Impressions from the Road, Part III: Nashville to Memphis to Home

I originally intended on giving Nashville and Memphis separate treatment, but after much consideration, decided that I’d be better served discussing them in the same post.  Some of this has to do with time (which I never seem to have enough of), but more significantly, Nashville and Memphis have a synergy that inform each other — they are the figurative bookends of popular music in America (New Orleans would be the birthplace) — country and rock and roll, respectively.  It is hard to wrap your mind around just how much these two cities have and continue to influence music and culture in the United States and around the world.  The only way to really understand it is to go there, which I did, and now I’ll try to take y’all with me, beginning with a little side trip and then down the road to the twin-cities of American music. 

I

We pulled out of Knoxville on a sunny morning after a hearty if not healthy breakfast at Pete’s Coffee Shop.  Country ham is a specialty in Tennessee, so I had to try it, along with eggs, biscuits, and white gravy.  My lovely traveling companion hates white gravy — hates it — and I often order it just to tweak her with it viscous goodness.  We were on our way to Music City, Nashville, Tennessee, with a few stops to make along the way.  On the way into Knoxville we caught wind that Lodge, makers of the finest American cast iron cookware, had a factory store a couple miles down the road towards Pigeon Forge (also the home of Dolly Parton and Dollywood, the original breast-themed amusement park), in Sevierville, TN, and we wanted to check it out.

Those that know me and my cooking know I have a deep affinity for cast-iron pots and pans.  I get the same excitement from hefting a heavy cast-iron skillet that I’d imagine many do from the fancy copper pots and gadgets at a high-end kitchen store.  They do almost everything well, are nearly indestructible, and become more personal each time you use them, becoming increasingly coal-black and encoding the oils and spices of your cooking deep within their DNA.  Conveniently, the Lodge store was a stone’s throw from Smoky Mountain Knife Works, which basically has every knife ever made, including a large selection of kitchen knives; we were in a chef’s paradise hidden in the mountains of Tennessee.

We came upon Smoky Mountain Knife Works first.  A large, multi-level barn of a building with an indoor waterfall that turns a replica whetstone, it is part amusement park, part general store, and contains, without a doubt, the most complete and terrifying collection of cutlery I have ever seen.  Do you want to hold off a coterie of small-town southern cops? If so the original Rambo is probably for you.  How about hack your way through a dense rainforest?  Or maybe dense people?  You can own the machete from Machete.  Plan on fighting Grendel, or possibly a ninja?  They’ve got you covered there, too.  In addition to collectors/fantasy/martial arts/military knives, they also have a very fine collection of hunting knives, and an entire basement of kitchen knives/wares.  It was both awe inspiring and on some level disturbing — but they had bear-paws, a pulled pork necessity, so I was all good.  They also couldn’t have been any nicer, with a level of customer service you’d expect to find at a high-end car dealership.  There was definitely a surrealist element to the place, though, which is probably just my northern prejudice rearing its ugly head as I tried to reconcile the singing and dancing possums and raccoons on the kids’ stage with the Rambo knife about twenty-feet away.

In a more-familiar-to-a-New-Jerseyan strip mall about a quarter mile up the road the Lodge Factory store sits unassumingly; if you drive by quickly, you’d probably miss it, which would be a damn shame.  Lodge is one of a handful of US manufactured cookware companies (All-Clad being the other which pops to mind), and the only seasoned cast iron I’ll use (I was heartbroken when I found out that they shipped their enameled cast iron line to China, which I why I don’t use it).  Made right up the road in South Pittsburg, TN, it is an American institution.  I have full-confidence that the pans I season today will be with my son long after I am gone, the durability of cast-iron unparalleled.  What really makes the Lodge Factory store worthwhile, however, is the large selection of “factory-second” pots and pans at half-price.  If you are using cast iron to begin with, you probably aren’t all that concerned about beauty.  You know what a little pitting or ding will do to the quality of your skillet cornbread?  Absolutely nothing.  We easily bought $200 dollars worth of cookware for $100, and that’s good economics no matter who you are.  Besides, at that point the car still wasn’t riding low enough, and we needed something to make the rear springs really squeal as we took on more ballast for our trip down I-40 into Nashville.

