A Journey of Music, Mud and Mystery through the American South:

New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville

I watch the sun set over the American South from my sleeper compartment on the train known as the “City of New Orleans”. The train is over-zealously air-conditioned as is typical in the USA, but outside in the murky twilight, the steam rises from swampy lowlands, and the heat is smothering. I’ve come prepared, dressed in a knitted sweater and jeans, and watch the endless procession of rusted railyards and run-down homesteads, which counter the periodic grandeur of elegant antebellum houses as we head north up the Mississippi. Darkness falls. The train ploughs headlong into the night, and the clickety-clack of the tracks and the tooting of the whistle as we approach rail-crossings is hypnotic. I’m almost too comfortable, and I will myself not to fall asleep, because I know that Memphis is fast approaching.

Road Crew and yellow truck in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA In New Orleans, 5 days earlier, I watch a road-crew digging up the street, and notice the water table right under the road-surface. A pump powered by a diesel generator sucks out water and blasts it to the kerbside, allowing the men to focus on whatever it is they are digging up. Meanwhile, on Rue Bourbon and surrounding streets in the French Quarter, the sidewalks are being forever hosed down. Whether it be spilt drinks or squashed food or the bodily fluids of drunks, the overriding wisdom is to quickly flush it back to the body of water the town is built upon. I step around great muddy puddles as I negotiate the cracked pavements and pot-holed streets.

New Orleans is a town that is muddy and wet and mysterious and exciting. In summer, the nights are hot and humid, and the air feels as though it may at any minute explode into a ferocious thunderstorm. The food is like nothing I have ever tasted before. Throughout the week I wolf down meals of gumbo, jambalaya, blackened catfish, and po-boy shrimp sandwiches. They are all much acquired tastes- all interesting, but all as though mixed with mouthfuls of saltwater and mud, products of their environment.

New Orleans French Quarter House, USA
New Orleans French Quarter
Theatre Door on Frenchmen Street, New Orleans, USA
A theatre in Frenchmen Street

USA-June15-1981-LR-XL

Bourbon Street in the evening, French Quarter
Bourbon Street in the evening, French Quarter

In much the same vein, the city abounds with curious, colourful and shifty characters, the inhabitants themselves as though they are products of the swamplands that surround them, bunyips emerging from the bayous to prowl the narrow streets, plying their beads or bars or big-ass beers to wary travellers.

Big Ass Beers, Bourbon Street, New Orleans, USA The taxi-drivers in particularly are surly and sinister, and liable to scam you out of every last dime in your pocket, scowling as you request for the meter to be turned on, while a sign in every cab warns passengers that killing of a taxi-driver in Lousiana carries the death penalty. The news reports are awash with stories of escaped prison detainees. One white taxi-driver that refuses to talk to us looks in his bizarro ID picture like he might well be a fugitive, while on the morning in which news breaks of a mass shooting in a black church in South Carolina, several black taxi drivers at a rank flat-out refuse to drive me anywhere, one of them driving off with his door open as I try to jump in. The one that finally accepts me, his rear-view mirror laden with beads and voodoo charms, angrily answers “Bonanza” when I ask what he is watching on his portable TV screen on the passenger seat, then pretends to forget that he needs to give me ten dollars change when we arrive at the destination. Requests for receipts are invariably met with a blank docket and a “here you go man, write in any amount you want”.

Aboard the Loyola streetcar, the driver asks an embarking passenger how his morning’s been. “Just goofin’ off, goin’ to work,” he replies as a joke, as if a day’s work is the last thing on the minds of anyone in this town. It’s not really that sort of place. But none of this is intended as a criticism- I walk the streets wide-eyed and amazed, because I’ve just never seen a place like New Orleans before.

Delphine LaLaurie's House, New Orleans, USA
Ex-residence of Delphine LaLaurie and husband in New Orleans. The bricked up window hides the room where sadistic torture and slaughter of their slaves took place.

There’s a darkness and a bawdiness to this French-tinged town that is almost luscious and irresistible. Ghost tours ply their trade along streets lined with faded maisons, while drunken ex-frat boys call from intricate iron latticework balconies, imploring passing belles to flash their titties for beads. Several oblige.

