Tennessee – of music and slavery

Monday 15 to Friday 19 April

We arrived in Nashville in time to head into town for dinner. You can’t tour the United States without a car, however finding accommodation close to towns with car parking is extremely expensive. We have opted instead for decent motels out of town and an Uber ride in and out.

Uber is now part of the American culture – lots of drivers around and the cost is small. But you do have to add a tip to your drive.

After wandering around the music streets of 2nd and Broadway, we stopped at the Doc Holliday Salon for a pre-dinner drink and a bit of music. Amazingly we got ID’d – the bar tender had to check if a 70 year old could drink!

Each bar had its own music – all live and varied from heavy metal to soft blues. The bars were all full, but many of them were serving food on paper plates with plastic flatware (cutlery).

The city was full of lots of aging country music followers. Men with long hair and long beards, women with cute floral dresses and cowboy boots.

Much to Bruce’s delight the Rock Bottom Pub on the corner of 2nd and Broadway served meals on ceramics with real flatware and they had a huge range of beers on tap.

We were entertained as we ate by workers setting up a huge stage and seating for the National Football League (NFL) draft. They were expecting 100,000 people to come in to town next week. The draft is hosted by a different city each year and this was massive for Nashville. After we left Nashville, and as the days went on, I often caught bits of it on TV. It is huge.

One of the strangest attractions in Nashville has to be the Parthenon replica in Centennial Park. It is a full-scale replica of the original Parthenon in Athens. It was designed by Confederate veteran William Crawford Smith and built in 1897 as part of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. It was originally built of plaster, wood and brick and not intended to be permanent, but it became a popular attraction for the locals and visitors. In the 1920s it was rebuilt on the same foundations. In 1990 a replica statue of Athena was added.

Today the Nashville Parthenon is an Art Museum. And it was in this park that we saw the beautiful Dogwood trees in full bloom.

Bruce was having a good experience in Nashville. Just across the road from the Parthenon he found The Three Brothers coffee shop, good enough to return the next day and to buy a souvenir t-shirt. They describe themselves as….

Craft coffee drinks with limited breakfast & lunch eats
in funky digs with local art & retail beans.

Nashville is the Country Music Hall of Fame is Nashville. So that was our next stop. And it is huge. You are sent to the top of the building and work your way down, much like the Daimler museum we had visited in Stuttgart.

There were two special exhibitions wen we visited:

  • Emmylou Harris. Harmonies with many artists. Gram Parsons.
  • Naomi & Wynonna Judd mother daughter & other daughter actor Ashley Judd.

The history of the Nashville music scene was fascinating.

It started with middle England music influenced by Afro American, mostly on banjos and violins. This migrated to include other instruments, percussion guitars plus radio barn dancers then talking movies with singing.

R J Reynold who were the makers of Prince Albert Smoking Tobacco sponsored a half hour Grand Ole Opry segment which created recording opportunities. Some of the artists to come out of this were Roy Acuff, Fred Rose and Roy Rogers

In the recession of the late 1930s the dust bowl migration to California brought their music to Hollywood.

Also in the 1930s blue grass music emerged and that become the birthplace in Memphis of R&R with Elvis Presley sounds of Beale Street & Grand Ole Opry. Artists such as Wanda Jackson and the Everly Brothers came out of this period.

We are big fans of Willie Nelson, first drawn into his music by his On the Road Again which is an anthem to start our travels.

Willie Nelson had no success with his songs but others started recording them such as Patsy Cline, Ray Price, Charlie Walker and Faron Young. It was the start of the song-poets and Nashville transitioned to an illusion of literacy

In the 1960s the Austin TX underground rose, with wilder and weirder music and self described hippies such as Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson, Kenneth Threadgill. It was there that the Vulcan Gas Company opened in 1967 as the first successful psychedelic music venue. It closed 1970 and was replaced by the Armadillo World Headquarters until it went bankrupt in 1977. 1972 KOKE FM radio started making country music available to anyone.

What a story!

Bruce was having an off day. A cough too bad and not a lot of energy, so we returned to the brew pub where the food was good. Emily served us again. She was a sweet girl with a 7yo son. How could she be old enough?

We were again entertained by the building of the seating area for the NFL draw. It was growing to great heights.

In the south most wait staff and hotel staff are African-American, and a much happier group of people than the Hispanics we struck in the northern states. Always ready for a chat, asking ‘how can we help you?’

