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Posts Tagged ‘Nashville’


With the arrival of our “San Francisco family”, following their excursion to Jerry’s relatives in Mount Carroll, the road trip had taken on a new turn. No longer could we do whatever we pleased – we had to consider the needs of others, especially Ely and Aiden. And that was an exciting thought! Another new city with some of our favourite people and a glorious weather forecast!

Mind you, the day started inauspiciously as both Janet and I clambered out of bed, aching in just about every part of our respective bodies. At least momentarily, we were regretting our generosity in allowing Jerry and Alicia, with Ely in a crib, to sleep in the spacious master bedroom with ensuite, while we occupied the cramped second bedroom. Aiden had no such worries, as he had been given his choice of bunk beds, unsurprisingly electing to take the top one.

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After breakfast, we piled into Jerry’s hire car, set the sat nav and headed to the city. A cool but bright Sunday morning, there was little traffic, and we were able to park just a couple of blocks from Willis Tower.

As we stepped out of the car, the glistening windows of the high rise office blocks and the brilliant blue of the sky was a thrilling sight. As one of the displays inside the tower informed us, the world’s first skyscraper had its roots in Chicago. The Home Insurance Building was 138 feet tall when it was built in 1885, incorporating a ten storey steel frame structure.

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At 1,450 feet (442 metres) and with 110 storeys, Willis Tower is the second tallest building in the country, and, after One World Trade Center, the Western Hemisphere (as are the restrooms!). Originally called the Sears Tower, it was renamed in 2009.

As we knew only too well, access to most American attractions warrants a long wait, due more to their popularity than any inefficiency on the part of the operators. But they do try to entertain the paying customers while they wait.

Firstly, there is the obligatory photoshoot where, should you be willing to buy the resulting images, it will set you back $30-40 for large and small photos and maybe an accessory like a key ring or fridge magnet.

Then there is the pre-show, which might entail a short theatre presentation, as we enjoyed in the Ryman Auditorium in Chicago, and/or a series of descriptive tableaux or wall displays. It is cleverly done, and should you genuinely be interested in what you are about to experience, does soften the blow of the lengthy wait.

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However, this does not wash with young children, and Ely and Aiden were soon asking for snacks and refreshments. Fortunately, Jerry had spotted a concession point at the beginning of the line, and was able to assuage their irritation.

Once at the top, aside from the spectacular views, there were more informative and attractively presented plaques celebrating Chicago’s contribution to the world.

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The 360 degree views of the city were spectacular. It is claimed that, on a clear day, you can see four states in one day.

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I reported in the previous post that Ely and Aiden had immediately become attached to the miniature cars found in the house. For the entirety of their stay they could not be separated from their favourite vehicles. Occasional spat aside, they grabbed every opportunity to drive/race them on a smooth service, – even on the walls of skyscrapers!

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We then drove over to Navy Pier, the former military and freight terminal on the banks of Lake Michigan. It had been extensively renovated in recent years, including the addition of attractions such as a musical carousel, wave swinger and funhouse maze, all designed to attract families. Drawing over nine million people a year, it is Chicago’s most visited attraction.

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It is also now home to the Chicago Children’s Museum, though the weather dictated we should continue to enjoy the great outdoors. Besides, admission prices were steep – adults and all children over one year of age $14.95 and seniors (me!) $13.95.

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But before we did anything else, it was time for lunch. Coffees and burgers from the food hall were order of the day. Ely was happy – and his two cars were never leaving his sight!

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The Centennial (Ferris) Wheel cost $16 each. It might have cost another $13 but Ely regressed a year for the afternoon to ensure that he gained free entry. Anyone appalled at such deceit should note that he did barely pass the height restriction test, so comfortably passed for being under three years of age.

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Ely and Aiden loved it.

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Once grounded, however, Ely at least showed signs of flagging.

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From New Orleans through Memphis and Nashville and now Chicago, streetcars and trolleys had been a prominent feature of the cityscape throughout our trip.

