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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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?

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

 

 

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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),

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

 

 

 

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A confession to begin with.

Although I am as big a fan of Elvis as the next man (or woman), visiting his home at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, has never been on my bucket list. I am not dazzled by celebrity and their personal lives.

But when in Memphis, you ignore it at your peril.

We had booked a mansion and planes package the day before. We took the hire car, which we planned to drop off back at the house before venturing downtown for the evening. As we approached the front desk to collect our tickets, we were greeted by the photograph below.

Aside from his peerless voice, he wasn’t a bad looking lad either, was he?

Our first impression was that of a theme park – we could have been in Universal Studios or Disney’s Magic Kingdom. In fact, the mansion itself, less ostentatious than we had expected, occupied a relatively small part of the 13.8 acre complex.

We took the iPad tour and boarded a shuttle bus from the entrance to the mansion itself. After a ten minute wait in line, we were stepping through the portico into the house. itself.

Graceland, the second most visited house in the U.S. with over 650,000 visitors a year, was a gift from Elvis to his parents, Vernon and Gladys, in 1957. It is a two story, five bay residence with 23 rooms, including eight bedrooms and bathrooms. Although he was on the road a lot, Elvis could not wait to get back to Graceland, and spent as much time there as his personal and musical commitments would allow.

The Mansion Tour includes the living room, his parent’s bedroom, the kitchen, TV room, the Jungle Room, his father’s office, the Trophy Building, the Racquetball Building and Meditation Garden.

The following photographs provide, I hope, a flavour of the style of the principal rooms.

The Meditation Garden was used by Elvis to reflect on any problems or issues that arose during his life. It is also where he, his parents, and grandmother, Minnie Mae Hood Presley, are buried.

I had been warned by friends who had visited in the past to expect a lot of hysterical weeping at his graveside, but there was more a respectful and reverential tranquility about the spot when we were there.

Before continuing the tour, we had lunch at Gladys’ Diner, one of four dining options (another very Disney-fied touch).

One of Elvis’s passions was his car collection. Many of his favourite models can be found at Graceland. Pride of place goes to the 1955 Pink Cadillac Fleetwood, the second he bought after the first had been burned.

Amongst the collection too is the 1956 Cadillac Eldorado, originally white, but repainted purple after he had smashed some grapes on the hood, and a white 1966 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III.


The Elvis the Entertainer Career Museum contains hundreds of artefacts, including gold and platinum records, jumpsuits, movie memorabilia and much more.

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We were planning to revisit Beale Street for a while during the evening, so we proceeded quickly to the plane exhibits.

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Elvis bought a 1958 Convair 880, which he named the Lisa Marie after his daughter, in 1975. Visitors are permitted to walk through the cabin, though not sit on the seats or fiddle with the dials in the cockpit (naturally!).

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As planned, we returned to the house to freshen up and rest for a couple of hours, before calling an Uber to take us back downtown.

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Before hitting Beale Street for the last time, we sought out a highly recommended restaurant on Main Street, Aldo’s Pizza Pies. As always, the service was outstanding, and the server and owner were both astounded by our road trip exploits.

And the pizzas?

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The Trippy Truffle: mushroom cream, button, enoki, portobello, & oyster, mozzarella, fontina, arugula salad with truffle oil dressing, and the Vodka Pie: vodka cream and house made mozzarella.

Divine.

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Beale Street was buzzing as we called in for one last drink in Club 152, one of the more highly rated live music bars.

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A short, and characteristically agreeable, Uber ride returned us to the house for our final night in Memphis (the photograph below is NOT our vehicle).

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We had thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of our stay in Memphis: the lovely, spacious suburban house, the music tours and the vibe downtown in the evenings.

But we were now heading for the city that we had both looking forward to the most – Nashville.

Yee-haw!

 

 

 

 

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After a restful night in our lovely suburban cottage, it was time to explore downtown Memphis (our other full day would be dedicated largely to Graceland).

And where else to start than legendary Sun Studio, the “birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll”?

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This was one of the moments on the trip that I had most been looking forward to. And it proved more moving than even I had expected.

Record producer, Sam Phillips, opened the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue on 3rd January 1950. But it was not until 18th July 1953 that an eighteen year old boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, named Elvis Aaron Presley, dropped in to record an acetate for his mother’s birthday, that the studio earned its place in rock ‘n roll history.

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Phillips was not immediately impressed until, in a ‘break” in auditioning, Elvis grabbed the microphone and launched into Big Boy Crudup’s That’s All Right that he realised this was a unique talent.

When our tour guide, Graham, played us those pieces, I confess that I was in tears. These were pivotal and emotional moments, not only in music history, but also in the chronicles of modern times.

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Janet, who alone among a group of about twenty guests, contrived to position herself on the exact spot where Elvis stood on that fateful day, took the opportunity to stand at the microphone – though, thankfully, she remained mute.

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The other heart-rending moment was listening to an original recording from the equally fabled “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session performed by Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis on 4th December 1956 – pure gold!

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Aside from the musical gems (there were many others), we were permitted to explore some of the priceless artefacts that adorned the walls, including recording equipment, posters  and original discs.

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The tour may only have lasted around 45 minutes but it was a breathtaking experience.

Leaving Sun Studio we walked down Monroe Avenue, stopping at regular intervals to enjoy the “Rock Walk” signs. In addition to the two shown below, others included Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner.

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As we entered downtown we were able to investigate the compact and attractive Memphis Redbirds ballpark. It is a shame that such a major city as Memphis only has a Minor League team, but American sports are largely closed doors. I dare say, however,  that the team’s supporters will be no less fanatical than they are in New York, Boston or San Francisco.

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Another of the essential tourist experiences in Memphis is a visit to the Peabody Hotel, where twice a day at 11am and 5pm, a group of ducks are marched to and from their rooftop palace to the lobby fountain on the ground floor, where they spend the intervening hours.

It was after midday when we wandered through the lobby, so they were already blithely floating round their daytime home. We did not plan to return at the moment they returned to the “Royal Duck Palace”.

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After a tasty lunch of grilled cheese, chunky fries and wine at Automatic Slims, we began to explore the Beale Street area. Although we could hear live music emanating from some of the bars, it was much quieter in early afternoon than we would discover later in the evening.

Beale Street has been the beating heart of Memphis for over a century. The promise of musical stardom has lured musicians such as Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis and the wonderful Memphis Minnie from nearby Mississippi. Since the end of the Second World War, many – Elvis, BB King and Rufus Tomas included – became blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll recording stars.

But more of Beale Street later.

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Time for yet another music museum. This time, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum on 3rd Street (B.B. King Boulevard), described by the Performing Songwriter Magazine as arguably the “single best exhibition of American musical history in the country”.

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And a superb exhibition it is as it tells the important story of those “musical pioneers who overcame racial and socio-economic obstacles to create the music that changed the cultural complexion of the world”.

It begins with rural field hollers and sharecroppers of the thirties, through the explosion of Sun, Stax, and Hi Records, inside Memphis’ musical heyday in the seventies, to its global musical influence. A digital audio tour guide highlights a series of tableaux and includes over five hours of information, is packed with over 300 minutes of information and more than 100 songs.

You can wander around the museum at your own pace through seven galleries featuring three audio visual programmes, more than thirty instruments, forty costumes, and other musical treasures.

I was especially enamoured of the collection of juke boxes dotted around the museum, enabling you to select favourite songs from comprehensive lists for each era and style.

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Returning from the air conditioning of the museum into the heat of the street, an experience we endured with varying degrees of comfort over the whole trip, at least until now (and later Nashville), we strolled down to the riverfront alongside the Hernando Desoto Bridge that spanned the Mississippi.

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Unlike New Orleans, where we rode three lines of streetcars, we did not really have time to experience the Memphis version, though they are clearly an attractive and valuable addition to the city transportation system.

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There was some imaginative, locally themed street artwork around downtown too.

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As dusk fell, we went in search on Beale Street for live music and dinner. Our first port of call was the Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe and Honky Tonk where Jason James, with an excellent band, gave an energetic and authentic performance to a packed out crowd.

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After a couple of beers there, we wandered around, checking each bar in turn and visiting the gift shops. It was still relatively early in the evening but the street was filling up. The atmosphere was noisy and high-spirited, but we found it less threatening than Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The clear police presence at either end may have contributed to that of course.

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We selected the Rum Boogie Cafe, one of the most celebrated nightclubs in the city. Sybil Thomas, youngest daughter of Rufus and sister of Carla, delivered a high energy of soul and funk classics with her equally dynamic band while we had dinner.

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With the much anticipated trip to Graceland in the morning, we called an Uber at the bottom of Beale Street to take us back to the cottage in East Memphis.

 

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Today would be the shortest drive of the trip, just eighty one miles to our next overnight stop in Memphis, Tennessee.

And I was in no hurry to abandon Clarksdale, Mississippi!

And that is despite enduring one of the worst hotel breakfasts I can recall. We entered the dining room at 8.20am, a full forty minutes before service was due to end, to find fried eggs and bacon (at least I think it was bacon) dried, burnt and stuck to the containers. The server declared that there would be no fresh hot food today. At least the muffins and bagels were edible.

Oh, and Fox News was belching out of the television.

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Things could only get better – which they undoubtedly did as we wandered those scruffy, sun scarred streets of Clarksdale. It would appear that the automobile in the above photograph had not moved from its parking spot in front of the Delta Blues Alley Cafe for some time. Its roadworthiness might have been questionable (take that on a road trip!), but it was a mighty fine sight.

Our main purpose this morning was to explore the Delta Blues Museum, but not without taking a peek in the Ground Zero Blues Club, opened in 2001 by Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman. It had, sadly, been closed the night before.

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And who better to look over it than the incomparable ‘Hoochie Coochie Man” himself, Muddy Waters, who spent much of his long career working out of this town?

The Delta Blues Museum was the world’s first museum dedicated to blues, opening on 31st January 1979. Originally based in a room of the Myrtle Hall Elementary School, it moved to its current location two years later.

Not only did it consist of some spectacular exhibits (unfortunately, I could not take photographs inside again), but it has an education programme that has trained many young musicians to carry the blues forward.

This was a slicker affair than the Rock and Blues Museum we had visited the day before. The latter gave me an impression more of a devout fan’s personal collection. So different in approach but equally successful in impact.

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Among the formidable figures that appeared to follow you around the town was the magnificent Boogie Man, John Lee Hooker.

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He even has his own street.

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Another of the Clarksdale musical royal family was the “man who invented soul”, Sam Cooke. His upbringing in the town had led him down a different musical path, but one no less influenced by the blues.

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One of the most apt descriptions of rock ‘n’ roll comes from a song by Muddy Waters – ‘the blues had a baby, and they named it rock ‘n’ roll”. I was thrilled to spot this among the more elaborate pieces of street art.

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Before leaving town we had a coffee in the Yazoo Pass Espresso Bar, Bistro and Bakery, which appeared to be the main daytime hangout spot in town.

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We left town bound for Memphis with the “father of the Delta Blues”, Charley Patton, still “a-screamin” and a-hollerin”.

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But we could not leave without paying brief homage to the “Empress of the Blues’, Bessie Smith, who died in the Riverside Hotel from injuries sustained in a car accident while travelling to Clarksdale for a performance in 1937.

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We returned to a largely deserted Highway 61 and those “big skies” for the hour and a half trip to Memphis. The car temperature gauge flirted with the mid nineties.

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But there was still time to make a brief visit to another blues museum, Gateway to the Blues in Tunica. Whilst we did not actually look round the museum, Janet did buy bracelet and keyring in the shape of a guitar.

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We arrived at our Airbnb cottage by mid afternoon, and walked round to the nearby Kroger supermarket to buy dinner and other provisions for our three night stay.

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We would save our energies for tackling Memphis in the morning.

 

 

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