II

Truth be told I don’t like interstates.  They are boring, congested with trucks, and in most cases give you very little sense of place.  I-78 in NJ is not much different from I-81 in Maryland or I-80 in Pennsylvania.  That said, the drive from Knoxville to Nashville along I-40 was rather breathtaking, with the Smoky Mountains giving way to rugged strata of blasted rock and everything green and rolling and in full-bloom.  Americans on the coasts, I would imagine, probably fail to realize how rural most of this country is, and how divergent the concerns of big-city life and rural life are.  The problems of congestion, overpopulation, and limited resources seem to melt away in the verdant hills of western Tennessee.  Sitting in the passenger’s seat, I was able to appreciate the state’s beauty as we drove the 180 miles towards Nashville.

We arrived in Nashville around 4PM, winding along the Cumberland River towards downtown, in search of a hotel which we foolishly failed to book beforehand.  Odds are, most Tuesday nights in Nashville won’t find every reputable hotel completely booked.  However, most Tuesday nights are probably not playing host to a Keith Urban/Vince Gill benefit concert.  After circling the streets, scouting out the desirable locations, we began to inquire, only to find that every hotel in downtown was booked solid.  Thus, we were shunted to a Holiday Inn Express down on Broadway and 10th, which, while not horrible, was a far cry from the full-service Knoxville Hilton.  No bellman, no valet, and situated at an uncomfortable angle on the side of a hill which caused everything to roll, we bungled our way into the lobby and eventually up the elevator to our well-worn room.  I ventured to guess it was called an Express because most guests couldn’t wait to get the hell out.  Still, in the big scheme of things, it was within walking-distance to the famous honky-tonks of Broadway and 2nd Street.

Some places surprise you, and others are exactly like you’d expect them to be: Nashville was the latter, but in a good way.  Cowboy hats and boots and Daisy-Dukes and blondes-of-all-shades and neon-lights were everywhere, here in the home of Country.  The air was redolent with BBQ, and music poured out of every window.  So much music in fact that it was almost unsettling and nearly impossible to choose, and it all sounded good.  We made our way to the first honkey tonk we saw, where a heartbreakingly pretty platinum blonde belted out Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”  If I had to type-cast a female country singer, she was exactly what I’d imagine — almost too perfect.  But she could sing, and had every male in the crowd, including yours truly, eating out of the palm of her hand.

I soon gathered that most of the musicians in Nashville could and would play anything you wanted to hear for the proper “donation.”  The Telecaster twang was ubiquitous; I don’t think there was one band that didn’t have someone in it channeling the spirit of Danny Gatton.  And they were all good.  Really good.  As a lifelong guitar player who is pretty good in my own right, I was humbled by how damn good every single one of these guys is — I’d imagine breaking in in Nashville as a guitarist is similar to being a chef in NYC.  Sometimes they were even battling it out in the same building, as many honkey-tonks have both a downstairs and an upstairs stage simultaneously competing for your attention — Music City indeed!

We made our way to the legendary Tootsie’s, which saw Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson get their start, and has a sign over the stage that states “Freebird: $100.”  There we were treated to a display of what makes music in Nashville so great, and so different from most other places: the personal interaction between the crowd and the musicians.  They didn’t just implore you to clap; they cajoled, encouraged, and in some cases danced with individual audience members, and I am pretty sure I saw at least one mid-fifties woman swoon over a particular tenor (who also tried to get Rylan to come on stage before asking “if she had a husband or a jealous boyfriend” at which I playfully tipped my LSU cap in his direction — no wonder that the knife store does such brisk business).  I would have tested the “Free Bird” theory except for my lack of an extra $100 and a gnawing in the pit of my stomach that Shiner Bock alone could not sustain.

Spilling out into the street and making our way through the big belt-buckeled and booted crowd, we were guided by the smell of BBQ to Jack’s, known to serve Nashville’s best.  It was seriously old-school, the ashen smoker doors directly behind a steam-table laden counter loaded with classic sides like stewed green beans, baked beans and mac and cheese.  Known for their brisket and pulled pork, Jack’s didn’t disappoint, and the two sturdy, large forearmed mid-forties black men — men with builds like retired prize fighters — manned the smokers and filled the styrofoam plates with smoked meat and heaping sides and good humor and hospitality.  The Tennessee accent is a deep one, and fortunately Rylan is a good translator, because I found myself asking “what?” more than a few times as the kind lady at the counter rang us up.  We sat ourselves at a small wooden table topped with a roll of paper towels and greedily devoured some of the best BBQ we’ve had in a long time.  There is a reason they serve five-star food on starched, linen white tablecloths and BBQ on beaten wooden tables or red-checkered tablecloths: because ambience — place — does matter.  And this wasn’t even the original incarnation of Jack’s, but it felt like it… it felt right.  Which is how Nashville felt… just right… just the way it should.

As we walked back to our hotel under the neon-sky of Broadway. I couldn’t help but think that we had found a little bit of perfection under the Tennessee moon.

III 

Memphis was not originally on our agenda.  It was only after I carefully studied the map and realized that diverting through Memphis would allow us to altogether avoid Alabama that I plotted our course towards Beale Street.  Nothing personal Alabama, but I have already seen enough of you this year, and I wanted to wear my LSU ball cap without being accosted.  Still, I was tentative about our decision to head to Memphis up until the very end because I has heard it was a dump; I would come to find out this was far from true.

The ground flattened considerably as we traveled west from Nashville, the vegetation becoming more lush, dense, and “Southern.”  The drive was just under four hours.  As we approached downtown, we were confronted by the musical ghosts who inhabit the shadows and the sunlit streets: Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Graceland, Sun Records, and Stax were billboards off the Interstate now, calling cards of the Mississippi River town where country music headed west, and blues north, to form something called Rock and Roll.  The farthest city East of West, where the metaphorical confluence of a river spilled over into the American consciousness that got white kids shaking their hips to black music, and later saw the dreams of black America bloodied on a motel balcony.

After our express exit from the Holiday Inn, we decided to treat ourselves with a stay at the Peabody Hotel, a classic which opened its doors in 1925 and was known for the ducks that inhabit the fountain of its lobby.  We pulled off the highway onto Union Avenue, and stopped at a light.  I glanced to my right and saw the distinctive sign of Sun Records hanging off a flat-iron shaped brick building.  My spine tingled.  This is where it all began.  This was Rock ‘n’ Roll’s ground zero.  It was barely the size of a small house.  The light turned green and we started off as I was still trying to get cell phone pictures from the driver’s seat.  Union Avenue was a collection of buildings in disrepair and various states of renovation.  It was slightly dilapidated, but in a way that adds character more than anything.  The finishing touches were being applied to a new minor league ballpark behind the Peabody Hotel as we turned off Union onto 2nd Street and into the lush carport in front.

The Peabody was one of those classic hotels that makes you feel like a Robber Baron.  There is no lack of marble, polished brass, glass, lush carpeting, player pianos, or mahogany bars.  The service is impeccable, and it started with our well-heeled bellman unpacking our ramshackle car and repairing to our room.  After a few days on the road, it is very difficult to remove oneself from a deluxe king-sized bed at a luxury hotel, and after the Holiday Inn (almost impossible not to say ironically) I almost never made it into the lobby to see the famous ducks.  Fortunately, Rylan pried me from the bed and we  headed down to the beautiful old bar that was just a few steps from the fountain.

There is something about an old hotel bar — something grandiose — which makes cocktails taste better.  You have to order something classic.  No mere beer will do.  I ordered an Old-Fashioned and turned to watch the Mallards swim in the fountain.  The delightful quirkiness of this amused me to no end: it was the opposite of what you would find at the Plaza or the Waldorf.  I could have sat there for hours if not for the burning desire to go back to Sun Records for what was described by the Concierge as a must-see tour.

I’d like to describe Sun Records as a really cool museum, which it is, but that would overlook the fact that it is still a really cool, active recording studio.  A better word would probably be touchstone.  The list of musicians who got their start on archaic recording equipment in this incredibly modest space is a who’s who:  Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, and Jerry Lee Lewis, just to name a few.  Want a more recent example: U2 and BB King recorded “When Love Comes to Town” here.  When you walk in the door you are taken back to the days before slick production and auto-tune and focus grouped boy bands.  This is the real deal.  When you hear Elvis Presley’s first recording, a $4 demo that sounds like a million dollars, you realize that this spot is the incredible convergence of talent and fortune.  That all of the above, and many, many more, would find themselves in a small studio in Memphis, TN, almost simultaneously, suggests that more than music was afoot here.  When you stand in the same spot that Elvis sang “That’s All Right” or where Carl Perkins dared you to step on his “Blue Suede Shoes,” you get chills.  Or at least I did.  As anyone who has ever made a pilgrimage can attest, there is something awe inspiring about seeing the origins of your faith.

We left Sun Records laden with pint glasses, guitar picks, and a sweet bowling shirt for yours truly, and headed happily back to the hotel to drop off our spoils.  Invigorated by Sun’s sounds, I felt like the heady musician from Mark Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis,” and we left the hotel and headed for Beale Street.

