

Cowboy boots!

Read Full Post »


Our first day in Music City USA…….and my birthday!

I won’t reveal my age but it is not unrelated to the number of the most famous highway in the United States.

In the previous piece I remarked upon missing some of the home comforts we were used to when staying in American properties at this bungalow. Perhaps the most alarming – for me at least – was that, despite boasting every streaming service imaginable, there were no live regular channels on the television. No CNN, no MSNBC, or even Dr Phil!

In one sense that was an irrelevance – if we did want to watch something on Netflix and Amazon, the batteries in the remote control had decided to greet our arrival by playing dead. A brief message to our neighbours (and landlord/lady) should resolve that by the time we returned later this evening (which it did).

Anyway, this was trivial in comparison to the fact that……..it was my birthday!

Have I mentioned that before?

20181006_134720

We called an Uber which deposited us at the tours ticket booth at 201 Broadway.

We had three full days in Nashville, so we decided to pace ourselves, not least because it was already hot. Today we would acclimatise ourselves with the city rather than dash from one country music related venue to another. Let’s get our bearings first, and take in as much live music as we can on Broadway.

So we stood in line at the ticket booth and paid for the hop on hop off trolley for the day. The tour would last for around an hour and three quarters.

Whilst we waited for our trolley to arrive, we looked around for the first time.

Two buildings in particular caught our attention: the imposing Nissan Stadium on the riverfront, home to the Tennessee Titans NFL team and where Ed Sheeran was performing that evening, and the extraordinary AT & T building, affectionally referred to by locals – I can’t think why (sic) – as the  “Batman Building”.

20181006_141145

It was an excellent tour, and we managed to resist the temptation to jump off at every alternate stop, such as Music Row. The only drawback to that was that we did not find time to explore some places, for example Bicentennial Park, with the Tennessee Capitol building, pictured below, and the Parthenon, a full scale replica of the original in Athens, before we left town.

20181006_112319

But it did give us an insight into the scale and appeal of the city. It appeared clean, spacious and civilised. As recent converts to the TV series of the same name, we were aware that Nashville had grown significantly in recent years. But we were not prepared for just how busy it was going to be downtown.

But, perhaps we should not have been so surprised.  It was Saturday, the sun was shining, and there were two major events in town that evening – comedian Kevin Hart was playing the 20,000 seater Bridgestone Arena in addition to the aforementioned Ed Sheeran concert.

Even as we took the trolley tour at a little before midday it became instantly apparent just how much of a party town it had become (I wonder what some of the old timers think about the modern Nashville scene).

Whilst the sidewalks were busy with shoppers and music fans searching for the best live bands, the streets were swamped with a phenomenon we had not even witnessed on the Las Vegas Strip – tours in motorised vehicles called Honky Tonk or party bikes as in the case of the Pedal Tavern, comprising mostly women whooping and hollering to loud music as they cruised the streets. Alcohol was evidently in plentiful supply on board.

20181006_110053

A brief respite for the staff before the next bachelorette party descended upon them!

20181006_134801

I might claim that I was already beginning to feel my age but I never felt like doing anything like that forty years ago, let alone now.

There were more sedate tours on offer for the more romantically minded visitor.

20181006_135133

Our preference was for a beer, sandwich and our first live music experience in the huge Nashville Underground bar. Any other followers of the Nashville TV show might find some resemblance in the picture below to a certain trio on the programme.

20181006_124140

I had declared publicly a month or so before the trip that it was my intention to purchase a new pair of cowboy boots whilst in town for my birthday. I may not have worded that properly – what I meant was for Janet to buy them (sic).

As I had been advised by several people back home, there were plenty of boot and hat emporia on Broadway, many with an amazing  buy one pair get two pairs free offer.

20181006_141157

20181006_135859

I was not, however, going to rush into any decision today. There was plenty of time to view and ponder.

Another development in recent years on Broadway has been the emergence of bars owned by major country music stars – Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton all offer comfort food, drink and live music.

20181006_141001

But it was to Alan Jackson’s place that we retired for our next live music treat. Janet in particular is a fan of Jackson, and I find his more traditional style to be more to my taste than some of the heavily rock influenced country music of younger singers.

20181006_142201

Indeed, the band playing this afternoon, despite the three guitars, drums and pedal steel, offered a more gentle, nostalgic trip through country music history, for example Travis Tritt, Buck Owens and Charley Pride. Indeed, the pedal steel player had worked with the late, great George Jones for forty years!

20181006_144852

A visit to this part of the trip is not complete without a gander through the extensive bluegrass collection in the Ernest Tubb Record Shop.

20181006_142146

An exhibition to the great Loretta Lynn was an added attraction.

20181006_142447

We must have spent an hour and a half in AJ’s Good Time Bar, and as the band were completing their seat, we made our excuses and moved on.

Late afternoon and the party – on sidewalk, in bars and on the growing number of bikes and tour wagons – was in full swing. Moreover, Ed Sheeran fans were swarming into the area from all directions.

We took refuge in our third and last bar of the afternoon – the Famous Saloon – where a female duo provided some superb renditions of country classics.

20181006_165228

There was now the issue of the “birthday meal” to contend with. I had planned to book somewhere in advance in the expectation that failing to make a reservation might prove problematic, especially on a busy, hot Saturday night.

Which it did.

We roamed both Broadway and the outlying streets, only to be told that there would be at least an hour and a half wait for a table. In the end, we just had to bite (not eat) the bullet and accept a promise of an hour’s wait at Joe’s Crab Shack. As it happened, and this is often the case, we only had to sit and cuddle our gin and tonics near the bar for about twenty five minutes before we were called to our table.

