Blues and routes
Blues and routes
August 30, 2009
Brisbane Times Traveller
Candles in hand, tears in eyes, messages of adoration on their lips, they file silently past the resting place of their hero. A wet Friday night in Memphis has not deterred legions of Elvis Presley devotees from paying their loving respects on their annual pilgrimage to his Graceland mansion to mark the anniversary of his death on August 16, 1977.
Even for non-Elvis fanatics such as my travelling companion and me, the candle-lit vigil snaking through the grounds to Meditation Garden, where Presley is buried next to his parents, is a sombre and poignant experience. As Michael Jackson's adoring disciples mourn the death of a more contemporary king of pop and his siblings reportedly feud about plans to turn Neverland into a new Graceland, this homage is evidence of the enduring love affair for the original king.
We are traversing Tennessee on a musical pilgrimage and this gritty city on the Mississippi River â€“ the launch pad from where the blues, soul and rock'n'roll all triumphantly sprang to conquer the world â€“ is our halfway point. The honky-tonk heartland of Nashville awaits; haunting mountain bluegrass and the brashness of Dolly Parton lie behind us in the Appalachians.
But back to Memphis. We attend the vigil after first taking in the full experience of Graceland, a fitting tribute to both the flamboyant talent and manic excess of the man whose voice shaped half a century of popular music. Behind the white columns and lion statues perched on both sides of the entry portico is a tribute to 1970s-era kitsch â€“ most notably the famous Jungle Room, with its indoor waterfall and shag carpets that cover the walls and ceiling as well as floor.
If Graceland seems like a fantasy world, then the cramped downtown home of Sun Studio offers a fascinating foray into the ground zero of rock'n'roll. It was here, in the studios of Sam Phillips, that the 18-year-old Presley recorded his first single, in 1953. In a racial mix that was revolutionary for the era, blues artists such as Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King and country, rockabilly and rock'n'roll performers such as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, all cut their teeth and, of course, their vinyl, here. It's easy to be overwhelmed by the plethora of sites associated with Tennessee's deep musical heritage but Sun Studio truly is a must-see, not least because of the enthusiastic and engaging patter of the young guides who bring to life its dynamic history and the visionary role of Phillips.
The place is full of memorabilia , including the microphone into which Presley et al belted out their early numbers.
On a vastly different scale, but just as impressive, is the city's new Rock'n'Soul Museum, researched by the renowned Smithsonian Institution to tell the story of how Memphis became the epicentre for three great pop culture revolutions: the blues in the '20s, rock in the '50s and soul in the '60s.
"In the quest to identify the roots of America's music, all roads led to Memphis," the Smithsonian remarks. The exhibition illustrates how race, class, economics and music fused; where the laments of dirt-poor African-American sharecroppers drifted up the Mississippi from the fields of the Delta to the cotton capital of the world. For those who want to delve deeper into the city's status as Soulsville USA, there's another obligatory stop: the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which highlights such giants as Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding and Booker T & the MGs. But at this stage, we chose to leave the tours behind us and head the few blocks over to the real-life bustle of Beale Street, the legendary venue for the blues bars, clubs and dives where live music still pours into the night air. The block was kicking and we discovered an added plus: the bars offered "to go" cups, plastic beakers of our poison of choice, meaning that as we strolled between establishments, skirting an impressive troupe of street acrobats along the way, we were not deprived of liquid sustenance.
The city has another pivotal place in contemporary US history, this one far from joyous. It was here, on April 4, 1968, that Dr Martin Luther King jnr was shot and killed as he stood on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel. The building has now been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum, a remarkably moving and detailed exhibition tracing the struggle for equality for blacks in the US.
Imbued with a true feel of Memphis's musical, racial and culinary place in US history, we set off for Nashville, a markedly different stop on the Tennessee tour.
After the rough-and-ready charms of Memphis, Nashville has a contrasting feel â€“ a modern, prosperous city whose attractions include, bizarrely, a faithful life-size re-creation of the Parthenon.
