Recently I was lucky enough to realise one of my life’s greatest ambitions, a real tick on the bucket list; I took a 2,000-mile road trip through the Southern states of America to visit the home of Jazz, Blues and Country a.k.a. New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville, with my bro and his buddy Doog. Here, to the best of my recollection, is what happened as we headed out on Highway 61 (and others) like a rolling stone with Bob Dylan as our guide…
We touched down in Atlanta, Georgia and picked up our car – not the Dodge Charger I’d ordered but a Nissan Ultima, gutted – nevertheless we piled in and navigated our way through the labyrinth of one-way systems that is the downtown district (think Croydon on a much bigger scale) and finally checked-in for our one night in the ATL! Once we’d dumped the bags and anything else that had accumulated during the 10-hour flight we headed out to eat at the legendary Vortex Bar & Grill, home of the Triple Coronary Burger as featured on Man Vs. Food. None of us was actually brave enough to tackle the TC’s three burger patties, three fried eggs, fourteen slices of American cheese and ten slices of bacon so we went for the Rebel Outlaw instead, half a pound of chuck steak covered in pulled pork, cheddar cheese, bacon and lashings of spicy sauce. It was only after dinner that my two travelling companions and I remembered we’d be trapped in a car together for the next two days on our way down to the Big Easy. Needless to say, the windows were rolled down for much of the journey.
The road to New Orleans runs right through the arse end of Alabama, skirting the top of Florida, where friends are close but family is closer. As we raced through we saw no real evidence of in-breeding but plenty of white clapboard houses and similarly styled Baptist or Methodist churches every ten yards or so right up until we reached Montgomery, our overnight stop where we met the divine Caitlin at the equally divine Alley Bar. No photographic evidence remains of either of these heavenly finds so maybe it was just a collective dream we had but from what I do recall she called us “y’all”, poured us drinks, found us a motel, played 80’s hair metal and lured us into the refrigerated Shot Room where concoctions such as Alligator Piss are downed in ice glasses which are then smashed ceremoniously against the wall. Now, we hadn’t intended to “visit” Montgomery, more like make use of it’s facilities, which is why we asked Caitlin to book us into the cheapest motel in town, which she did. The La Quinta Inn & Suites was handily located just off the I10, next to a petrol station and an ample supply of Crystal Meth courtesy of the local, and very vocal, junkie community. Our thirst not fully quenched by Caitlin’s hospitality we asked the ample receptionist if there was a bar nearby to which she replied; “Yup, but y’all better drive.” I mentioned that, as the only designated driver, I was hoping to leave the car and catch up on beers but she made it quite clear that walking would be inadvisable. Having already covered 160-miles we decided just to pop over to the petrol station for some takeaways instead – also inadvisable. With TOURIST clearly painted across our English faces we were ogled, heckled and eventually approached for cash/drugs/sexual services by the toothless and twitchy hoards who we made marginally less threatening by Christening them all Cracky McJacky (and running). Funnily enough, we left quite sharpish the next morning.
The rest of the route through Alabama was green and pleasant enough, sound-tracked by country music and, in particular, a song by Brad Paisley about how men can’t help but sexually harass women called I’m Still a Guy. Unfortunately I can’t find that on YouTube so will post Miranda Lambert’s barnstorming girl-power anthem Mama’s Broken Heart instead:
We arrived in New Orleans for the second weekend of the legendary Jazz and Heritage Festival. The weather sucked but it didn’t seemed to dampen anyone’s spirits and the French Quarter was every bit as alive as you’d ever dreamed, with music in every bar in Bourbon Street. We got mind-meltingly drunk on the first night, which is as it should be, and while the amateurs (my little brother and his little friend) struggled with hangovers the next day I headed out for a hearty breakfast of steak and eggs at Daisy Dukes before heading up to the festival site past the remnants of Hurricane Katrina.
The festival was enormous with not just jazz but blues, gospel, rock, reggae and even Native American music represented. I stuck around for Jimmy Cliff but even his tropical grooves couldn’t warm me so I headed back to wake the boys and head out for a second night on the tiles though this time on a stomach lined with gumbo and jambalaya.
On Saturday the sun burst through the clouds and, after another gut-busting breakfast at Daisy’s, we all headed to the festival settling ourselves mainly in the Blues and Gospel tents which were divided by one of the more sparsely populated bars and the only one we found serving frozen daiquiris. Now I don’t know if it was the daiquiris or divine intervention but the Gospel music was an absolute revelation that moved a middle-class white boy from the ‘burbs to jump out of his seat and dance in the name of the Lord! We completely forgot about the likes of Willie Nelson and Fleetwood Mac and instead stayed enraptured under canvas.
Next on the agenda was a drive up Highway 61 along the Mississippi through Baton Rouge to Clarksdale where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become a blues guitarist thus creating my brother’s job (professional guitarist). We ended up eventually in Jackson, MS home of bluesman Bobby Rush and the Bulldog Bar where the effervescent Jenny gave us an in depth history of each of her 64 draft beers and served us the greatest BBQ chicken sandwich know to man. Next stop, Memphis TN.