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On one of our previous visits to Petaluma, Alicia had prepared just about the best steaks we had ever eaten, and we were eager not to let her go without repeating the treat. This necessitated a second visit to the local supermarket where Ely and Aiden once again left terra firma to be driven round the aisles by Janet – or was that Ely who was driving?

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I am also happy to report that I managed to avoid any further altercation with a wine display stand.

It had been a lovely day with our adopted family from the City by the Bay. Tomorrow, we would even busier with a trip to Millennium Park to marvel at the extraordinary Bean, a ride on Chicago’s cool elevated rail system, dinner at a celebrated deep dish pizza restaurant with friends of Alicia and Jerry, and an eventful evening in a classic blues club.

Phew!

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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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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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The idea for this trip came thirteen years ago when I bought the book entitled The Blues Highway: A Travel and Music Book by Richard Knight.

But then, as we were on the point of booking the trip, Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans, the planned starting point for the trip. We resolved then that we would wait to do it when life in the city had returned to some semblance of normality.

In 2012, we did finally embark on a road trip, but in a very different part of the country – the National Parks of the South West, covering the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

Setting off from Las Vegas, our expedition took in Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, Monument Valley, Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon, followed by a sizeable detour through New Mexico, visiting Santa Fe, Albuquerque and iconic locations on Route 66 such as Winslow, Arizona (“Standin’ on a Corner”) and Gallup, New Mexico before returning to Vegas.

Numerous trips to San Francisco, Tahoe, Vegas as well as the North East (of the U.S, not England!) followed, as the Southern states, other than Florida, failed to seduce us sufficiently into venturing in their direction. Maybe their racist past (and present), Christian fundamentalism and gun culture all have had something to do with it. Moreover, the scene from Easy Rider where the main protagonists get short shrift in a southern diner still haunts me, and the song by Folkestone band, the Transients, entitled They Don’t Like Hippies in Baton Rouge, only serves to exacerbate the anxiety.

But now, with mid-term elections looming and the divisions in America widening, we have chosen this moment to plunge ourselves into the belly of Trumpsylvania, though a Californian friend’s recent assertion that we were essentially visiting “blue cities in red states” is a comforting and far from innacurate one.

So what is the attraction of this particular itinerary that has stubbornly refused to disappear from our vacation radar?

The Blues Highway, essentially Highway 61, runs, for the most part alongside the mighty Mississippi, from New Orleans  to Chicago and traces the migration of many African Americans from the Deep South to the Northern cities following the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Equally, it charts (sic) the development of the major music genres for which we are so much indebted to the United States for, principally the blues and gospel (Mississippi delta, Memphis, St Louis and Chicago), but also jazz (New Orleans), cajun and zydeco (Lafayette), country (Nashville) and soul (Memphis again, and not forgetting Elvis!).

After an initial overnight stay in Newark, New Jersey (flights from the UK being so much cheaper), we fly to the “Big Easy” for four nights before hitting the road with single overnight stays in Lafayette, Vicksburg and Clarksdale. A three night residence in Memphis follows before we head east to Nashville for four nights, arriving on the eve of my birthday.

From “Music City” we cross country back to the main road for three nights in St Louis, followed by a night in Peoria before arriving in the “Windy City” for another four nights, when we are hoping to be joined for a couple of nights by friends from San Francisco. Two nights in New York City conclude the trip before we catch our return flight from Newark.

The trip has the added bonus of introducing us to seven new states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Illinois with brief detours through Kentucky and Arkansas. The prospect of experiencing new cultures, historic tours and spectacular scenery is, of course, exciting, but it is the music that is the driving force of the trip. Clubs, bars, museums and street musicians will, therefore, be the major focus of the next three weeks.

And we must not forget the other star of the show – the road itself.

Little thrills the blood more than the thought of exploring this amazing country by car with the radio blaring out the music style that reflects the landscape you are travelling through at the time. I am sure it will reveal some entertaining adventures as this blog grows over the coming weeks.

