The (almost) Deep South, Newcomers, and the Heart of American Music

(56 days in)

Hello and welcome back to another instalment of our captivating and inspiring journey ‘A Quarter Life Crisis in Transit’. Today you meet us sat in a welcoming little hostel just outside of the centre of New Orleans. For any of you with a creepy level of knowledge about our journey you’ll know that this means we’ve just come through Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee. And that two people that claim to be Megan’s parents* have joined us. They’ll be with us for 2 weeks in total and at this stage they’re only halfway through that sentence. Bearing in mind that myself and Megan are at the beginning of our marathon of adventure  -relatively – whereas Kate and Steve are now into the home stretch of their sprint of a late summer holiday, I’m unsure how our budget will be affected by their presence (but what else is that enormous spreadsheet for?).

Anyway, as I said we’ve just been through some of what can arguably be hailed at as the birthplace or at least the very heart of some of the best American music that’s ever been made. So without further ado, let the narrative commence!

Honky Tonk, Hens and Guns
Nashville is the state capital of Tennessee as well as being the home of Ryman Auditorium, the ‘Mother Church of Country Music’. We were assured by our Airbnb host that the neighbourhood we were staying in was home to famous musicians, so if we heard any music at night it would be a gift from them to us (we didn’t hear anything from them at all). The building itself was quite lovely: a modern, open-plan, two bedroom house attached to the backside of the hosts’ property. The only downside was that, through no fault of their own, when we first arrived we had no water, no wifi and maybe 3/4s of the sheets and pillows we needed. Myself and my chin-high companion arrived first and managed to get our mobiles connected to the wifi before the others struggled with their devices. As we were also struggling to get the tap to cooperate for a cup of tea, we found a nearby restaurant and resolved to catch up over a well-cooked steak.

Bellies full and stories well and truly shared, we headed back and found, to our delight, we now had running water and a couple more devices connected to the web (I think this may actually have just been my devices but that’ll do me).

For our first morning in Nashville we decided that we should try out a local diner for breakfast. Following a quick Google search of ‘cheap food near me’ we were pointed to a small place with excellent reviews and fantastic service. After some large portion sizes, classic American ‘biscuits and gravy’ and a sufficient warning that there was an NFL game in the city the next day, we steeled ourselves and headed in.

Steve and Kate Price, in my opinion, have good taste in music. Some of which overlaps with each other and some that doesn’t. Steve was delighted that we were in the same city as the Johnny Cash Museum, Kate wasn’t. Megan and I don’t dislike his music by any means but also didn’t count ourselves fans enough to visit the museum in dedication to ‘The Man in Black’. So, we made a plan, split up and found ourselves at the Capitol building crowning Bicentennial park whilst they took in more culture. Before long we found ourselves in yet another Starbucks for a refresher and were informed that Kate had served her time and that we should meet up back on the main drag.

Being not only a weekend but practically a game day in the city, you could hardly move for people along the main street. Every few minutes there would be a large group of women rolling past in a ‘cycle bar’ wearing matching t-shirts and drinking heavily as instructed by the tiara crowned, sash wrapped leader of the pack (seriously, the bars look fun but there were about 4 patrolling the roads and so many other hen parties filling the bars on the main street). With each open door promising a rooftop bar, big TVs and live music it was hard to resist the allure, so we didn’t. We found a place called Nudie’s Honky Tonk and, walking past some excellent country music that was being played from under a full-size Cadillac hung on the wall, plonked ourselves down under some air-con. Reassuring ourselves that we’d come back in the evening to fully experience the town, we had just the one and headed out of the chaos.

Now was my time to get excited. I had found out the night prior that one of the attractions near our place of stay was the ‘Nashville Armoury’. A gun shop. But a gun shop that had 16 indoor range lanes and a policy that you could come along and rent guns without the need to purchase them afterwards. Excellent news for this hoplophile. So, after a quick respite and some eager anticipation I dragged my tour buddy along to find out how easy it would be for me to shoot there. After a little bit of explanation of who I was and where I was from and the like, the man on the other side of the counter was happy to help and put me down on a short waiting list for the next available lane. Luckily my chance came only a few minutes later and he ran through the procedure as well as the firearms and ammunition I would need.

“Do you know how to operate this equipment”
“… Ok, if anyone else asks you that, just say yes. We’ll assume you just had a bout of early Alzheimer’s. And I’ll come in and show you what to do in a few.”

