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Our last full day in Chicago began with waving off our San Francisco housemates. Their presence had re-energised us at a time when we were starting to dwell on the imminence of our return home.

Having already visited the attractions we most wanted to see, we decided that we would have a leisurely day walking around the city, particularly the riverfront.

Once Alicia, Jerry, Aiden and Ely had set off for O’Hare Airport, we finalised the packing before strolling to the Chicago train station, the nearest to our house, but still a decent hike.

We alighted at the Merchandise Mart, the world’s largest commercial building in floor area (four million square feet), and home to the city’s premier interior design trade showrooms. Only the Pentagon is larger in the United States.

But what was far more impressive than any of this was that it had a Pret a Manger cafe!

American sandwiches are great, don’t get me wrong, but they are just TOO BIG! It was so refreshing to have a proper English sandwich – two pieces of sliced bread hugging chicken, egg, avocado and tomato –  delicious! Manageable size too.

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I think the following photographs speak for themselves. We spent the next couple of hours strolling the riverfront and lakeside before returning to Millennium Park, where we had marvelled yesterday morning at The Bean with the kids.

We may have shed fifty degrees since the beginning of the trip in New Orleans, but we cannot have experienced a sharper, bluer sky than this afternoon.

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The Chicago Riverwalk is an open, pedestrian waterfront on the south bank of the main branch of the Chicago River, spanning from Lake Street to Lake Shore Drive. We sauntered almost the entire length of it. Restaurants, park seating, boat rentals and other activities are dotted along the walk, though the declining season meant that several were now closed – frustrating as I was by now in need of bladder relief!

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Although there were few other pedestrians around, there was a steady procession of river traffic.

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There were some spectacular buildings along the walk, though one with an obscenely huge five letter name memorialising the current incumbent of the White House, was not one of them.

Watching the elevated trains trundling over the river was endlessly fascinating.

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No buildings were more eye-popping than the two 65 story apartment towers at Marina City, a mixed use residential cum commercial building complex that occupies almost an entire city block on State Street on the north bank. The parking garage portion below the twentieth floor was amazing.

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At the end of the Riverwalk, we turned onto Lake Shore Drive and then Millennium Park.

Opposite the park we took up two stools at the bar of The Gage pub and restaurant. We had inadvertently timed our arrival perfectly, as within minutes, the bar was crammed with some of Chicago’s smartest citizens demanding tables or forming large, vocal groups around the bar.

And it was a great bar! Janet was so impressed that she declared immediately that she wanted to live in Chicago!

Aside from the impossibility of such a notion, neither of us would have expected before the trip that it would be the Windy City that would have such an impact. To be fair, the stunning weather helped. Had it been raining during our stay, we may have formed a different opinion.

But even so, Chicago had startled and thrilled us.

One final ride on the “L” to our Chicago stop, and we were walking back to the house, enjoying  intermittent glimpses of the receding skyline.

We had already decided to eat back at the house, feasting on the pizza leftovers from Pequod’s the night before. To be honest, it tasted better the second time around!

Though not as good as that Pret a Manger sandwich!

I’ll leave the last word to The Grinch.

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I had omitted to mention in my last post that, shortly after Alicia and Jerry joined us in our Chicago house, they presented me with my birthday presents – two t-shirts from their Land of the Sun store in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. I wore the Watchtower” tie-dye today, not only as a token of my gratitude but also because it was one I had been pursuing for some time, and was so excited to receive it.

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It was accompanied by a touching “card”, adorned with Aiden and Ely’s artwork.

Alicia was queen of the kitchen again, this time serving up scrambled eggs and bacon, providing us with the necessary fuel for what was to prove a long, exhausting but thoroughly enjoyable day.

Ely held court in his armchair while he waited for everybody else to get ready.

Our first port of call was Millennium Park, a former railroad yard in an industrial corner of Grant Park that had been reclaimed to celebrate the turn of the twenty first century. It is now a popular and successful attraction, especially for those interested in art, architecture and the performing arts.

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The extraordinary piece of sculpture, Cloud Gate, was the primary reason for our visit. Designed by British sculptor, Anish Kapoor, it resembles an enlarged, reflective kidney bean, prompting its nickname, The Bean. Wherever you stand on its perimeter, you experience a different, dazzling and somewhat disorientating reflection of the surrounding skyline.

