I squinted at the fluorescent menu shining brightly above the cashier’s yellow hair and realised I had absolutely no idea where I was. If you’d asked me to point to my location on a map, I’d have aimed for somewhere near Alabama. I knew we were heading into the heart of the music capital of America, but more than that I didn’t really need to know.
Early that morning, before sunrise, we’d loaded up the Dodge Caravan after a week of late nights in the Big Easy amid the chaotic buzz of the New Orleans Jazz Festival, with the ultimate goal of getting near Nashville before sunset. For countless hours, we’d coasted through uninteresting deep-South countryside – wide, multi-lane highways slicing through dense, deep-green forests, through the heart of Louisiana, Mississippi and infamous Alabama.
The direct, quickest-route-possible nature of road-tripping GPS-style gave us limited small-town encounters and a poor sense of location. By the time we rolled into Nashville, we were more than ready to surrender to the closest and cheapest beds we could find.
Nashville’s a weird place – even the locals will tell you that. And, really, unless you’re a big fan of honky-tonk, cowboys, steel-stringed guitars and lonesome love songs, it’s a place that shouldn’t feature on a busy tour itinerary.
Apart from a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, which no one bothered to tear down after the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition, there’s not much to see in Nashville. Nearby Lynchburg, still a one-horse town, did offer some respite, and the insightful tour of Jack Daniel’s distillery, still to this day the starting point of each bottle of the sour mash Tennessee whiskey, is one of the biggest things the city has going for it.
Like most big US cities, Nashville has a grimy street somewhere in its middle called Broadway. And like so many Broadways, this stretch of asphalt is the artery that keeps the town ticking. Pretty much any time after noon, you can catch a lonely country band or solo guitarist twanging sorry tales to a smattering of bourbon-sipping, head-in-hands drunks at any one of the numerous bars.
But when the sun sets over the sorry musical tales, the city comes to life. The flashing neon cowboy hat and guitar lights flicker on, spurred leather boots, chequered shirts and wide-brimmed cowboy hats are donned, and the sad acoustic twanging morphs into amplified guitars and more upbeat songs about life’s hardships. These all wash out onto the grimy street and flood back into the long line of neighbouring bars and clubs. So we listened to hours of country at a selection of throbbing bars, observed drunken line-dancing at its finest, floated around the late-night stores selling Johnny Cash tees and Davy Crockett caps and made plans to get out of the city as soon as possible.
So, sooner than we expected, we found ourselves in the real home of good music, Memphis, shuffling forward in a long queue at Graceland, where the King spent his last overweight, drug-fuelled days.
The only way to get to Graceland is on one of the punctual buses, which depart from the shadow of Elvis’s private jet a few hundred metres away. They leave the curio shop practically on the minute and whisk giddy fans to the top of the hill in almost total silence, with most already tuned to their headsets blaring out the introduction to the comprehensive audio tour.
Each year, thousands of worshippers shuffle silently through the once-lavish mansion. Truth be told, though, it’s really just a large, double-storey house littered with enough dusty antiques and artefacts to resemble your grandmother’s house. And much like a childhood visit, it’s when you learn of the off-limits rooms – in this case, the entire second floor – that all you can think about is what’s lurking behind the locked doors and how to find a way in.
What I did see, though, was a squash court in the back yard, now a permanent awards showcase boasting dozens of gold and platinum records and numerous trophies; an old living room with vast display cases of his jumpsuits; and an entire corridor filled with various awards, jittery black-and-white movies and looping music videos. Judging by the sniggers and prolonged pauses outside Elvis’s old entertainment room, his ability to win every game of pinball he played on his rigged machine seemed by far one of his most popular achievements.
By the time the tour spits you out at Elvis and family’s gravestones, I really just wanted a quick snap in front of the grandiose front-door pillars before heading back into reality.
Memphis is widely regarded as a music capital of the world, and music buffs will tell you the city features as inspiration in songs by everyone from Bob Dylan to Bob Marley. Just a short trip away from the over-the-top Graceland lies the unpretentious Sun Studio that defines this remarkable music history.
Sun Studio is an innocuous two-storey building perched on a busy street corner. Yet this humble building was home to some of America’s, and the world’s, most celebrated musicians.
Calling Sun Studio the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll is no cheap catch-phrase or hyperbole. What is widely regarded as the first rock-and-roll single, Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, was recorded here, and Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, together the Million Dollar Quartet, all cut their teeth in this humble building. To this day, international superstars are clamouring to record there, really just to say they did, and over the years Def Leppard, U2, John Mellencamp, Chris Isaak and even Ringo Starr have had their turn.
After a meander through the annals of Sun Studio’s history and their priceless musical memorabilia upstairs, our cute guide, an up-and-coming Memphis muso (like most Memphis citizens), led us down a narrow staircase and into what she nonchalantly called “the studio”.
This simple, four-walled, sound-proofed room is where world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll magic happened, and like children in a playpen, the small tour group was let loose to scamper all around it, absorbing the atmosphere that still hangs heavy in the dusty air, and scout out all the relics that to this day remain untouched – precise tape on the floor marking where the musicians would stand, an array of iconic instruments and vintage recording equipment, and, spectacularly, the actual Shure 55S Elvis microphone, standing casually and unguarded in the middle.
Our hotel, booked online, unfortunately turned out to be on the other side of the Mississippi in neighbouring Arkansas, and so, with heavy hearts, we fired up the GPS and bade farewell to Tennessee.
As we sailed over the enormous, murky river dividing the two states, we left behind one of the most intriguing and influential musical centres of the world, sad to leave but satisfied that our four-day, 1200km journey through the Dirty South had somehow turned from an impromptu road trip into an inspiring pilgrimage to the original birthplace of true rock ‘n’ roll.
Originally appeared in print in the Sunday Times: