Traveling The Americana Music Triangle, “Bourbon, Beale, Broadway & Back” – Nashville, Tn.

With Nashville only an hour or so away, there’s just one more stop before getting back to Music City.

I’ve heard about this place for years so to stop and spend some time at the crash site of Patsy Cline is a must.  It seems strange that the location of a tragic end of life has become a visitor attraction, but I can’t help going to see for myself.

The wooded spot is surrounded by a few small homes and house trailers scattered up and down the road.  From a small dirt parking area,  a little trail leading into the woods is all there is to see.  The rain had stopped just long enough for the air to become so humid that a walk in the woods for most, including myself, could be a dismal end to the day.  I followed the trail winding down to the bottom of the hollow. I was soaked with sweat and not even sure if the climb back up the trail was going to be possible but after a few more steps I was at the site. At the very bottom of the hollow is a large rock that stands as a monument to the spot where on March 5, 1963 four lives were lost.  What really surprised me was how incredibly peaceful it was.  The air seemed thinner and a cool breeze was blowing. I could hear the sounds of birds in the trees.  The evidence of many other visitors before me was placed in a very respectful manner.   Forty-nine years ago this very spot was a scene of tragedy but today it has such a feeling of serenity. I made my way back up the trail and back into the reality of the day, but with a much more peaceful feeling.

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As I get closer to Nashville my internal insecurities begin to rumble.  For me to talk about the city that for the most part helps pay the bills, the city where your friends live along with a few that may not be your friends, is difficult.  I do much better in a environment were I am an unknown hiding in the shadows; only there for a moment, then off to the next shadow to hide.  But home, how do you talk about home without the fear of saying the wrong thing? What if you leave someone out, what if, what if, runs through my head… the closer to Nashville I get. 

Moving from the suburbs of Chicago to Nashville was the most impulsive decision I’ve ever made. In my mind it was a move that had to happen.  There was such a personal draw to this town that at the time there was not much that could have stopped me from pulling up stakes and throwing myself into the unknown. 

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Nashville Tn.

There is something very exciting about putting yourself into somewhere new; a place where behind every door is a brand new moment, a new face and a new smell.  It’s like a first kiss, you never really remember the one that comes after the first, but you will always remember the first.

I remember my first time on lower Broadway with its’ sounds of country music pouring out in the streets; from morning until, well, morning again.  I remember the first time I stepped into the Ryman. I walked right down to the stage and laid my hand on the hardwood planking just to see if I could feel the energy of Johnny Cash kicking out the lights. I remember an ice-cold beer and a slice of toaster oven pizza at the Station Inn while listening to some of the best bluegrass music the world has to offer.  I remember my first Fan Fair and the first writers’ round at the Bluebird Cafe. Yes, I admit I got shushed for whispering too loudly in my naïve enthusiasm.   My first Grand Old Opry was from backstage and my first recording session was at Omni Studios.  I’ve made so many friends and lost only a few. I fell in love once in this town and I will never forget letting it slip away.  I survived the 500-year flood.   I remember the first time I had real fried chicken and my first biscuit at the Loveless Cafe. 

There is something about this town, an energy that pulls people in from all directions, all distances, all for one reason: creativity.  Music, painting, writing, and dance: … you name it, it’s all here.  Nashville is a city where the faces change often but there’s always a new fresh energy. Legends have been made here, legends die here, and you never know if that person behind the counter at the Frothy Monkey might be the next one to kick out the lights. 

Dolly001                    Dolly Parton

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Ryman Auditorium

_aDSC4505Music City Roots

_DSC2402                  Cowboy Jack Clement

_DSC2686bw                   Marty Stuart

_DSC3760Buddy Miller, W.C. “Fluke” Holland, David Roe Rorick & T-Bone Burnett

_DSC9983The green room at the Station Inn

Bart001                   Chef Bart Pickens The Loveless Barn

BKeys003                      Bobby Keys

BMoore002                    Bob Moore

CBombs008                     Vince Gill

JDSouther005                     J.D. Souther

JSteele003Jeffrey Steele

KClarks009Kenny Olson

Kebmo004                   Keb Mo

KKrist001                    Kris Kristofferson 

manuel                     Manuel

MRhodes                    Michael Rhodes

_DSC1646Dance Theatre of Tennessee

PLancaster002Paul Lancaster

RCrowell                    Rodney CrowellTurtlesThe Turtles Mark Volman & Howard Kaylan

Nashville has been good to me, so very good.  I can’t even imagine living anywhere else.  I will be always moving down the road in search of that new moment but, at the end of the day, I will always wander back home. 