This was the big one for me, home of the King, Graceland and it DID NOT DISAPPOINT. Smaller than you imagine, nestled in stunning, manicured grounds the King’s castle is of it’s time but tasteful and has the unmistakable feel of family about it. I can imagine he, his parents, wife and daughter were very, very happy there. As well as the house you can see his clothes, cars and private jet named after his only child Lisa Marie and featuring 24-karat gold seat belts amongst many other extravagances. The main thing I learned about the King was how incredibly generous he was giving Cadillacs, cash and jewelry away to strangers and $1,000 a year to each of 50 Memphis area charities and is legacy of generosity continues through the work of the Elvis Presley Charitable Foundation.
At the end of the tour we reached his grave, which, for me at least, was an extremely emotional moment. Music has probably been the single biggest and most consistent influence in my life, rock music particularly and that starts with Elvis Aaron Presley, The King of Rock N’ Roll.
Elsewhere in Memphis Beale Street was amusing but essentially a sell-out however the Gibson factory was well worth a visit.
From Memphis we ventured to Nashville a.k.a. Music City USA. This was my brother’s suggestion and the biggest surprise to me as I hadn’t previously considered myself to be a fan of country music but boy was I wrong. Down Broadway every bar musician is a legend, we followed our eyes and ears into one bar featuring a Jessica Simpson look-a-like and her middle aged mum on guitar who made my brother rethink his career choice for she did shred like, well, a mutha!! We settled into a few Jack Daniels and the duo were replaced by a sextet called the Tennesse Twisters who will go down as one of the greatest bands I have ever seen anywhere under any conditions. From the Johnny Cash sounding drummer to the yodeling violinist to the bombshell guitar player to the funky gorilla on double bass to the blind multi-instrumentalist who played a regular guitar flat on his lap in every conceivable style before switching to accordion, harmonica, clarinet, you name it! And they weren’t just restricted to country, there was jazz, blues, rock and some seriously off-the-wall prog shit going on in their set which, by the time they finished and we actually looked at our watches, was 2am. They’ played for 4 hours without a break whilst we polished off a bottle of Jack. When we eventually got up from our bar stools all of us hit the floor – this was one of the best nights out I have EVER had and I insist you all go an check out the Tennesse Twisters on Facebook NOW!
We saved one uniquely American experience till last, shooting real live guns! We found the Nashville Armoury online and headed over giggling like nervious school girls on the way to prom. Alarmingly the guy behind the counter had no reservations about putting any old gun in our hands but we insisted he make a recommendation suitable for beginners so we entered the range armed with a 22 calibre pistol, same calibre rifle and a 9mm handgun. The 22’s make a popping sound much like a cap gun and have very little recoil but the 9mm is a serious piece of kit that instantly makes your penis feel 3inches longer (so 12inches total in my case!). It makes a helluva noise and sends shockwaves up your arm but is as nothing compared to what the cowboy next to us unleashed. We hadn’t realised but it was Mother’s Day when we hit the range and the drawling, Stetson-ed cowboy next to us had brought his mother along for a day out and presented her with a fuchsia pink, 20-bore, pump action shotgun that sounded like a grenade going off. Unfortunately for dear mother she was 5-foot-nothing and nearly knocked flat by the blast. As she steadied herself on her feet she turned to us, gun in hand, and asked “Y’all laughing at me?”, to which we all instantly replied “No ma’am, definitely not.”
My abiding memories of the trip are bonding with my brother; Doog being in a constant state of Burtoning (write in if you want to know what that’s all about) and of hearing more amazing, original live music than I’ve heard in the last 5 years, reinvigorating my passion for seeking out and supporting young artists and bands whether in Singapore or overseas. If you love music and you have the means, make it happen!
Below are a list of the bands who soundtracked our trip and left a lasting impression with their incredible live performances:
- The Boutte Family Gospel
- Jonathon “Boogie” Long & The Blues Revolution
- James Andrews & The Crescent City Allstars
- Craig Adams & Higher Dimensions of Praise
- Brandon Santini
- The Tennessee Twisters
- The Don Kelley Band feat. Daniel Donato
And here are links to some of the other cool things we saw and did but I couldn’t squeeze into the blog:
- BB King Museum - home of the Blues Boy
- Vintage 329 - muchos music memorabilia
- New Orleans Cigar Factory - smoke some hand rolled stogies
- New Orleans School of Cooking - learn how to make Creole classics such as gumbo & jambalaya
- Palm Court Jazz Cafe - authentic trad jazz served with authentic soul food
- Saint Blues Guitar Workshop – handcrafted guitars and amps
- Sun Studio - where Elvis was discovered
- Robert’s Western World - the best live country music you’ll see
- Third Man Records - founded by Jack White and home of Nashville’s hottest new artists
- Grimey’s – awesome record store
- Country Music Hall of Fame - speaks for itself really