One such house is so haunted, and so full of dark energy, we are told, that even by standing under the balcony we could have our souls cursed for eternity. At some point in the past, wealthy socialite doctors who owned the house were discovered after a mysterious fire to have a secret parlour where they performed macabre medical experiments upon countless of the dozens of slaves they owned. Drunken revellers passing along the street are blissfully oblivious, cocktails in hand, some of them masked and bedecked in feathers or beads.

And then there’s the music. Music everywhere- a guy wrapped in a giant brass sousaphone walks back to his digs after an impromptu jam down at Jackson Square in the French Quarter. My taxi cruises past a large black man playing solo licks on a Gibson Lucille guitar on the sidewalk. In the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street in Faubourg Maringy, the drummer taps at passersby on the windowsill with his drumstick, part of a cyclone jazz routine with a dreadlocked pianist and afro-headed trumpter whipping the room into a frenzy. Over at Snug Harbour, an aptly titled bar across the road, we pay $40 to see Ellis Marsallis, an elderly jazz pianist, who gingerly ascends the steps the the stage, greets the crowd with a low and tired old voice, but then plays the piano with fingers bursting with youthful intensity. And the Rebirth Brass Band, who rock the Maple Leaf Bar on the other side of the city on Tuesdays, and have recently won a Grammy Award, are unforgettable.

Man with Sousaphone, New Orleans, USA Man Playing Guitar, New Orleans, USA

Reggae Bar, Frenchmen Street New Orleans
And then there’s the music. Music everywhere

My work trip over for the week, I meet colleagues over at Magazine Street in the Garden District, the upscale “American” suburb with shops selling all manner of curiosities from wigs and masks to beautiful artworks and handcrafted hats. The surrounding streets are filled with achingly beautiful old antebellum mansions, their streetfront columns supporting wooden porches and wondrous wooden staircases. We stop at Joey K’s cafe for poboys and sweet tea, and ride the Charles Street street car back to the city centre.

Church in Garden District, New Orleans House in Garden District, New Orleans

Antebellum Houses, Garden District, New Orleans, USA
Antebellum houses in the Garden District, New Orleans
Crypt in St. Louis Cemetery 1, New Orleans
A grave in St. Louis Cemetery 1, marked with Xs, thought (probably incorrectly) to hold the body of a voodoo practitioner
Italian Community Crypt, St Louis Cemetery 1, New Orleans
Italian community crypt in St. Louis Cemetery 1
Nicholas Cage's Crypt, St Louis Cemetery 1, New Orleans
Nicholas Cage’s Crypt

 

On the morning before I leave town, I tour St. Louis Cemetery 1, the oldest existing cemetery in New Orleans and the most famous. The cemetery is home to countless family crypts, built above ground ostensibly to avoid the water table alluded to earlier. The crypts date from centuries ago to modern times, and house victims of various plagues and misfortunes (particularly yellow fever epidemics which were common in New Orleans) to rumoured voodoo practitioners. The latter tombs have been marked by hundreds of visitors with an X, which is supposed to bring good luck. Unfortunately, several tombs have been vandalised in this way, and for some of which there is no evidence that the occupants were even involved with voodoo. Several crypts are still empty, but in true macabre New Orleans style have been reserved by people keen to be interred in their manner of choice upon demise. Nicholas Cage has built a pyramid-shaped tomb here, and it already has his name on it.

 

New Orleans is the sort of place you could stay forever, but all-too-soon I’m on the Amtrak heading north through Louisiana and Mississippi and into Tennessee. This is the “City of New Orleans,” the train immortalized in the Steve Goodman song of the same name. It roars alongside Lake Pontchartrain, the monstrous lake which borders New Orleans and flooded it when the tide rose during Hurricane Katrina. Next, we are in the middle of the bayou, surrounded by nothing but muddy swamplands. I keep an eye out for alligators which are said to be sunning themselves on logs, but I don’t even see any logs, or anything so solid, only liquid as far as the eye can see. There are a lot of birds though.