So let’s get on with the show!

See y’all later!

 

 

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It’s four months now since I entered my sixtieth year on this blessed, blasted planet. In fact, 2012 is a rare year for major anniversaries – the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the five hundreth anniversary of the death of Amerigo Vespucci, the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and last, and definitely least, there’s lil’ ol’ me.

So how do you “celebrate” such a feat of stamina? Big family party? Trip of a lifetime? Crawl into a corner and curl up into a ball? Well, my 40th was spent in Amsterdam and my 50th in Paris, whilst my wife’s corresponding birthdays were played out in Paris and Venice respectively. Bit of a clue there then (though Janet also wangled a not inexpensive party for the latter in the boardroom of the local football league club)!

But I think you get the picture – we’ll be spending it somewhere other than home.

Janet has been “encouraging” me for months to decide where I wanted to spend the occasion. Unfortunately, I am no nearer making that decision than I was on my 59th birthday, though I have narrowed it down to a handful of candidates (feels a bit like I’m deciding on where the next but one Olympics or football World Cup will be held).

One trip that has been on my wish list for much of the past decade is what is known as the “Blues Highway”, effectively tracing the migration of blacks from the deep south to the north following the Civil War, and, in the process, reliving American musical history.

The tour starts in New Orleans, with extended stops at Nashville, Memphis, St Louis and eventually Chicago. Visits to such iconic venues as Graceland, Sun Studios and the Grand Ol’ Opry, would be essential, and we would also want to sample cajun and zydeco music in their locales.

A tour through blues history would not be complete without a pilgrimage to Moorhead, Mississippi where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog or Dawg, the spot where the “father of the blues”, W.C. Handy, heard “the first blues song” in around 1903, or the crossroads (there is much dispute as to its location) at which the “king of the delta blues singers”, Robert Johnson, apocryphally, sold his soul to the devil. And an evening at the Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by Morgan Freeman, in Clarksdale, Mississippi would not go amiss.

But in August 2005 Hurricane Katrina put a temporary end to that dream.

The other front runner at present is the national parks and canyons of the American south west, notably Monument Valley, Bryce and Zion Canyons, the Arches and Canyonlands. Even this trip would have some musical resonance for me in the form of the great Jackson Browne / Glenn Frey song Take It Easy, popularised by The Eagles:

Well, I’m standing on a corner

In Winslow, Arizona

And such a fine sight to see

It’s a girl, my lord in a flatbed

Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me

Come on baby, don’t say maybe

I gotta know if your sweet love

Is gonna save me

We may lose and we may win though

We will never be here again

So open up, I’m climbin’ in

So take it easy

When I first started to ponder this, our adopted second home of San Francisco figured strongly in my plans. The timing would have enabled us to attend a Giants ball game or two on their last homestand of the regular season against the Pittsburgh Pirates. But since then, in an increasingly common fit of weakness, we have succumbed to its allure and – for us – late booked a two week trip to the city in April. And we have succeeded in purchasing tickets for two of the first games of the season – against the Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies.

This has had the added advantage of granting me a stay of execution on the fateful decision on the birthday break, though I know that I cannot hide behind that excuse much longer, hence this post.

The downside is that it may now necessarily be shorter than we had originally envisaged – two rather than three or four weeks. But we shall see.

I should also mention another U.S. option – that of staying at a friend’s condominium in Tampa, Florida – because I know he will be reading this!  He has very kindly offered to accommodate us at any time, and we will certainly take him up on that offer, though perhaps not this year. So, Melvyn, you have been spared – but only for now!

And finally, I have begun to pine again for Italy, our favourite holiday destination before the United States colonised our travelling consciousness. So I would not rule out Rome, Tuscany or Sicily at this stage, though they remain dark horses.

Or perhaps I should just take my lead from Ellen de Generes’ grandmother “who started walking five miles a day when she was sixty.  She’s ninety seven now and we don’t know where the hell she is”.

So what would you vote for?

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