The drive from Nashville to Memphis gave me time to get stuck into my newest knitting project for baby girl Stainsby Martínez. We now know it’s a girl so I can focus on something pretty.

I have given up suggesting to Bruce that I drive for a bit, it’s easier to be in charge of the music, the navigation and the knitting.

We arrived in Memphis mid-afternoon, in time to visit Graceland which was just down the road from our motel.

The whole visit seemed a glossed over version of Elvis’s life. We started off with at the visitor’s centre and the story of his life. The house he was born into, his impoverished parents who had run away to be married. Their first child was stillborn then the second popped out 3½ hours later. He was a very special, indulged child who craved the centre of attention.

Elvis’ talent was discovered when he was young and his career was just taking off when he was drafted. Did that add sympathy and interest to him?

After his stint in the army he spent 6 years making about 290 films. Most of them were mediocre but his name sold them. This was in the days when you’d go to the movies every Saturday afternoon, so there was an insatiable appetite for lots of movies. Typically you’d see two short movies at a session.

He bought Graceland when he was just 22 years old, for his parents and his grandmother who outlived them all. There was little information about his marriage to Priscilla and even less about the demise of his health and obesity. It really was a sugar coated fairy tale.

Included in the tickets was a look at his planes. Marie Lisa was a passenger jet converted to lounges and a bedroom. A smaller jet seated about 12 people. The pilot and crew were on call 24/7.

That night we took up the hotel’s offer of booking us into Marlowe’s Ribs and Restaurant. We were picked up in a massive Cadillac, along with other guests and taken a few miles down the road to a massive restaurant dedicated to the massive memory of Elvis. It all seemed so appropriate.

The following day was wet and grey, although we saw little of the weather as we were in the bowels of the Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassination.

The first room held an exhibition by Andrewfeiler.com photography Without Regard to Sex, Race or Color. It is an account of what remains of the Morris Brown College which was founded 1881 as part of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Confronting photos of lost opportunities in decrepit buildings

It brought the core debate for AfrAm how do we create opportunity in America? How do we create on ramps to the middle class?

The museum told the story of African Americans starting with indenture then enslavement. The extraordinary growth of the slave population to 4 million at the time of the civil war. The cost of human tragedy to build a wealthy America. The continued fight for justice, equality and simple acceptance by the dominating and domineering white minority. The 14th and 15th amendments designed to give equality to race gender and religion with guaranteed voting rights, and the forces of the southern whites to block those rights in whichever way they could.

It was a demanding exhibition that left me drained physically and emotionally. And the fight isn’t over. Frustratingly the exhibition seems to indicate there was more to progress than we see today.

The exhibition pointed to the movement of enslaved Africans to the Americas. In Zanzibar we had learnt of the slave trade that headed north to the Arabic states and Europe and east to Central Asia. How is it that white people believed they could treat coloured people in such cruel ways? It is beyond my comprehension.

And we keep reading about how the white people did such a service in abolishing the slave trade – which should never ever have happened.

We finished our tour across the road at the Legacy Building. This was the boarding house where the assassin’s shot was allegedly fired. It argued that James Earl Ray may have been a porn in the assassination and that other powers were behind it. Unsurprising.

The rain hadn’t abated all day which made Memphis downtown look pretty uninviting. Our motel didn’t offer any food, so we took an Uber to Delta’s Kitchen at the Guest House at Graceland on Elvis Presley Blvd. Unfortunately it has to rate as one of the worst meals and definitely the worst service on our journey. Here is Bruce’s review on Google:

Probably the worst restaurant experience in the USA. The service staff were undertrained and mostly invisible. The food was mediocre. We had to ask for the toasted panini which came cold and oily. The hops had to be picked for the beer and the grapes harvested for the wine, it was so slow. There are not a lot of choices in this part of town but a lesser priced family restaurant would have been a better choice than a hotel trying to deliver an advertised ‘upmarket restaurant’ that was outrageously expensive for what it delivered.

In our long wait for food and drinks by the poorly trained servers, we got talking to a couple of Elvis fans from California. It is after all where you stay if you are an Elvis fan. He was a muso and she was a wine maker originally from France, someone to share our poor experiences of this meal.

We left Tennessee understanding more of music and slavery – quite an experience.