Rounding Lake Pontchartrain
Rounding Lake Pontchartrain
Louisiana Bayou, USA
Louisiana bayou swampland

Fire Station, Mississippi, USA Graduate Supply Store, Mississippi, USA

City of New Orleans Train, Greenwood Mississippi, USA
The City of New Orleans train stopped in Greenwood Mississippi

Cornfields from Train, Mississippi, USA

Amtrak Dining Car, City of New Orleans, USA
Dining car on the City of New Orleans

I adore rail travel. The sun sets over rusted railyards and I’m so comfortable in my sleeper cabin with the farms and tornado towns rolling by that it’s an effort to drag myself to the meal car, but when I do I meet Richard, a colleague of mine from Sydney who happens to have the same trip in mind as me, and a couple of Scottish travellers who are as astounded by the American South as I am. The City of New Orleans goes as far north as Chicago, an overnight journey. But we’ll be getting off much earlier in Memphis, and all too soon we’re there!

Memphis is a much smaller place than I expect, and I literally hop out of the carriage and into a waiting cab parked next to the platform, without even walking into the terminal hall. I’ve scored a good deal at the Peabody Hotel, an amazing place I’ll discuss in a minute, and on the 5 minute trip there the driver points out the motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated, a hotel where Elvis wrote several hit songs, the Gibson guitar factory, and Beal Street, the neon-lit stretch where Saturday night is going down. He’s also keen to discuss the merits of black-girl booty versus white-girl booty. We agree that both are good.

I check in and Richard drops by and we walk to the amazing Beal Street. The walk there is a tad on the dark and scary side, and when we arrive we’re surprised to find police checkpoints. Before we can even access the street, we’re patted down for weapons. I cringe to think of the events that must have necessitated that, though the street itself does have a bit of a powderkeg feel to it, and we feel a bit more comfortable once on the strip for the precautions.

Police Car, Beale Street, Memphis USA
Police car on Beale Street in Memphis
Saturday Night on Beale Street, Memphis, USA
Saturday night on Beale Street
Blue Note Bar, Memphis USA
The blues band in Blue Note bar

Richard and Matt, Beale Street, Memphis Neon Lights, Beale Street, Memphis, USA

B.B. King's Blues Club, Memphis, USA
B.B. King’s Blues Club, Memphis

The street is lined by neon-lit blues bars, but there’s a lot of action in the street itself, with huge groups of people jiving to hip-hop music. Many of them seem keen to prove that pants don’t necessarily need to be hitched above the hips, or even to cover your CKs, and a baseball cap is not just for keeping the sun off while playing baseball- in fact it can be worn at night and facing backwards, sideways or as one guy impressively and oddly demonstrates, facing vertically upwards.

The bars are actually a peaceful respite from the chaos outside and we check out the music at Blue Note Bar and Grill and the Rum Boogie Cafe which are great. The Coyote Ugly bar from the movie of the same name is also here in this street- and it’s the shittest bar I can remember visiting for quite some time, if not forever. But you might enjoy it if a) you loved the movie, or b) you like your self-opinions low and your good times tepid and coerced.

The night disappears into yet another blur of music and bottles of Yuengling and before I know it, I’m waking up at 10:30 am in the semi-luxurious confines of the Peabody Hotel. Like The Ritz in Paris or the Savoy in London, this place is a bit of an icon in the US South, and the march of the Peabody Ducks in the hotel lobby is something of a tourist attraction in itself. It’s happening at 11 am, so I make myself as beautiful as possible in the time available and head downstairs to watch.

Lobby of Peabody Hotel, Memphis, USA
Lobby of The Peabody, Memphis
March of The Peabody Ducks, Memphis, USA
And here cometh the ducks..

Peabody Ducks Crowd, Memphis

Priveleged Quackers, Peabody Ducks, Memphis, Tennessee
Priveleged quackers.