20181006_182613

After a pleasant seafood meal, we decided to call it a night and take an Uber ride back to our bunglaow in the suburbs.

It had been a thoroughly enjoyable birthday and an eye-opening experience. We found the Broadway scene crazier in many ways than even Bourbon Street in New Orleans or Beale Street in Memphis. In fact, we both remarked that it was at least on a par with Vegas.

And we hadn’t quite expected that.

So, after our first day in town, we were not quite convinced that we liked Nashville as much as we had been expecting to. Although we love a drink and a live band (we would not be on this trip if we didn’t), the degree of drunkenness and boorish behaviour – and the night was still young – was a turn off.

But tomorrow we would be exploring the country music heritage of the city in a big way with visits to the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash Museum.

And it was Sunday, so it would be quieter wouldn’t it?

Spoiler – NO!

But we were equally sure we would have a less jaundiced view by the end of the second day.

Another spoiler – YES WE DID!

 

 

 

Read Full Post »


Back on the road today.

Jazz, blues, zydeco, rock ‘n’ roll, soul, funk – we had experienced them all in the first ten days of the trip, And we had travelled in a south-north direction, driving or, on occasions, skirting Highway 61.

But now, we were not only switching the musical focus to country, but taking a two hundred and ten mile detour eastward to Nashville.

We left our East Memphis house on a warm, partly cloudy morning with the temperature gauge in the car already touching ninety. Once we had settled onto Interstate 40, our companion for the journey, the traffic lightened and the straight roads with forested trees either side that we had become accustomed to in recent days, resumed their natural position.

We filled the car with gas for the second time on the trip, taking the cost so far to $56 (we had picked it up in New Orleans with a full tank, and we’re required to return it in the same state i..e. full, not in Louisiana).

20181005_124555

As we approached Jackson, the first town of any real significance, and were looking for an attraction to break the journey (we were nearly half way), we came across Casey Jones Village which marketed itself as the “best whistle stop between Memphis and Nashville” and officially one of Tennessee’s top 10 travel attractions.

20181005_125529

The extensive complex contained an Old Country Store, a restaurant, nostalgic gift shoppe, an 1890’s Ice Cream Parlor & Fudge Shoppe, the Dixie Cafe Takeout or Dine-In, a village baker’s, a village chapel and many other features.

In addition, it was home to the Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum, which commemorated the legendary railroader who worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, and who was killed on 30th April 1900, when his train collided with a stalled freight train near Vaughan Mississippi. His spectacular death while trying to stop his train and save the lives of his passengers made him a national hero.

20181005_131811

He was subsequently immortalised in a popular ballad sung by his friend Wallace Saunders, an African American engine wiper for the railroad. It had first come to my attention when, as a small boy in the late fifties several thousand miles away, I sat spellbound by the television programme starring Alan Hale Jnr.

Around fifteen years later I learned a different account of the incident from rock band, the Grateful Dead, with the drug-riddled refrain “driving that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you’d better watch your speed”.

I still prefer that version!

20181005_132053

John Luther Jones was particularly famous for the manner in which he tooted his train whistle on “Old 382” Engine. Visitors can climb aboard the replica inn the museum and perform that act themselves.

At the time of his death, Jones was living in the house pictured below, which we were also able to explore.

20181005_130536

We spent a pleasant hour walking around the village, but, even though it was lunchtime by now, the food on offer in the restaurant was not to our liking.

20181005_124705

We returned to the road in pursuit of coffee and eats. But we were not hungry enough to be tempted by the regular sight of roadkill.

Our salvation, not for the first or last time on the trip, proved to be………yes, you guessed it, McDonald’s (we were to eat here more often in a fortnight than we had in thirty years),

20181005_154220

We encountered more traffic, especially trucks, on this stretch than we had done before, though the fact that the road had only two lanes, and it was Friday afternoon, might have contributed to that.

20181005_135646

Another phenomenon that occurred to us for the first time today were the strong “southern” accents of everyone we came into contact with.

At the risk of offending (I don’t mean to) Tennesseans, the intonation was reminiscent of the British comedian, Benny Hill’s, character on his television show in the seventies and eighties, when he performed a sketch about ‘teddy bear’s chair”. I can never hear a southern accent without recollecting that performance.

But then if any American is upset by this, I will just mention three words………….Dick Van Dyke.

You know what I mean, y’all.

20181005_130431

As Nashville got closer, the traffic, especially, got much heavier. But we safely negotiated it and located our artist’s bungalow in East Nashville, booked through Airbnb,  without difficulty.

We were staying in a variety of different properties on the trip. Starting off in a classy hotel in New Orleans, we had spent the subsequent nights on the road in modest motels before residing in a suburban house in Memphis. We were living for the next four nights in a bungalow in the back garden, next to the garage, of our hosts’ family home.

20181006_095839

It was clear on our arrival that some of the home comforts we had enjoyed in New Orleans and Memphis in particular would not be available to us in our temporary Nashville home.

20181006_094938

Our only cooking facilities, for example, were a kettle and basic microwave, as well as a refrigerator. We drove to the local supermarket to buy some basic provisions, including potatoes, salad, cheese, ham and avocado that made up a presentable jacket potato.

And, our spirits were not going to be quashed. Tomorrow, we would begin to investigate the home of country music.

And it would be my birthday!

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »