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Posts Tagged ‘Music City USA’


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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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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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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