Did I say something of a tourist attraction? Downstairs in the grand, sumptously-appointed lobby, people are crammed several rows deep into every possible nook and cranny craning their heads at a roll of red carpet, which leads up the steps into a beautiful marble fountain that is the centrepiece of the space. I pull a cocktail table to the side and grab a mezzanine view from above, and watch as 4 or 5 ducks stroll up the red carpet, jump into the fountain, and er… that’s about it, actually. The oddest semi-spectacle I’ve perhaps ever encountered is over in all of ten seconds. The ducks themselves live on the roof of the hotel, and after they are brought down to the fountain at 11 am they swim around in it until 5, at which point they march out again. I’m sure even the ducks are puzzled by the attention.

Breakfast in Memphis Tennessee, USA
Breakfast Memphis-style: pumpkin waffles with candied pecans, bacon and honey-dew melon

 

 

I head out into the already steamy morning and the city is all but deserted. It’s a sharp contrast to the crowds in the hotel or on Beal Street on a Saturday night. I suppose this is what summer Sundays in downtown Memphis are like. My first mission is to find some breakfast, and I end up watching a country blues band while I eat pumpkin waffles with maple syrup, bacon, candied pecans and honey-dew melon. When in Rome!

I head to Main Street, which is quite nice but deserted apart from a few shifty people looking at me strangely. So I walk down to the banks of the mighty Mississippi, which rages past Memphis with some vigour. It’s turbid brown waters are rolling on at a rate of knots, carrying here and there a log from who-knows-where upstream. I catch the hanging monorail across to Mud Island, and watch as a colossal barge comes down the river carrying logs. It’s about ten football fields long, and driven by a single tug, which impressively threads the entire behemoth between the piers in the Memphis-Arkansas bridge without collapsing the freeway.

Mud Island has a scale model of the entire Mississippi River, complete with water flowing down in, which sounds naff (and it is a bit I guess!) but it’s an impressive labour of love for whoever built it, the topography of the landscape and river delta amazingly detailed. I spend way too long walking down it towards the “Gulf of Mexico” (where you can rent a paddle boat), retracing my journey and looking at how New Orleans was flooded during Katrina.

Mississippi River, Memphis
The mighty Mississippi
Barge on Mississippi River, Memphis, Tennessee
Huge barge coming down the river
Memphis seen from Mud Island
Scale model of the lower Mississippi, with paddle-boats on the Gulf of Mexico on Mud Island, and Memphis skyline in background

Next on the list is the Lorraine Motel, the site where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 and now the Civil Rights Museum (and apologies in advance if you thought I was going to write about Graceland.. I don’t give a shit about Elvis). I arrive along an almost deserted main street, and I’ll admit the area around the museum has me looking over my shoulder a couple of times. And when I arrive, all I can think was “wow”. The motel and balcony King stood upon when he was shot is perfectly preserved, a white Cadillac still parked below, and on the corner of the block is the original neon sign in garish font as could only come from the 60’s, but with the sign’s customizable announcement letters now spelling out “I Have A Dream.” The quiet afternoon air is broken by King’s breathtakingly articulate oratory, projecting from a loudspeaker over the site. It is very, very moving.

The room in which King stayed is also preserved, but the rest of the hotel and the boarding house across the road from which the assassin fired the fatal shot now comprise the National Civil Rights Museum. What a place. The museum content is vast and detailed and horrifying in its stories of tyranny and injustice, though through the passion and the teachings of the mostly black staff at the museum I felt only love, and this despite the previously mentioned atrocity in a black church in South Carolina, only days prior. King would be proud. Unfortunately, I have only 2 hours, far too short a time to work my way through all of the material on hand. Allow double this amount of time.

