Mostly, I came for the music. And to be fair, this was a roadtrip that started some 50-plus years ago.
As a kid, I earned my beer money playing guitar in a folk music group, learning basic chord patterns from country music giants like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, the Everly Brothers and Marty Robbins, all of whom my opera-loving Father hated. Then there was Kristofferson, and Emmy Lou Harris. My Dad would have called these artists “gateway drugs,” the ones that got me to Bill Hailey, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and worst of all, Elvis. As a kid, my fingers were strong and sinuous, roughly calloused from metal guitar strings. Now my fingers are thicker, out of practice, of course, and the callouses are long gone. But the spirit of the music still burns. So, a trip to Nashville and Memphis (including Graceland) was irresistible. A Rockabilly Roadtrip!
Nashville is a renewed city with a contemporary skyline. We stayed downtown, a few blocks from the Cumberland River which brought the first country fiddlers—supposedly including one Davy Crockett—to this growing, middle-Tennessee town almost 150 years ago. The conference my wife and I were attending did everything first class, so the first couple days were upscale, with music sandwiched between meetings, phone calls, gourmet eats and the Frist Art Museum (worth the visit!). We were hosted at the Country Music Hall of Fame, with memorabilia and guitars from 100 country giants, including fancy versions of my old Martin D-28 and my Gretsch f-hole, hollow-body. There were Gibsons, Fenders, Vega five-string banjos, mandolins, steels, Dobroes. I was in heaven! And the cars were intoxicating–the most outrageous I’ve ever seen—with serious country-custom cabins, fins and chrome, and continental kits burnishing their tail ends. A warm nostalgia coursed through me, recalling an exaggerated past as I recreated Music City in my memories.
Nashville boasts at least two iconic music venues: Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry (not to be confused with my Dad’s opera). Our schedule didn’t fit eithers’ performances—so I will be going back. But we were able to venture to The Caverns, home of the Bluegrass Underground, for an evening with Mike Ferris, a modern, hometown talent, blending blues, gospel, rock and soul in a resonant acoustical environment, a newer version of a mixed musical soup that had fired the innovations which brought us jazz, blues and, yes, rockabilly.
Soon enough the conference work was done, and we were hotfooting it to Broadway, Nashville’s jam of bars, clubs and showplaces where the music comes directly from the earth. The streets were a mash of cars, people, cycles and even an electric scooter or two. Robert’s and Layla’s offered country classics from cover bands, and there were venues with new, raw talent scratching for attention on Broadway’s dizzying kaleidoscope. The nostalgia was back. I even tried to sing, but those days were gone, or perhaps they never existed.
There is a simplicity to country music, both its basic three chord, AABA structure, and its directness of message. The words differ and the tunes are their own, but the themes repeat and often a sense of survival, even rebirth comes from the lyrics. The songs reach out and touch us. There is a fundamental connection that is impossible not to share. As my Father was moved by the grand arias from Puccini, or Verdi or Bizet, so I felt connected to a simpler music that that forced me to meet life on life’s terms.
Nashville is quiet early Saturday morning—recovering from the night before, preparing for another blowout. We took the quiet as a great time to head out to Memphis, a couple of hundred miles west on Interstate 40. But you can’t see much of Tennessee at seventy on the Interstate, so we exited as soon as we cleared Nashville and lollygagged along blue highways and a few county roads. Lively, fresh greens of late Spring growth crowded two lane roads. Time slowed down. Fewer Beamers, more Deere. Real life. We stopped for some home cooking which we missed in the high-end restaurants of Nashville. Our waitress was patient with our uncertainty as we wavered among pulled pork, barbeque, the Southern fried chicken we craved. Ultimately, she said they were all good, Mama’s recipes, explaining each while she danced back and forth between our questions and servicing takeout customers. While she chatted up the locals, we lounged over lunch, eavesdropping on daily life challenges, feeling ourselves melt into a lazy Saturday afternoon.
Memphis is Home of the Blues, that we knew for sure. But its rich history includes Martin Luther King’s assassination, and we felt compelled to honor his memory by stopping at the Lorraine Motel, now redone as the National Civil Rights Museum. It is a moving collection of history we lived in the newspapers day-by day, but at a distance, unconnected to individual people of a beaten down underclass who stepped out from their churches, their schools and their segregated neighborhoods and stepped up to push a resistant country closer to recognizing that our people of color are a part of our country and deserve better than a separate, but (un)equal, second-class life. Having come of age during the civil rights struggle, I thought I knew this history. But this Museum brought us closer to threats from Bull Connor’s dogs and the fears of the Little Rock Nine as they tried to make their way to school and a chance for an equal education. The experience gave a depth of meaning to King’s Letter from a Birmingham jail, and the elegance of his contribution to our collective legacy.
If it is Broadway in Nashville, it is Beale Street in Memphis. Created in the mid-1800’s so merchants could get their goods to and from the Mississippi, by the turn of the century it became home to W. C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” and artists including Louis Armstrong. Muddy Waters and Riley “Blues Boy” King, better known to us as B.B. King. We walked the street early, before the crush, sampling street food for our dinner. Then we settled in at the upstairs bar in B.B. King’s Blues Club on Beale and South Second. Booze and blues—what’s not to like? We sang, we danced, we clapped, we stomped. It seemed Lucille (BB King named his guitars after the lady who caused the fight, which caused the fire he ran into to save his guitar—ah, but that’s a different story) was in the house when that night’s guitarist took over the close of his set with screaming riffs that held you, and then he moved on to yet another musical mountain, working towards a new peak. Over and over, until the room was exhausted.
We stayed at the Peabody Hotel, an institutional “must see” for Memphis visitors, widely known for its famous ducks who, tradition has it, march to John Phillip Sousa’s “King Cotton March” down a red carpet to their day job: swimming in the large, travertine fountain that dominates the grand lobby sitting area of the hotel. Always up to share in a local tradition, we pressed up to the mezzanine balcony at 11am Sunday morning with hundreds of others. To much pomp, (perhaps too much pomp), five ducks duly appeared and scampered (not marched) to the comfort of the fountain’s basin. It was over in two seconds. Oh well, on to Graceland.
It was the end of the roadtrip, but what a way to end, in the home of another Memphis king, Elvis Presley. “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel” hit the pop charts as I hit puberty. Both were exciting. I practiced his rhythms and tried to capture his presence. My Dad refused to let me watch his early television appearances and banished his records from our home. But the music prevailed, and fifty years later, I stood on the doorstep of the source of rock and roll. The house itself was stately, but it had nothing on the mansions of Michigan’s Beverley Hills of my youth, or the Beverly Hills that boasts Sunset Boulevard. Yet there was magic as I walked back in time into Elvis’ living room and dining room, furnished out of the late fifties, and then there was another flood of roadtrip nostalgia as I walked into the “Jungle Room” and his recording room, where I stood in the very place where the rockabilly music was made.
Graceland itself offered a pastoral, almost timeless, peacefulness. Elvis’ music, hardly peaceful, seemed timeless and forever, too. Nashville’s cover bands whet my appetite, got me primed with prime country. Beale Street’s blues had me cruising with a gutsy sax and a piercing guitar. Graceland was a cherry on top. Perfect.
It wasn’t opera, but it was America, and I enjoyed the Hell out of the rockabilly and this roadtrip.