The lane rental covered an hour, and I decided to take advantage of the ‘rent two guns and get a third free’ deal by picking out two rifles and a pistol. With these came 90 rounds of ammunition (it seemed excessive at the time but it was just right for almost a full hour’s shooting and, bearing in mind you can’t buy the pistol rounds in anything smaller than a box of 50, would have been silly to get less), and a paper target for each weapon. Not to go on too long about this experience** as I feel most won’t share my enthusiasm and some may be concerned, I can say I had a great time and will be bringing the ruined pieces of paper back to treasure forever (I did also keep some spent shells that I planned on taking home but research on various laws has pointed out that I probably shouldn’t…). (M: Seems that even with an added footnote he’s forgotten that I shot all three of these guns as well! Probably intimidated by my superior handling of them… not.)

Once I had returned with a cheek-achingly large smile across my face, we had all but decided that we’d had enough for the day. Resigned to the fact that the city would be chock full of loud people and that our new companions were still suffering from a touch of jet lag, we had a home cooked meal and turned in for the night.

Blues, Soul and Rock’n’Roll
Next up on our apparent tour of American music was Memphis, Tennessee, home and heartland for some of the most influential strains of blues, soul and rock’n’roll. With not only the legendary Sun Studios, but also the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Rock’n’Soul Museum, the Blues Hall of Fame and of course Graceland, mansion of iconic rock’n’roll star Elvis Presley. I can also confirm that the people of Memphis rightly pride themselves on having some of the best BBQ in America. This all, of course, is a lot to take in in the one day we had planned for the city. So, the first thing we did after arriving at the property was to book another night with our host, giving us a bit more BBQ tasting time breathing room with our plans. The house itself was another listing we had found on Airbnb. A small yet spacious two bedroom bungalow with both an attic and a basement (which makes it the first three-floor bungalow I’ve seen). It had been furnished exclusively with reclaimed furnishings and décor which meant it was fantastically eclectic and mismatching. From the massive baroque golden mirror in the entryway to the four-foot Elvis picture above the TV, it was delightful. That first night conformed itself to the usual of any night we arrive in a new place as we had whatever food we could from our van and spent the evening planning what we wanted to do the following days.

The beginning of our Memphis adventure was a lot like the first day of its Nashville counterpart, and with a sense of deja vu we left Steve and Kate to take in more about a musical legend as we opted to do something a bit more sedate – they were off to see Graceland, the mansion home of the aforementioned Elvis Presley. They would later come to regret this choice (in an act of repetition I think Kate was already regretting it before they even left) but we’ll come to that in its proper chronological order.

Megan and I spent most of the morning trying to decide what it was we should actually do with our day. And obviously we settled on something that I didn’t list earlier, something that was pretty far detached from the musical background – the Slave Haven Museum of the Underground Railroad, previous home of Jacob Burkle, agent of the Underground Railway and abolitionist. As a white British man, I felt guilty before we even stepped in the door. The house itself has been turned into a small museum with artefacts, texts and a guided tour that took us through the horrifying history of slavery and the tools used by abolitionists to save those seeking freedom. To start with we were the only visitors, and so received the full force of the (initially somewhat antagonistic) tour guide’s recital – however, as the tour went on we became more comfortable with the surroundings and others turned up to ask their questions and explore more of this past. It was a fascinating experience and I would highly recommend the tour to anyone in the area who doesn’t know the nauseating history of those 400 years: from the way that secret messages were passed through signs and song to the reality of what slaves had to endure whilst on the run (let alone during their captivity).

Once we had been taken through the house, we ended the tour in the basement. Jacob Burkle had decided that this house would be a ‘slave haven’ even before it was built, choosing a plot just two blocks from the great Mississippi River and the boats that carried the slaves to freedom. This meant that the basement was built specially to grant someone covert access from the outside, through the means of breakaway bricks. The person in question would have to pull out bricks from one section at the foot of the house, crawl into an open space beneath the building and then all the way around the perimeter of the foundations until they could then get through a circle of bricks that would deposit them into the basement. This circular opening was roughly 24 inches wide.  The person would then have to stay in relative silence in the pitch black for hours, days or maybe even weeks until the sign was given to make their way to the river.

As you can imagine this was all pretty heavy stuff to take on board and by the end of the tour we were grateful but a little on the depressed side, and feeling very, very white.

We made it back to our abode pretty quickly as the museum was only a short walk from the front door. We were trying to decide on what else we should do that day whilst we walked but settled to do this instead with lunch from the comfort of the sofa. As we arrived back we had a rather ominous message from the other half of our party: “Leaving hell soon”. Unsure whether this was an informative message or a kind of post-mortem warning, we opted for an “Ok” and went back to the sandwiches.