"I Have A Dream", Lorraine Motel, Memphis

Lorraine Motel and Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Site of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Lorraine Motel and now also the Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee

I race back toward downtown to the Gibson guitar factory, something I couldn’t miss for the world, having been a Gibson fan and guitarist since my teenage years. The last tour for the day is all booked out, but I plead my case and the guy is cool enough to allow me onto the tour. The Memphis factory makes semi-hollow bodies and historic reissues, while the solid body guitars are made in Nashville, though it’s only the Memphis factory that offers tours. Being Sunday, no workers are on duty in the factory, but we learn how the wood for the body is carved and bent, how the f-holes are cut, how the binding is applied, how the neck is carved and fret wire attached, and we see the area where the painting, flame-bursting and lacquering is done. I’m in seventh heaven- the space is full of beautiful guitars of my dreams at various points in the production sequence, including a half-finished double-SG, and plenty of recent models that are not yet for sale. My lungs aren’t too impressed though- there’s a fine layer of sawdust covering every surface, which is kicked into the air even as the group walks through the factory, and though it fills the air with the scent of rich mahogany, I wonder whether the place has adequate extraction for the workers.

Main Street, Memphis, USA
Deserted Main Street in Memphis
Gibson Guitar Factory, Memphis, USA
Gibson guitar factory
Guitars for Sale, Gibson Guitar Factory, Memphis, USA
Historic reissue and custom Les Pauls for sale in the Gibson guitar factory shop

Because the sun has not yet set and I’ve ticked off all my must-sees, I decide to make a beeline for the famous Sun Studios, appearing on my map as just east of downtown. This famous place is where BB King, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins, among others, recorded some of their earliest songs, and it thus makes a claim as the birthplace of Rock n’ Roll. Unfortunately, it’s much further than I expect, and the route becomes more and more run down, the surroundings more and more dilapidated and deserted, until I’m not just slyly looking over my shoulder, I’m more than a little worried for my wellbeing and that of my $2000 camera I’m unfortunately lugging on my shoulders. I spot a pale old man at a bus-stop and approach him, asking “excuse me, do you know how far Sun Studios is?”
“Blarrrgghhhh-arggh-aarrgggghh” is the response, the man’s face twisted in contortion, his eyes wild and furious.
“Ok thanks,” I say backing away hurriedly. This is not going well.

When I finally arrive at Sun Studios, I get the usual spiel about all the tours being sold out for the day, but despite my protestations and the fact it’s just me, the girl at the counter refuses to let me join the tour. “Ok- well can I at least go in and have a look around?” I ask.
“No. You need to be on a tour. We have more tomorrow.”
“But I’m leaving first thing tomorrow… and I walked all the way here from downtown.”
She’s not at all impressed. “I’m sorry sir.”
“But I came all the way from Australia to see Sun Studios.” The last bit is a lie- I hadn’t even heard about Sun Studios until today, not really giving a shit about Elvis and all. But even this lame line of woe fails to convince her. She’s chatting with co-workers with a vibe that says “I can’t wait to get off work for the day”. “Fine then,” I say. “Could you call me a cab please.”
“Sure!” she says, suddenly enthusiastic. “Is there anything else I can help you out with?”
“Er, well you could let me on the tour.”
She just laughs, mistaking my dry belligerence for good humour, like I’ve told a funny joke. I resist the urge to be a real smartarse, because I dearly want my cab ride back to town.

Bad End of Town, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Yikes! Where in tarnation am I?
Sun Studios, Memphis TN, USA
Sun Studios, where Elvis, Johnny Cash and others cut some of their first tracks

As it happens, the afternoon is saved by the cab driver. After waiting outside in the broken neighbourhood, I enter the backseat of the most palatial and spotless cab I have ever seen in my life. Everything smells like leather conditioner, the carpets are plush and freshly vacuumed, the dash looks like it has just been detailed. “Dude,” I say, “this is a nice cab.”
Thankyou,” says the well-groomed, well-dressed, and impeccably polite young African-American driver in a deep voice. “It’s nice of you to say so. I would be insulting my passengers, and it would be an insult to me, if I offered any different.”

Say what you will about Americans, but they are diverse and never disinteresting.

This is evident again the following day, bleary-eyed after another night of blues bands on Beale Street, when my Uber driver picks me up from the hotel in a gigantic fuel-guzzling Hummer. He’s the perfect stereotype of a white Southerner- except that when I mention I’m in the solar power industry, his eyes light up. “Oh man, I just love solar power,” he drawls. “That’s so cool. That is the future right there.” He proceeds to talk so genuinely and enthusiastically and rapidly about his interest in the solar power industry, that we finally pull up outside the airport departure terminal.
“Is this the bus-station?” I ask, confused.
“Oh shoot! Oh damn. Dang. I forgot where I was going. Shoot!

