I’ve wanted to go to Nashville since I met my friend, Naomi, my first week at Brandeis University. Since that first meeting, I’ve visited her four times and have seen a new part of this city and its surroundings each time. This was Mat’s first time in the home of country music and we had a blast! Getting to take in a show where the Grand Ole Opry got its start (at the Ryman Auditorium) was incredible. It was as if we were living a scene out of a movie. The radio announcer for WSM Radio had a podium in the corner of the stage and not only introduced each act, but in between, did the commercials for places such as Cracker Barrel and Dollar General. As he spoke, his voice sounded perfectly built for radio and although it took a minute to realize that we were all now on the radio, it felt as time stood still and the world of television did not yet exist. There was something pretty special about sitting in those pews where so many have sat before us. In this place where newcomers share the same stage with country royalty and fans get up close interactions with their favourite stars or those who will soon become favourites, magic happens. This was an experience in itself.
We checked out the new Country Music Hall of Fame and marveled at the nostalgia and history of this music genre. As we wandered through the exhibits of Kenny Rogers and icons of the industry like Barbara Mandrel, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and so many others, memories floated off the glass for the both of us. We reminisced as we walked (as both of our childhoods had bits of country thrown in). There were platinum records to look at, Elvis’ favourite cars to see, heaps of music to take in and snip-its of history displayed everywhere. We’ve felt pretty lucky to be able to see the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame both in the same year-talk about Americana, right?
As with so many other gifts of travel, time to wander is one of my favourites. Taking in the scenery, enjoying your surroundings, sharing memories of travels past and just being-that’s what we did this afternoon. We had lunch with Naomi at Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant for true southern comfort fare. Beer in a mason jar, fried pickles, sweet tea, fried green tomatoes and of course barbecue, corn cakes and mac and cheese for all appeared on the table. Not sure that my system will ever fully get used to it, but, when in Rome, right? And, since an evening in Nashville is best spent ‘honoring thy music’, that’s just what we did. Country hopefuls belted their best at Tootsies and we stayed to watch, listen and support the dream.
Music is the main focus of our journey through Tennessee. As we ventured from country to blues with a bit of a hip swiveling Elvis thrown in, we made our way from Nashville to Memphis by way of a stop at another fabulous Diners, Drive Ins and Dives establishment. Arriving in Memphis (my first time and the hub’s second), we were ready for beer, blues, barbecue and a bit of history. First stop was the Civil Right’s Museum held at the Lorraine Motel. Built on the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. the well-done museum recounts the history of the Civil Rights Movement from slavery to today. As a former US history teacher who spent much time focusing on the rights, movements and injustices of others, I enjoyed seeing how the museum brought history to life. There were three-dimensional reenactments, movies with sights and sound bites of history, and even a replica of the bus that started the boycott in Montgomery. You could be a part of the sit-ins at a Greensboro lunch counter, take a seat in the school with those who fought so hard for their rights to attend and march with activists throughout history. And as eerie as it was to see Nelson Mandela’s cell at Robben Island in South Africa, I felt the same while staring into room 306 at the Lorraine Motel and the space across the street from where the assassination took place.
Like many other museums that focus on a dark time in history, we left discussing periods of injustice and thinking of so many who worked so hard for the rights of others. Pensive, we left pondering the exhibits and continued our discussions over barbecue at Central BBQ, home to some of Memphis’ best. Sustenance filled with fried goodness covered in sauce filled our bellies and we walked off the delicious caloric intake on Beale Street. As music soared out of the clubs onto the streets, we listened, taking in the scats, sax and vocals that have made Memphis legendary. An evening in this city is best spent listening to blues and that we did. BB Kings was filled with locals and travelers alike all doing the same thing. As we sat, surveying the scene of young and old, we smiled. Travel provides so very many things, and so much of it falls into the category of perspective. In front of us was a family of four. The littlest one was asleep on the edge of the stage and the two grandmothers had to have been close to eighty years old. Next to us was a man in his fifties and behind us a bachelorette party of twenty-somethings all doing exactly the same thing. For those that are able and those who want to, there’s such life to be led. And on a Thursday night in the middle of December……that’s just what it felt like we were doing…..living!
There’s so much to see and do in Memphis. Where the worlds of barbecue and blues are infused into the culture, our ears perked up and mouths watered the entire time. After a short side trip to the University of Mississippi (because, why not?) we spent the afternoon participating in all things Memphis. Home to Heartbreak Hotel and hip swiveling fame, we took in a tour of Elvis’ home, Graceland. After placing our iPads around our necks and headphone on our ears, John Stamos’ soulful voice guided us through the compound belonging to the king of rock and roll. The pool room, the jungle room, the pasture and even the trophy room-stop after stop we were treated to the glitz and gifts of Elvis. His number one records hung on the wall, famous outfits adorned the cases and clips of historic proportion played throughout the entire tour. His cars filled an entire building and two airplanes are available for touring. People were everywhere clicking pictures of the wall signed by thousands (which we of course added to), the original Christmas decorations and the meditation area at the end of the tour where the king of rock and roll is laid to rest.
On to the ducks and their duckmaster! For fans of children’s books everywhere, The Peabody Hotel is like living out the dreams of Eloise at the Plaza and helps the images of Make Way for Ducklings jump off the pages. The duckmaster adorned in a bright red uniform unfurls the red carpet and tells the story of how the ducks came to be at the Peabody. According to the story, a trainer for the circus had been a guest at the hotel and after the general manager had left a few ducks in the fountain one night, said guest told him he could train the ducks to walk from the fountain to the elevators and back to their rooftop accommodation. The general manager told the man that if he could do that, the ducks would stay…and so they have for well over fifty years. With onlookers propped on the edges of their seats and children lining the red carpet, at promptly five o’clock, the ducks waddled their little webbed feet up the short staircase, onto the carpet, down the aisle and made their way safely to the elevators as flashbulbs went off as if the royal family were in town for an engagement. Talk about a Memphis tradition!
With a quick stop at Huey’s (winner of the best burger in town for the past thirty years), and a meander down Beale street we ended our evening at the FedExForum for a Grizzlies game. Memphis has treated us to over two wonderful days filled with legendary music, mouthwatering food, history and heaps of smiles. Each person we encountered embraced us with a ‘Welcome to Memphis’ phrase. It’s as if the city could literally wrap its collective arms around visitors so they would know how happy they are to have you here. Clad in blue jackets, information providers stand on street corners every night to ensure that you find your way to your next destination. As I lay awake in our hotel room, I couldn’t help thinking about the cashier in the Mississippi Loves truck stop where we ate lunch today. After all of the people she sees and interacts with in a day, she never missed a beat. Although she was in the midst of a queue of customers, she smiled at us as we left. In two short sentences she captured the sentiment we’ve felt along our travels. ‘Ya’ll come back now’ she said as we went to push the door and just as it was about to close behind us she followed with, ‘have a blessed day’. How would it be possible not to smile after that? We’ll be back…thanks, Tennessee.