Not long after, a rather exasperated Kate and Steve entered the premises and promptly directed some pretty strong language toward the portrait hung above the TV. We were then regaled with a tale of tourism. Not the healthy tourism that we had been partaking in this entire time, but the soul-crushing, flower-flattening kind of tourism that squeezes any joy and wonder from an object and leaves it with a foul-tasting shallowness. Graceland, as it turns out, was not only just the mansion residence of the King of Rock’n’Roll, but a huge complex of exhibits and museums dedicated to every facet of the man’s life. From the cars he drove and the costumes he wore (interesting) to the bills he paid and the slippers he slipped into (not so interesting), and with hardly any of it pointing you toward his musical career and accomplishments… all of which was piled beneath so many hundreds of people being forced to slowly march in single file lines like some chain-gang in reverence to a false idol. We were assured that by the end of it Steve had some pretty strong words for inanimate objects, let alone the people near them.

With a few deep breaths taken and a glass of scotch quaffed, we were all ready to get an Uber into town for some great barbeque on the historic Beale Street. With live bands in practically every venue and neon signs glowing atop almost every building, even though it was a Tuesday this was an excellent choice and I would recommend it to anyone in the area. After some spectacular ribs and beer, we waddled our way down to the other end of the street, stopping by windows and in a gift shop for some terrifically awful memorabilia. And after watching what can I only assume must have been the easiest arrest I’ve ever seen (a hooded scoundrel trying to offload some obviously illegal substance so close to the cop car that he may as well have offered it through the window before stepping inside himself), we were happy to get another taxi back to the house and turn in for the night.

Our second day in Memphis saw some pretty healthy British weather unlike the previous day’s uplifting sun and clear sky. This was due to Hurricane Irma, something that two of the people we had met the previous day had fled from in their home state of Florida. Obviously we are fortunate that all we had to contend with was some chilly winds and drizzle.

This meant that our plan was to mostly find things we could see inside somewhere. Up first on the list was the Stax Museum. Based out of the old record shop and recording studio of the Stax label, this was another amazing experience. Both of us being huge Blues Brothers fans, I was surprised that I didn’t know more about the artists and influences of all the music that went into it. This hot beating heart of blues and soul music took us on a tour through the life and fame of such artists as Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, James Brown, Ray Charles, the Temptations, Isaac Hayes, Booker T and the MGs (including Steve Cropper and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn) to name a few. It also gave us young’un’s an insight into the truth of such an inclusive and barrier-breaking form of music during the era of segregation and the Civil Rights movement.

The weather hadn’t changed by the time we’d toured the museum and exhausted the gift shop clothing section, so we hopped back in the car and headed for lunch. Another BBQ place, much to my delight (and arteries’ horror), and afterwards we opted to take a peek at Sun Studios. When I say ‘we’, I really meant Steve. Myself and Megan weren’t sure of a lot of names that come out of Sun Studios (and had been thoroughly put off Elvis) so weren’t that bothered and Kate had seen a lot of the big names already at Stax, so felt happy to leave it at that. She did however decide to escort her husband to the door, just to have a look and after finding that a literal busload of tourists had arrived at the same time, filling the small studio to the brim, they both came back to the car and it was off back ‘home’ for the lot of us.

That mostly leaves us up to date. The next day we simply got up, packed up our surprisingly well spread crap, signed the guestbook and headed off toward Jackson, Mississippi for a short night stop.

Thanks for sitting with me through some more ramblings and if you have any suggestions of what should be done throughout any of Texas (it can’t be that big, surely) please let me know. Our schedule is a bit up in the air currently what with the relief efforts of Hurricane Harvey ongoing throughout the South, so we’re rethinking some of the journey. But don’t hesitate to get in touch either way, even if its to figuratively throw tomatoes at me until I exit stage left.

*I have no evidence to the contrary but only 50% of our cohort remember the incident and without majority in the group, I can’t be certain.

**I’ll go on about it more here, for those interested. The guns I actually wanted to fire weren’t available at the time, so after a little discussion with my new ex-army friend, I settled on an AR15 Semi-Automatic Rifle, Tavar Tar-21 Semi-Automatic Rifle but in the Bullpup configuration and an M1911 Pistol, the standard sidearm of the US Marines in World War 2.

The AR15 is perhaps the most widely-spread and used rifle throughout the Western world. It has a modular design which makes it easy to customise and can be chambered for practically any size round you could want.

The Tavar Tar-21 is a lot like the British Armed Forces standard issue rifle (the SA80) so this grabbed my interest. And with a red-dot sight on top it was the one I was most proficient with.

The M1911 (Note: this is pronounced like the year and not just four numbers. I was laughed at for that one) being again a highly recognisable and serviced firearm was the clincher for me. I originally went in to rent the Desert Eagle .50 but this was out for repair. And I can say that I’m thankful for that. After firing the 9mm M1911, I was surprised about the strength and kickback it had in my hand. Which meant that the devastatingly powerful Desert Eagle would probably have left me with a black eye had I attempted it as my first pistol experience. (M: More’s the pity.)


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