Art Deco Greyhound Bus Station, Jackson, Tennesee
A cool art deco bus station in Jackson, Tennessee

Luckily, the bus-station is close by, and we arrive with plenty of time- too much, actually. With no train line betwixt Memphis and Nashville, I am forced to take the Greyhound. Taking the Greyhound in the US South is not the most pleasant experience- even the bus station is full of people I avoid making eye contact with. I stare at my feet for 45 minutes, until mercifully, my departure is called.

The bus ride itself is little better. I am convinced the majority of characters on that bus want me dead, so I naturally gravitate toward the others who seem merely to want me maimed. One lass boarding the bus strikes me as almost normal, and she sits next to me, hopefully because I also come across similarly passable. It turns out she is Australian. Typical! (She’s from Penrith though.)

The bus ride is not as scenic as the train, but it does have Wi-Fi, which allows me to organise to arrive in Nashville, grab my bag from the luggage compartment, and race directly in and out of Nashville Greyhound terminal without so much as a glance around, and into my waiting Uber ride out the front. He takes me to my Airbnb house (after the splurge at The Peabody in Memphis I need to save some cash). It’s not too far from The Gulch, a hip neighbourhood with bars and restaurants. The house itself is a little eyebrow raising- it’s tiny, but the host, Lisa, has rigged it all up for short-term stays for 6 people (!) including combination entry locks and little signs with instructions on every appliance and piece of furniture. She is however a very nice, attentive host, and a veritable encyclopaedia of everything there is to see, do and eat in Nashville. Even better, I have the house to myself today- Lisa herself is also away in Atlanta.

Downtown Nashville, USA
Downtown Nashville
Cowboy Boots in Nashville, USA
Cowboy boots in Nashville. I’ll take a dozen.
Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Ryman Auditorium

I dump my stuff and walk into town via The Gulch. I’ve grown used to the 3rd-world vibe of Southern cities, but I’m pleasantly surprised to find that Nashville is nothing of the sort. The initial impression I get is something similar to Portland Oregon, where I used to live- but with honky-tonk bars instead of north-west brewpubs. There’s barely a cracked pavement to be seen. All the girls call me “sweetie” and the guys all seem to want to be my best friend. “Dude- you Australian?” asks the guy who serves me lunch.
“Yeah.”
“No kidding. Awesome,” he says before proceeding to give me yet another run down on Nashville’s attractions. “You gotta try the roast beef roll,” he demands, and after I ask what I’m supposed to do with the French jus that comes with it, he says “just dip it in. You’re gonna love it. It’s fuckin’ awesome.

Joe's Crab Shack, Nashville Tennessee, USA Happy to abide a man with that much passion for roast beef, I happily ingest. It has to be said that the food in this part of the world is great. I don’t care what anyone says about American food; I’m been more at home in the Barbecue-cuisine kingdoms of Memphis and Nashville than just about anywhere. Back in Australia we think we know barbecue, but the truth is Aussie barbecue is generally the crappest quality cuts of tasteless meat burned enough to make it edible and washed down quickly with a good cold lager. In truth the Americans do struggle a bit on the lager front, but a half rack of ribs in barbecue sauce, a pulled pork sandwich, a burger with crispy bacon and salad with an iced-tea, that’s my perfect lunch right there. We’re catching on slowly in Australia, but the gaping void between fast-food and fine dining is still mostly occupied only with (very good) Asian and ethnic food. Even burgers in Sydney, if it’s not bloody McDonalds then it’s being presented on a giant white plate with aioli and friggin’ brioche bread like it’s a bloody work of art (and priced accordingly). It’s a fricken burger! Americans, and particularly Southerners, know how to do in-between food properly.

I ponder this and other similarly wanky thoughts as I walk to the strip of Honky-Tonk bars along Broadway downtown. It’s roasting hot so I duck into Tin Roof, one of the bars which seems to be happening, and order a lemonade instead of a beer. The bargirl tells me not to worry about the bill and calls me sweetie. And playing up on stage is a country band, with so entertaining a lead singer that he needs his own show on prime-time.

 

[in Southern drawl] “So I was playing a show in Louisville Kentucky and I get offstage and I’m feelin’ all pretty good about the show and I see a gentleman proppin’ himself against the bar and he’s starin’ straight at me, so I walk up and say ‘I hope you enjoyed the show’. And he says, ‘Are you kiddin’ me? You sucked!’ I’m like ‘Now why would you go and say such an unkind thing as that?’ He says ‘All you did was stand up there and tell STOOPID stories and play songs with three chords. Do you know anything other than G, C and E? You ever heard of minors or fifths?’ and I says ‘Well now, I APOLOGAHSE that our little ditties weren’t to your taste. But you gotta understand that I play in a COUNTRY music band, and hell, G, C and E are the only chords I’ll ever need!”

 

At this point much hooping and hollering from the adoring patrons, and the band launches into a song with only the aforementioned major chords, and the refrain “G, C and E, that’s all I’ll ever need.” The rest of the set is punctuated by similarly elaborate anecdotes.

Honky Tonk Bars on Broadway, Nashville Tennessee, USA

Neon Honky Tonk Bars on Broadway, Nashville Tennessee, USA
Honky Tonk bars on Broadway, Nashville Tennessee

I’m obliged to head back to the house for a work call, which kinda sucks cos I’m having so much fun. The tiny house is so empty in contrast to the honky tonks downtown. Silent. The neighborhood feels a bit more sinister in the dark, and at 3 am the backyard security light comes on outside my bedroom window. Oh crap. I suppose that’s the downside of the user economy- when you’re in a hotel or hostel, even if you’re unlucky and end up in a dodgy area, you’re still up on the n’th floor (hopefully) with a bunch of workers watching the front door 24/7 (hopefully). When your Airbnb owner’s away in Atlanta, it’s just you and some neighborhood you’ve never been before in your life. I’m trying to remind myself of the upsides to the user economy as I peer surreptitiously through the venetian blinds. All I can see is trees moving in the breeze- could they have set the light off?

In the US, these risks are compounded by the fact that a good chunk of the population are carrying weapons around- there’s always that element of unpredictability in American society that you just don’t have elsewhere, or at least not in most developed countries. The atrocity in South Carolina is a case in point. Nonetheless, no man with a gun peers down at me through my window. I message Lisa about it the next day and she says it was probably just the neighbour’s cats. Ok then. Good. The sun is out again, it’s stinking hot, and I’m in Nashville baby!

I start the day (including breakfast) at the Country Music Hall of Fame, which is probably the cheesiest thing I could think of doing, but hey, when in Nashville, dot dot dot. Surprisingly, being more of a rocker, I enjoy myself. There’s more Edam than a Dutch deli but there’s also a lot of good stuff, like the personal guitars of lots of country stars (particularly Martin Dreadnoughts) and various weird and wonderful rare instruments, including the original “Log”- the first solid guitar built by Les Paul himself. That’s impressive. The museum also crosses over into folk and rock n’ roll, and there’s plenty of stuff on artists such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young, as well as all the country stars. The museum also has Elvis Presley’s “Solid Gold Cadillac”, complete with built in record player, refrigerator and cathode-ray-tube television, which is pretty cool if you’re an Elvis fan. Myself… ah nevermind.

"The Log" by Les Paul, Nashville Country Music Hall of Fame
“The Log”, the world’s first solid body guitar built by Les Paul. Unbeknownst to me, he stuck those standard hollow-body bits on the side just to make it look a bit more “guitar-like” and acceptable.
Hank Williams Martin D28, Nashville Country Music Hall of Fame
Hank Williams’s Martin D28
Taylor Swift Education Centre, Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville
I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect to ever see those four words in combination. At the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

From the Hall of Fame, you can also get yourself on a tour of RCA Studio B. This is a bit weird, since the museum is downtown while a bus takes you to Studio B in Music Row, not far from where I’m staying. Along with Sun Studios in Memphis, Studio B is one of the world’s most famous studios, given that it launched something like a bazillion top-ten singles. It’s very cool if you like the recording arts or any of the artists that recorded here, and there’s plenty of grand pianos, xylophones, marimbas and amplifiers lying around in the studio that were used in famous songs.