 

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Traveling The Americana Music Triangle, “Bourbon, Beale, Broadway & Back” – Brownsville & Jackson, Tn.

For all of you out there that feel the need to get from one place to another as quick as you can,  all I can say is slow down and enjoy the ride.  Life is  quick enough.  In saying that, I had to get off of I-4o as fast as possible and find the slow more real route east. U.S. Highway 70 out of Memphis  was sometimes referred to as the “Broadway of America,” due to its status as one of the main East–West thoroughfares in the nation.  At one time it ran from the Atlantic Ocean in North Carolina to the Pacific Ocean in California.  Before the quick, painfully boring route of I-40, it was the way to move east from Memphis to get to Nashville.  As you travel down this two lane stretch of blacktop you are quickly introduced to small town America.  From cotton to corn, the rich Delta soil displays its crops on both sides of the road for miles. After spending a few days chasing down Elvis sightings, this was just what I needed.  The cotton fields were calling me in and that is just what I found in a small town called,  Brownsville, Tn. Cotton is still king in Brownsville and can be found at every turn. “The Mindfield”

I have not found a town yet that did not have a claim to fame, an interesting individual whose life is right off the pages of a novel.   A person who has somehow or some way devoted his or her entire life to their passion.  In Brownsville, it is a man named Billy Tripp, the sole creator to what he calls “The Mindfield.”  Billy began his creation in 1989 and will continue until his death, at which point it will become his interment.  A massive structure of individual pieces of steel representing various events in his life.   The most amazing thing about his work is that every piece and every weld has been done by Billy and Billy alone.  No help, no workers, no assistance, again just Billy.   To stand under this massive undertaking is beyond overwhelming.  In Billy’s words, “My work is a memorial to my parents, as well as a testimonial to my current life, my belief in the inherent beauty of our world, and the importance of tolerance in our communities and governmental systems”. Billy Tripp When spending time with Billy you really do feel that you are in the presence of a genius, a true artist, but more that anything else, you are talking with an individual that is so grounded and in tune with life. Billy Tripp

Now I have touched on cotton and creative genius, one thing left and that is food. I think I may have just found the best, Helen’s Bar-B-Q                Helen Turner As you first pull up to Helen’s, your first impression is that the building is on fire.  The smoke has the back of the building engulfed, but then you get out of the car and there it is,  the sweet, sweet smell of pork.  The smell of the south, the smell that drops a true barbecue fanatic like myself to his knees.  Yes, this was it, this is the one. 10 to 12 pork shoulders per day, smoked to perfection.  Her sauce is her secret recipe that ends up down your arm and on the front of your shirt and you really don’t care. It really is that good. She had me try everything, she fed me until I was in a barbecue coma.  Where ever you are no matter how far away, just get in your car and don’t stop driving until you smell the smoke at Helen’s.

Just down the road from Brownsville is Jackson, Tn, the half way stop between Memphis and Nashville.  With the country music coming out of Nashville and the blend of rock ‘n’ roll, blues and gospel that was being recorded in Memphis, they all were blended together in Jackson and “Rockabilly was born.  With such names as Carl Perkins, Kenny Parchman, Rayburn Anthony and W.S. “Fluke” Holland, drummer for Johnny Cash’s band The Tennessee Three, they are all responsible for the “Rockabilly” sound. As you pull into Jackson, you have to make your way through the the stretch of mega fast food and strip malls that you will  find in any major city with an interstate running along its edge.  Not too far down the road you will find the heart of Jackson and its historic downtown district.  That is where I found the home of Jaxon Records along with a warm welcome from a few music legends.   Jimmy Exum, Rayburn Anthony and W.S. “Fluke” Holland. To sit in the room with these guys and to hear the stories of legends like Cash, Perkins, Elvis and Jerry Lee, all the stories were flying back and forth straight from the eye witnesses that were there when history was made. As much as I wanted to stay and hear more I had to move on.

The sun was dropping and I had an old blues player to visit.

All the cemeteries that I have visited have always had the prestine manicured look.  Headstone after headstone are placed in even, planned out rows.  What I was about to see I could not believe, a cemetery so overgrown with weeds and Kudzu that if it were not for the tops of stones randomly peaking through it would be just another massive field of green.  As you walk up the cleared dirt path, there under a beautiful shade tree is the headstone for John Lee Curtis “Sonny Boy Williamson.”

Thanks to Michael Baker and Billy King, Sonny Boy’s grave was found unmarked in the overgrowth and forgotten cemetery just outside of town.  They were able to verify and to clear out his burial site and to give him a proper headstone.  This is not by far anywhere near what you would call a beautiful cemetery, but as the breeze blows through the trees and the sound of the birds, I can honestly say that it is the most peaceful one I have ever been to, and at that very moment you could begin to see its beauty.