But we were, of course, on a musical mission and so headed first to the Grand Ole Opry, the venue for the eponymous country music radio program â€“ the world's longest-running broadcast show (83 years and counting) â€“ that goes out live every Friday and Saturday night.
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the Grand Ole Opry for performers and fans alike. The stars line up to play here and devotees arrive from around the world. Even if country isn't top of your hit parade, the atmosphere of the Opry is a grand ole experience in its own right.
The next day, after doing our homework at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and stopping for lunch in the elegant surroundings of the Hermitage Hotel's Capital Grille, we headed to Lower Broadway, known in these parts as the Honky Tonk Highway, where institutions such as Layla's Bluegrass Hillbilly and Country Inn and Tootsies Orchid Lounge are just as authentic as their names sound â€“ the music is always live and the company livelier.
Our road trip had started in Knoxville, in the eastern tip of the state, where the sublime (the Great Smoky Mountains) and the ridiculous (Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede) sit cheek by jowl. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the US's most-visited, helped by the absence of an entry fee thanks to the beneficence of the Rockefeller dynasty. This year it's celebrating its 75th anniversary.
We trekked up (OK, only from the final car park) to the viewing station at the 2024-metre Clingman's Dome, took in the stunning views across the heavily forested parkland and admired the fortitude of hikers walking the Appalachian Trail, before lunching from a picnic basket next to a river in the shade of the trees, while keeping a watchful eye out for the park's most famous residents â€“ the black bears.
We kicked off our tour of the state's musical highlights by plunging into the exuberant realm of Dolly Parton, the remarkably proportioned country and bluegrass singer who was born to a dirt-poor family in a one-room cabin in nearby Locust Ridge. Where better to start than her Dollywood theme park. The surprisingly unbrash assemblage of roller-coasters and water rides, themed to the rural roots of mountain life, are interspersed with exhibits about Dolly's life, ranging from a collection of her trinkets to a girlie-furnished tour bus with more than 1 million miles on the clock.
Next, we headed west on our trans-Tennessee voyage to Chattanooga, a destination that, of course, resonates with lyrical allure, thanks to the big-band Choo Choo number immortalised by Glenn Miller and his orchestra in 1941.
Nowadays, the train does not even stop in Chattanooga, but the railroad experience is being kept alive and well, for the old station has been converted into the Choo Choo Holiday Inn and erstwhile sleeping cars on the original sidings provide highly evocative â€“ and equally comfortable â€“ accommodation.
Chattanooga, long synonymous with urban decay and pollution, has been revitalised and the aquarium, arts quarter and three bridges across the Tennessee River make downtown a rewarding diversion.
After leaving Chattanooga we headed west for another only-in-America experience. Bar a two-decade hiatus during the Prohibition era, Jack Daniel's, the globe's best-selling whiskey, has been produced at the same distillery in the quintessential sleepy southern town of Lynchburg since 1866.
But don't plan on knocking back a slug of Jack while you're in town â€“ even after the ban on production was lifted, the prohibition on drinking was kept in place by local officials. So while most distillery tours end with a tasting, here the senses are teased in a different manner.
As we were led around the site by a delightful guide who delivered her entertaining and informative spiel in a sweet, slow, southern drawl, we were offered the chance to inhale the fumes from a vast vat of fermenting liquid.
We might not have knocked back an actual Jack Daniel's but, boy, that sniff sure packed a punch.
We then motored on to Memphis, ready to immerse ourselves once again in the music of Tennessee. The King awaited.
Qantas flies daily to Los Angeles, with connections on American Airlines to Nashville and Memphis. See qantas.com.au. Delta Airlines flies from Sydney to Memphis via Los Angeles, see delta.com.
WHERE TO STAY
See visitmusiccity.com for Nashville and memphistravel.com.
See www.elvisweek.com. For a Tennessee tourism guide see www.tnvacation.com.