Since the days of ER, one of our favourite US drama series, I had wanted to ride the “L”, the elevated trains that run overhead, providing a great rooftop perspective on the city going about its business.

We walked to the nearest station to Millennium Park, Adams/Wabash, serving, amongst others, the Brown Line, and took it in the direction of Kimball.

Aiden and Janet were happy to be riding the rails.

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Although most of the stations we passed through were quite plain, there were others with gorgeous murals.

We had learnt while standing in line for Willis Tower on the previous day that Jerry’s former business partner and his wife were also in town, and it had been agreed that we all meet up for pizza at 5pm today. With that in mind and time passing we alighted at Belmont on the North Side in search of lunch. Cheesie’s Pub & Grub opposite the station looked enticing, so we took our chances there. There was some confusion initially over what we should have, but my grilled cheese sandwich was certainly worth the wait.

Judging by the baseball memorabilia, we were in the vicinity of Wrigley Field, the fabled home of the Chicago Cubs, World Series Champions in 2016 after a 108 year wait.

While we waited for our food, the boys and I had a few vigorous games of table (ice) hockey. Although Ely may have not been especially tactically astute, his more rudimentary, enthusiastic style made him a match for both Aiden and I.

Cheesie’s was renowned for its root and craft beers, of which Jerry partook, but less so for its coffee. The Osmium Coffee Bar a few blocks away was recommended and we made our way there. We were able to sit in the backyard where all the wooden tables were painted beautifully .

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We took the return to Adams/Wabash. Ely decided that he was no longer with us and needed his own space. We were not the only passengers to be charmed by his subsequent siesta.

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It was time to honour our reservation at Pequod’s authentic Chicago deep dish pizza restaurant. We arrived around twenty minutes early which allowed me the opportunity to do something I had been starved of on the trip so far – look around a bookshop. The large branch of Barnes & Noble called to me from across the street and I escaped from the rest of the party for a few minutes. I did not, however, make any purchases.

Oh, but I could have with more time and money!

We met Joyce and Artie and sat down to dinner. I’ll confess that both Janet and I prefer the traditional Italian thin crust pizza, but there is no denying that our cheese, extra cheese, onion and black olive deep dish version was tasty – and certainly, filling, so much so that we requested a “box” to take back to the house. Jerry and Alicia did the same with their meat pizza. But more of those leftovers in the next chapter.

The final instalment of the day returned us to the Blues Highway theme that had triggered this trip in the first place. Janet, Alicia and I had bought tickets to Blues legend, Buddy Guy’s club, for the evening.

Jerry had expressed his willingness to stay behind at the house looking after the boys. This might just have had something to do with his desire to watch the San Francisco 49ers at the Green Bay Packers live on television in peace.

But if that was the plan, it was thwarted before we even left the house to pick up our Uber. Despite ploughing through what appeared to be hundreds of channels, we could not locate a live transmission of the game. To add insult to injury for Jerry, we discovered that the blues club was showing it on several television sets!

After checking in at the club, we found what appeared to be the only empty table close to the stage – though we may have annoyed a large group of women who had begun to place additional chairs around it as we arrived. Playing dumb was a successful tactic.

I took the opportunity before the outstanding house band, led by singer and guitarist Jimmy Burns, began their first set, and our server arrived with the first gin and tonic of the evening, to look around. Original guitars and photographs of some of the greatest Blues musicians adorned the walls.

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Towards the end of the first set, it was announced that there was a special guest in the house – none other than the venerable owner of the club himself, Buddy Guy, a guitarist revered by Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name but a few guitar gods.

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Belying his eighty two years, Buddy delivered a suggestive, knowing and brilliantly phrased performance. He had the entire audience smiling and applauding, in particular holding women young enough to be his granddaughters in the palm of his hand.

If this were not enough of a gift, he agreed to sign t-shirts during the interval between sets. Alicia and I soon joined other starstruck fans in line for this unexpected and thrilling experience.

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It had been a great evening, the perfect ending to a lovely second day in Chicago in the company of our San Francisco family.

The only disappointment? The 49ers went down to the Packers in the last three seconds of the game. In some respects, it was probably a relief that Jerry had not had to witness it.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not as simple as it sounds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we had plans!

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endless fields of corn and barns dominated the landscape.

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

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

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

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

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

And for me to catch up on the blog!

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow would be the last day on the road.

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

Folkestone meets San Francisco in Chicago!

 

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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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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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