One last stop and it was back to the edge of the interstate to have a quick dinner and to hear some of Jackson’s local music at the Casey Jones Village.

Brownsville and Jackson reminds me of a middle child stuck between an older and younger sibling trying so hard to create their own identity.  There is more there than I was able to see in a day.  I can only imagine what else lay under the undergrowth of Kudzu and time.  I know there are more Billy Tripps and Michael Bakers out there with undeterred passion to create and to uncover and preserve what they believe in, and when I come back I want to meet them all.

Back to the nice and slow scenic route of Highway 70, heading east to where I now call home, Nashville Tn.

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Traveling The Americana Music Triangle, “Bourbon, Beale, Broadway & Back” – Back to Memphis .

Sometimes in life you head down the road in a direction that at the time seems right.  You have a destination in mind, you have a plan.  Well guess what, plans and destinations don’t always work on a roadtrip such as the one that I have found myself on.  As I head East in search of Jackson, Tn, I can’t help but feel that I have forgotten something.  Something really big and yes I had.  In a  few days the city of Memphis was going to be filled with Elvis fans from all over the world to pay their respects to the King.   It was 35 years ago that Elvis Aaron Presley had passed on and in the wake of his untimely death an almost cult like worshiping has occurred in honor of the man and his music.  A worshiping that seems to grow each year in proportions that just don’t seem possible.  I am so close to throwing myself head first into this phenomena, with that twinkle in my eye that means only one thing. Hang one this will be fun.  So with all that I turn the car around and start to make a few calls.  Back to Memphis, and don’t worry Jackson I will be there in just a few days, their is something I just have to do. 

My first mission is to find my friends the Memphis Boys who are in town to be honored with there musical note on the sidewalk of Beale street.

Gene Chrisman, Chips Moman, Reggie Young, Bobby Woods & Bobby Emmons.  These guys are the Memphis Boys.  Once the house band for American Sound Studios located at 827 Thomas St. Memphis, the Memphis Boys were responsable for 122 Top Ten hit records between 1967 to 1971.  When Elvis came to American Sound Studios history was made with such songs as Suspicious Minds, In The Getto and my all time favorite Kentucky Rain.  Artist such as BJ Thomas, Dusty Springfield, Neil Diamond, and Aretha Franklin all came to 827 Thomas St. in search of the Memphis Boys sound.

 Their well-deserved Music Note.

If you’re on Beale Street, you really don’t leave, rain or shine you just stay until the end.

The rain stopped, the sky’s cleared and the Elvis sightings began. 

Ok, this guy wins the prize, if thats not Elvis.  Well just saying.

Between the Mississippi River moving millions of gallons down stream and the torrential rains we experienced earlier, the heat and humidity was sticky to say the least.  I turned the thermostat in my hotel room to 64 and slept fast with Elvis running through my head.  Tomorrow Graceland and a concert with the Memphis Boys that should never be missed by anyone alive in the world.  

Just one quick stop on my way to Graceland and that is to see John “Johnny Lowebow” Lowe.  Johnny has a very, I mean very cool shop called Xanadu Books and Records.  Used books and vintage vinyl how can you go wrong.  As an added treat, Johnny is a respected maker of cigar-box guitars along with a one man band that is a force to be reckoned with.  After a 2 hour visit filled with conversation and music it was time to spend some money with Johnny and move on to the home of the King.

 Gene Chrisman.

Gene Chrisman & Jim Horn.

Bobby Emmons

Reggie Young

Andy Childs

David Hood

Scat Springs

Elvis fans, they never stopped smiling.  They got what they came for.  

Another night with the thermostat at 64, the morning would come quick and it really was time to hit the road.  

If anyone out there knows me well, you know that I like my food and if I was going to leave in the AM, I would have to have  breakfast.  Well, thinking the way I think, you can’t just settle for the hotel buffet, no hanging out with me is not that simple.  I wanted to go in search of where the locals go to eat.  I had to call my friend Tad from American Dream Safari.  

As the 55 Cadilac pulls up,  he is an instant rock star with all the foreign tourists smoking and drinking coffee outside the hotel.  They snap away with their cameras as if the 55 has Elvis himself behind the wheel.  I climb in and wave to our new fans and we are off to find a meal that only Memphis has to offer.

All cities have the place.  The place where at any given time you will find the entire spectrum of social groups.  It’s the place where race, color and income status have no meaning.  It is the place were you go to eat, and to eat really good food.  That place is Bryant’s.  I am not going to go into what I had and try to sound like a food critic.  I can’t begin to say how good it was, just take my advice and go, just go and enjoy.  