Beale Street, as I was forewarned, is a touristy strip of neon lit bars and restaurants that is only about two blocks long and is anchored by BB King’s place on the corner.  It is also one of the only streets outside New Orleans that allows you to walk around with an open container, and it has a Bourbonesque vibe.  We did all of the requisite things:  BBQ, bars, BB’s and beers, as well as live concert in the small square just off of Beale.  All of these things were enjoyable, but not exceptional, and I probably would have written off Beale Street as a one and done if not for the presence of the Withers Gallery.

The Withers Collection Museum and Gallery features the photography of the late Ernest C. Withers and is run by his daughter Rosalind.  Mr. Withers took over 1,000,000 photos in his lifetime, “the majority (of which)… documents the history of African-Americans in Memphis and the Mid-South from the 1940 through 2007.”1  The Wither’s Collection is a photographic encyclopedia of the struggles and triumphs of black Americans during this time period, and the photos of Negro League Baseball, entertainers, and especially the Civil Rights Movement are incredibly moving.  I can’t even begin to explain how moving, honestly, and don’t think I am a skilled enough writer to do the images justice.  What I can say is that I felt very small and sad in the presence of these images, yet oddly inspired.

My inspiration grew as Rylan and I talked at length with Rosalind Withers.  We talked about her father, his photos, his legacy, the weather, and music.  We talked about how she found herself back in Memphis as the curator of this gallery after so many years away.  We talked for a solid hour before I eventually settled on a beautiful book of images that I could afford.  I don’t know if we made the world a better place or not that day, but I’d like to think we did.  As I carried my carefully wrapped tome back to the Peabody Hotel, I thought about why something as easy as talking seemed for many so damn hard…

IV

“Everyone should see Graceland once in their lives, but no one should have to see it twice.”  Such was the wisdom proffered by my beautiful Rylan as we headed South towards the castle synonymous with “The King.”  Earlier that morning my mother had enthusiastically called to tell me that “I was the first Cullen to ever go to Graceland,” as if I’d gotten into Harvard or something.  There was part of me that had even considered skipping Graceland as I was eager to get to New Orleans, but to come to Memphis and not see it seemed incongruous.  Rylan had been once before, as a child, and described it as the tackiest place on earth.  As we followed the signs down a four-lane highway, I couldn’t imagine that a mansion could exist anywhere on this stretch.  After a short drive, however, we pulled into a lot across the street from the brick and iron gates of Graceland.  From the road it was less than inspiring.

We bought our tickets and were herded into a line to wait for the mini-bus which would take us from the lot to Graceland.  Everything was white and blue or emblazoned with a lightening-bolt followed with the letters TCB.  We were each given a personal walkman-type thing to guide us through the mansion.  After about a twenty minute wait we were shuttled off through the famous gates and dropped in front of what was a large house, but certainly no mansion by today’s standards.  I was always under the impression that Elvis built the house for his Mama, and was somewhat disappointed to find out that he in fact bought the house.  I was also under the impression that Elvis was fatherless, which also proved untrue, as both his mother and father occupied the purple and white downstairs bedroom.

As we entered the house, what struck me wasn’t so much that it was tacky (which it was), but how personal it felt; unlike many celebrity houses, you immediately got the sense that Elvis not only owned it, but lived in it.  Every detail, from the white leather sofa in the living room to the avocado green kitchen to the shag green carpet of the “Jungle Room” recalled “The King.” And it was oddly moving.

My mother was a huge Elvis fan, and while I appreciated his music, I never really had a sense of why he was still relevant, or how popular he was.  Visiting Graceland answered both these questions, as I moved from room to room with dozens of others who would become thousands before the day was through.  I now understood why this kid from Tupelo who made a demo in Memphis that would change the world — a kid that never wrote a song — became “The King” of Rock ‘n’ Roll.  He brought black music to white audiences, and offered just enough danger and rebellion to make it real and just enough Southern charm to quell the uneasiness of the older generations.

The last stop on the tour of Graceland is by the graves of Elvis and his family, which are in the “Meditation Garden” by the pool.  It is a beautiful, sun drenched spot surrounded by flowers and fountains — a shrine really.  It’s also fittingly peaceful for a man who had such a turbulent outward effect and inner life, the ripples in the water still broadcasting forth into Memphis air if you listen closely…

V

By now I’m sure you realize that we made it home.  Through the hills of Mississippi south into the land of bayous and oaks draped with Spanish moss.  As the air grew heavier, my excitement grew accordingly, and when I breathed in Pontchartrain’s brackish scent, my heart leapt in my chest.  Because what I learned on the road is that it’s good to be home, and as I looked across the lakefront towards New Orleans, home is what I felt…

Endnotes:

1. Quoted from the Wither’s Gallery Website

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