Rather than take the bus back to the Hall of Fame, I opt to ditch the tour and walk around Music Row for a couple hours. The area’s not particularly photogenic (though it’s certainly not ugly) but it’s quite interesting if you like recording studios and music history. There’s churches everywhere too- in fact, the presence of music in Nashville is only matched by the obvious religious presence. We’re deep in the US bible-belt here. I walk past Buddy Killeen Circle which has a sculpture of naked bodies that church groups tried to ban, which is funny because upon seeing it it’s completely inoffensive. Amongst the religious presence are several good universities, including Vanderbilt with its wealth of shady trees, which is a relief in this heat.

Inside RCA Studio B, Nashville, Tennessee
Inside RCA Studio B. The grand piano was played by Elvis, who used to order in hamburgers for all the crew
RCA Studio B, Nasvhille, Tennessee, USA
RCA Studio B

Records Storage, Nashville, USA

Buddy Killeen Circle, Nashville, Tenessee, USA
Buddy Killeen Circle, Music Row, Nashville

From Vanderbilt University I walk back to the house sweating like an emu and drink copious glasses of water and get over-zealous with the aircon, American style. I need to prepare myself for another night in the honky tonks, surrounded once again by music, as I have been this whole trip. Jazz in New Orleans, blues and rock n’ roll in Memphis, and now folk and country in Nashville. It’s breathtaking to be at ground zero of so many rich musical movements, and even more astounding to discover that none of these places are large places- they’re just culturally and historically important places. It’s funny to hear Southerners decry Nashville for it’s “bad traffic”, which isn’t a patch on somewhere like Sydney, and where I can walk the streets listening to the music wafting out of bars and studios drowning out the emasculated sound of car engines and horns.

Johnny Cash, "Ragged Old Flag", Nashville Tennessee, American flag USA
Johnny Cash and his “Ragged Old Flag”. Nashville

 

I lob into the Johnny Cash museum, which is open til 7, then get my fill of music at the honky tonks. Returning late to the house I find a couple of shifty characters out the front, who walk past me looking in my direction as I punch in the combination on the entry lock. Cripes. I quickly lock the door behind me and am startled by a voice that calls out “hello?” My heart skips a beat but it’s just Lisa, home from Atlanta. We talk for hours and face-to-face, she’s not the hostzilla that the copious post-it note signs and rules depicted, she’s just a struggling single mum trying to make a bit of extra cash renting out her living space and trying to manage the chaos of that. Her little daughter, all frizzy black hair and curious questions, is full of beans and just adorable.

We talk until the small hours about their life and my Southern adventures, but I’ve got to sleep. First thing tomorrow I’m leaving on a jetplane for New York City, where locals tell me things like “man, forget the South,” and where I was once even asked if I was from the South.

 

“Yeah,” I replied, “the deep South”.
“How deep?”
“You don’t even want to know.”

 

New York, skyscrapers, numbered streets, another world of scale and culture entirely, its harassed footpaths packed with jostling pedestrians, and where the traffic really is its own organism, drivers yelling bizarre things at other drivers both in frustration and endearment. It’s quite another story altogether in this mysterious and musical America of unique States: United, but with the fissures of ancient divisions and cultural differences haphazardly plastered over.

Hate the South? Love the South? Hate compasses? Love Elvis? Let me know below. And look out for the video from this trip… coming soon.

 

Cover Art: Fragments of the Earth

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Matt Edwards

Australian solar power scientist travels the world for 15 years, takes photos, writes stuff, has toothpaste confiscated. I like adventures that involve art, history, science, music, technology and partying. Sometimes all at once...

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