As we dragged our sorry-filled bodies to the car,  Tad informed me there was one more place.  I consider myself a pro when it comes to eating, but one more place. This is hard to comprehend  after we just committed every food sin possible.  He promisses a tour around the city to work off our breakfast and then to a place for lunch.  That I can do.

The home of Johnny Cash during the time he was recording at Sun Studios.

Now I have up to this point only mentioned Tad’s skills as a tour guide.  The man has many talents as seen here with his tire art that can be found all over including Shacksdale in Mississippi.  He is an inventor of Americana products of all kinds.  Some can be seen here in a picture of his studio slash gallery slash home which by the way houses two cars and two vintage Airstreams and a koy pond strategically placed to catch water from a leak in the roof.  The only person I know with an old antique refrigerator used as an entertainment unit.  Yes, the man is truly living his art.   I can’t wait to come back and hang for a bit, it really is one of the coolest places I have ever been. 


Tad with his dog Howdy.

Now it’s time for another place, not just any place but the place were I am going to have the best soul food in Memphis.  The Gay Hawk Restaurant, and there you will have the best fried chicken on the planet and to bring you your sweet tea is the sweetest lady I have ever met, Miss Georgia Noll.  Yes folks this place did me in,  I was in a food coma with little cornbreads running through my brain.   

With I-40 in my windshield and Memphis at my back it was on to Jackson, Tn.  I am guessing that they also will have a place.

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Traveling The Americana Music Triangle “Bourbon, Beale, Broadway & Back” – Memphis, TN

Driving north on Hwy 61 we cross over the mighty Mississippi River and enter into the city of Memphis, Tn.  The birth place of Rock & Roll and the home of the King.  The city is just one big venue that every rock and blues artist has wandered a time or two.  Lets also not forget to mention some of the worlds finest barbeque that falls from the bone and drips down your arm.

I have been to Memphis a few times in the past.   I have stayed at The Peabody Hotel and watched the ducks parade down the red carpet to their marble watering hole.  I have sat on a bench in front of Sun Studios wondering if Cash or Elvis sat right in that very same spot.  As you scroll down you will even see a few faces that you might know from a recording session that I sat in on at Ardent Studios a few years back.   So saying all that you would think I know all there is to know about Memphis, but to tell you the truth there is so much history here that I am not going to embarrass myself and lose a whole bunch of friends.   I will leave the history lesson to the experts.

Memphis is not one of those city’s that you just wander into, you have to have a plan and a destination.  I would guess that most head straight to Beale Street and that would be a good plan, but for all those who know me well you know I want what everyone else can’t see or have. I want the real Memphis, the back streets that you just don’t go to.   So to make this happen you make a call to Tad Pierson, the proud owner of American Dream Safari.  Within an hour you are in the back seat of his ’55 Cadillac on your way to see the back streets of Memphis and all that they have to offer.

Tad Pierson behind the wheel of his ’55 Cadillac.

A rare shot of myself from a previous visit.

The Lorraine Motel where in 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. senselessly lost his life to an assassins bullet.

Alfred is a folk artist/sign painter, his work can be found on most buildings in and around South 3rd & South Parkway.

I loved hanging with Harold for a bit.  His story is amazing, behind his home is where Isaac Hayes’ Grandmother lived.  Harold’s mother taught piano and would give lessons to Isaac when he would visit his Grandmother.

Harold’s mother’s piano.

Tad promises that on my next visit we will stop back here for a beer or two.

David “Honeyboy” Edwards recording at Ardent Studios.  This was the last time Honeyboy would be in the studio before his passing.  He was the last artist alive to have played with Robert Johnson.

Cedric Burnside

Lightnin’ Malcolm

Ruthie Foster

Charlie Musselwhite

Charlie Musselwhite, Michael Frank and David “Honeyboy” Edwards

Our last stop is Graceland to pay our respects to the “King” Elvis Aaron Presley.

Memphis to me is a city that you can’t get enough of and a city that you can’t stay too long in.  It’s a place that will steal your heart and soul and then spit you out into the street.  Like a mistress in the night, you can’t help but go back for more.  Lets face it, it’s just that good.

See you next in Jackson, Tn.

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Traveling The Americana Music Triangle “Bourbon, Beale, Broadway & Back” – Clarksdale, MS.

I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to Clarksdale, MS.  Some have referred to it as ground zero. Depending on who you are talking to, some claim this is the place  where Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil.  I even read a quote that this is hell itself.   I think Clarksdale was best described by local author & music historian Roger Stolle as being where you can find the last generation of cotton-farming, mule-driving,  juke-joint playing bluesmen, deeply inhaling the last breath of this amazing tradition we call Delta blues.

