Friday, May 2, 2014

Through the Three States of Tennessee


Jo on the microscopic stage at Tootsie's

We spent Easter weekend in Memphis, catching up with family, stopping by Nancy's childhood home, scooping up some barbeque, and spending a pleasant Sunday evening in the revitalized Overton Square with cousin Jeff.  Daughter Allison will be graduating (magna cum laude, no less) early this month from the University of Memphis, so we wished her well at this pivotal point.

West Tennessee is flat and you can still find cotton fields not far from town.  Speaking of cotton culture, the historical setting of Roots is in the northwestern corner near the town of Ripley.  As we travelled toward Nashville, Middle TN is defined by gentle hills and denser green.  Before we unloaded our considerable road bulk (how can two people need so much?) at the luxurious Opryland hotel complex, we stopped by Jack White's Third Man studio and record shop.  The antique photo booth restored by TV's "American Restoration" crew was there, along with some strange devices and animatronic figures that would surely be scary in the dark.  I was hoping their LP reissue of bluesman Charley Patton's first recordings (1929) would be in stock -- having seen it in Rolling Stone -- and it was, and was soon mine, along with a reproduction 45 of Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire," in honor of the late, great Joe Sheets, whose version played in my old Grove Ave. apartment in Richmond, in front of the giant beer can pyramid, will never be forgot.


Opryland hotel

N. had been to Opryland many years ago, and I was eager to see the plant-filled atrium, which turned out to be three separate atria, joined by walkways, bridges and an internal river.  We sprang for a room with a balcony overlooking all this lushness, and were not disappointed.  Could have stayed put happily for a few days, but we needed to head out and see the real and the tourist Nashville, which were respectively, Music Row and Lower Broadway.  There are more music-related businesses like publishers, studios, equipment people, and producers than you can imagine, but strangely, we hardly saw a human being.  Maybe everydown was downtown at the Country Music Hall of Fame or something.  We did pay homage to the legendary RCA Studio B, where 35,000 songs were recorded, 200 of them by Elvis.  It has not been Disneyfied, and remains its compact 1950s self.  You can not, unfortunately, visit it without being on a tour from the aforementioned Hall of Fame.  But it was memorable to be there.

Lower Broadway is the three-block strip of honkytonks and boot shops stuck alongside the old Ryman Auditorium, and it was quite lively for a weekday before tourist season.  I especially wanted to walk the alley beside the Ryman where Loretta Lynn tore into the woman who was in the parked Cadillac with her husband many years ago, and all the rest of the legends were in some state of awe or intoxication many times over the decades.  It was clean, newly paved, and probably didn't look like it did when all the craziness was happening.  We've really got to go back and see a show at the Ryman, though; it's supposed to have great acoustics and certainly has a lot of positive energy.

Tootsie's Orchid Lounge backs up to the Ryman alley and is the pinnacle of funky.  At least three acts were or had just played; you can hear music in Nashville anywhere and anytime.  The level of quality is as high as you would expect.  The walls are covered by pictures decayed by time and cigarette smoke, and I didn't recognize but three of them.  This wasn't Planet Hollywood; it was the real sticky, gritty thing.  And then on to Gruhn's Guitar Shop, which has moved away from the crowds on Broadway several miles.  Once again, I didn't recognize most of the instruments:  if you want a rare vintage one, this is the place to go.  My guitar-collector friends should visit it once in their lives -- should be one of the top ten in any music fan's bucket list.


Gruhn's guitar porn

Back at Opryland, we parked next to a fleet of Mustangs on a nationwide 50th anniversary trek.  The hotel itself was mostly full of business people meeting in the Rhode Island-size conference rooms; much better company than hordes of summer Griswolds.  They kept the bars busy.  Speaking of which, we enjoyed a pear martini, or two, by the cascading waterfalls and rested our tired legs.  On our way east to Knoxville and the rocky spine of western Virgnia to get home the next day, we stopped in Centennial Park to wander around the full-size reproduction Parthenon (if you're old enough, you remember this from the Robert Altman movie).  The mountains around Knoxville bring to mind the torturous Civil War campaigns through here which led to the downfall of Atlanta, but it was all sun and green, with purple flowering Pawlonia trees everywhere.  Each of the three Tennessees has its own charms, but for excitement in the air it's hard to beat Music City; we had hardly seen or done enough despite long days and many miles.

Despite the indignity of losing a tire and limping home on the spongy "doughnut" spare, our dusty, bug-smacked Honda did well, achieving a record 29 mpg, and we became addicted to the ease of GPS on the easy-to-read (and hear) iPad. I'm surprised Siri didn't say "Ya'll come back now!"


1 comment:

  1. Excellent. Love your travel tours. I'll send you a note about the guitars. Sounds like you went the best places and other than snow fall and limping home, saw and tasted and heard a piece of the south. Hope N enjoyed it as well.