As you walk the streets you can’t help but feel the history.  The dusty old store fronts want to pull you in to tell you their story.   This is it, this is the town that you want to camp out in for a bit.  You need to stay a while and hear all the stories.  I have a feeling this is the town that could just pull you in and if you’re not carefull you could just find the blues.

Ground Zero Blues Club

I love this old gentleman, he was in town to buy seeds for his garden.  I regret not spending more time getting to know him.  I have to say, I did not even get his name.  This was a lesson learned by me and I can assure you it will never happen again.

The “Oxbow”-  best fish tacos I have ever had.  Thank you again Bubba O’keefe for lunch.

These are the stairs leading up to what was back in 1945 the home of WROX Radio.  The same stairs used by the likes of Ike Turner when he was an on-air host at WROX.  This building will soon be the home of the WROX Radio Museum.

One of the last real juke joints around.  I so wanted to have the chance to meet Red, but he is only open on the weekends and a middle of the week visit was not in the cards.  Next time I am in town, this will be the first place I go, well maybe a few fish tacos first.

So much history here I don’t and won’t even begin to try and tell the story.  Look it up and let the professionals tell you.  It reads like a novel and is on my bucket list of places to stay in the very near future.

I had the honor to share a cup of coffee with Josh “Razor Blade” Stewart.  One of the last of a breed of blues artists that reside in Clarksdale.  He shared his life with me from his tour spent in Vietnam as part of the 173rd Airborne, to his music and his theories on life.  He spoke of the true meaning of finding the blues.

Our friend Erin’s shack at Shacksdale

The accommodations in Clarksdale range from the boutique “The Lofts at the Five & Dime” to historical “Riverside Hotel” and of course the chain places with your free continental breakfast.  Then there is a hidden jewel for the true road trip junkies like myself.  Shacksdale and Shack up Inn offer a stay that is so freakin’ cool that I can’t even begin to describe it.   Shacks – yes shacks – that are decorated with every item you have ever seen at a garage sale and flea market.  They are a throwback to the 20s.  You step in and you become a character in a Steinbeck novel.  This is the type of place that the creative mind and wanderer of the road can truly call home.

And, yes, the beer at Shacksdale is very cold and very “cheep.”

With Clarksdale in the rearview mirror, we head north on the last leg to Memphis.

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Traveling The Americana Music Triangle “Bourbon, Beale, Broadway & Back” – Helena, AR.

A last minute decision was made to take a detour and cross the river to go see a friend  in Helena, Arkansas.  About 30 minutes or so outside of Clarksdale, Helena is the home of the first blues radio show “King Biscuit Time” along with “The King Biscuit Blues Festival.”  As you drive through town you can’t help but wonder what it was like back in the day when Robert Johnson called these streets home for this is where he spent much of the last 5 years of his life.  The history here has not been paved over with parking garages and fancy restaurants to cater to the elite.  This is small town America that is so rich in culture and music history.  This is a town that time has forgoten and that is what makes it so damn cool.  This is where we found our friend Bubba Sullivan holding court in one of the greatest old record shops I have ever seen, “Bubba’s Blues Corner”.

                      Bubba Sullivan

We had to move on if we were going to make Clarksdale by dinner.  I really felt bad about leaving Helena when we did.  There was so much here to capture, so many faces to meet.  The fact is I am again just scratching the surface, but deep down I know I will be back and this adventure is going to be one that will never end.

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Traveling The Americana Music Triangle “Bourbon, Beale, Broadway & Back” – Cleveland, MS

The state of Mississippi is so rich in musical history and some say that it all started here in Cleveland.  The Dockery Farms was the home of  the Blues’ first recording artist Charley Patton.  As the story goes Robert Johnson was passing thru the Dockery farms and spent time listening and playing with Patton.  But then there is the story that this is the location were Johnson made his deal with the devil and to some this is the Crossroads.

The water trough was used as a community baptismal due to the fact that the river was too infested with snakes and alligators.

When we met “Cadillac” John at his home just outside Cleveland I knew that this was why Highway 61 was so special.  At 85, Cadillac John still plays his harmonica and preforms at blues festivals all over the state.  This was a hidden treasure and all you had to do was to wander around a bit.  I loved spending time with him, and the stories, well you can only imagine.

                    “Cadillac” John Nolden

Po Monkey’s

I was getting in so deep into this trip, but we had to move on.  There was so much more to go – Helena, AR,  Clarksdale, MS and just wait until we get to Memphis.  Well, here we go, we are on the move again.

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