Mu­sic tour of the Amer­i­can south

On the track of mu­sic leg­ends in the Amer­i­can south

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - FRONT PAGE - FIONA HARARI

When song­writer Richard Leigh moved to Nashville in the 1970s, he dis­cov­ered an un­usual pro­fes­sional ben­e­fit. “The great thing I learned about liv­ing here is that for ev­ery bro­ken heart you get two hit songs,” he says, smil­ing proudly as he stands be­fore a mi­cro­phone at the epi­cen­tre of the coun­try mu­sic world and be­gins to prove his point.

With his well-worn guitar in his hands, he closes his eyes and, sway­ing slightly, soul­fully sings his fa­mous work, Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue, Crys­tal Gayle’s 1977 in­ter­na­tional hit that earned its writer the first of seven Song of the Year nom­i­na­tions. Now 65, Leigh has been pen­ning mu­sic since he was 10. He has earned mul­ti­ple Grammy nom­i­na­tions, scored nine No. 1 hit songs and, he adds, “made a lot of money for my ex-wives”.

And it’s to learn first-hand about his ex­pe­ri­ence writ­ing for other per­form­ers that we are gath­ered in a quiet meet­ing room in Nashville for the first in a se­ries of im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ences on an es­corted jour­ney through the south­ern states of the US.

Over the next week or so we will move from Ten­nessee to Mis­sis­sippi and into Louisiana, and there will be char­ac­ters ga­lore. We will be guided through Elvis Pres­ley’s fa­mous home in Mem­phis by one of his old friends. A South­erner called Buddy with a no-non­sense drawl will take us through the finer points of cot­ton pro­cess­ing. At an im­promptu stop at a honky tonk bar in Nashville, we will lis­ten to a 13-year-old girl belt­ing out coun­try hits like a pro, con­clud­ing her per­for­mance with a mem­o­rable com­ment on her in­creas­ing height, “You know what they say ... the higher the hair, the closer to Je­sus.”

And al­most ev­ery­where there will be an abun­dance of mu­sic and mu­si­cians, from coun­try to blues, rock ’n’ roll to jazz, in crowded bars and dingy halls, in old con­cert theatres and even as a wake-up call at our Nashville ho­tel, a huge re­sort with more than 2800 rooms where you can take your pick of coun­try mu­sic per­form­ers to start the day with a pre-recorded mes­sage. But Nashville has other claims to fame. Lo­cated within a day’s drive of the ma­jor­ity of the US pop­u­la­tion, it has be­come a cen­tre of health ser­vices and of re­li­gious pub­lish­ing; the Gideon Bible com­pany is lo­cated here. But mostly it is syn­ony­mous with coun­try mu­sic.

As we drive to­wards down­town, our trav­el­ling concierge Ann won­ders aloud who is a fan of Nashville’s most fa­mous ex­port. In our group of 25, just two peo­ple raise their hands. And yet, within an hour or so we are toe-tap­ping with Leigh as he sings I’ll Get Over You and rem­ini- sces about his own path as a coun­try mu­sic song­writer pen­ning lyrics of sad­ness more of­ten than hap­pi­ness for per­form­ers in­clud­ing Reba McEn­tire and the Dixie Chicks. Af­ter his in­ti­mate ses­sion, we head next door to the Coun­try Mu­sic Hall of Fame, the world’s largest pop­u­lar mu­sic mu­seum, where the stand­out dis­plays in­clude Dolly Par­ton’s hand­writ­ten lyrics for Jo­lene and some of her gen­er­ously pro­por­tioned cos­tumes. Even more strik­ing is honky tonk singer Webb Pierce’s 1962 Sil­ver Dol­lar Pon­tiac con­vert­ible. Its cus­tomised fea­tures in­clude guns as door han­dles, an enor­mous set of steer horns on the front grille, horse­shoe ped­als, a sad­dle con­sole and dozens of sil­ver dol­lars in­laid in the hand-tooled leather up­hol­stery.

Mu­sic is ubiq­ui­tous in the Ten­nessee cap­i­tal. Even the lo­cal choco­late Goo Goo clus­ter, a mix of marsh­mal­low, peanuts and caramel wrapped in choco­late, has a mu­si­cal con­nec­tion. While no one is cer­tain of its ori­gin, some say it was named in hon­our of the Grand Ole Opry, the na­tion’s long­est run­ning live ra­dio show, recorded up to four nights a week in one of two Nashville theatres. The Grand Ole Opry be­gan as a sim­ple ra­dio broad­cast in 1925 and has since ex­panded to be­come a two-hour coun­try mu­sic con­cert, still on ra­dio and fea­tur­ing live-read ads. As well as the res­i­dent square dancers, on the bill at our Satur­day night per­for­mance are some deft young banjo play­ers from New Jer­sey and mul­ti­ple Grammy award-win­ning singer Ali­son Krauss.

Since 1974, the show has been staged be­fore a live au­di­ence at the Grand Ole Opry House, a pur­pose-built theatre 20km from down­town. From Novem­ber to late Jan­uary, how­ever, the show moves to its orig­i­nal home and one of the city’s grand old build­ings. Just around the cor­ner from Broad­way and its in­nu­mer­able honky tonk bars, the Ry­man Au­di­to­rium has hosted ev­ery­one from Caruso to Cold­play over its cen­tury-plus life.

Orig­i­nally a house of wor­ship, its im­pres­sive mu­si­cal pedi­gree — it was also the lo­ca­tion for much of Johnny Cash’s TV se­ries from 1969 to 1971 — has seen it nick­named the Mother Church of Coun­try Mu­sic. Even if you don’t man­age to at­tend a per­for­mance, a tour of the on­ced­erelict build­ing, fea­tur­ing its new Soul of Nashville mul­ti­me­dia ex­hibit, is def­i­nitely worth­while.

The Ry­man also fea­tures a record­ing stu­dio where you can cut your own CD — an op­tion also avail­able a short drive away at RCA’s Stu­dio B. Elvis Pres­ley recorded here for many years, as well as the Everly Broth­ers and, more re­cently, Car­rie Un­der­wood, among a long list of mu­si­cians.

Our Stu­dio B tour takes us through an ex­ten­sive record dis­play and ends with us record­ing, en masse, Are You Lone­some Tonight. As a bunch of singers we make a fine group of jour­nal­ists, as our take-home CD of a mostly off-tune ef­fort at­tests, yet the ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing recorded an Elvis song in the same stu­dio he did is mem­o­rable, even for those who are not fans of the King.

From Nashville we head down the in­ter­state high­way, past civil war bat­tle­fields and seem­ingly end­less corn and cot­ton fields, and by the time the mu­sic on the bus has switched to Walk­ing in Mem­phis, we are there. Mem­phis is the birth­place of rock ’n’ roll and Elvis. Its down­town is home to the Gib­son guitar fac­tory and Beale Street’s blues bars, although the city does have some eclec­tic of­fer­ings. Beyond mu­sic, the city’s most sig­nif­i­cant claim is that it is the place where civil rights cam­paigner Martin Luther King was as­sas­si­nated in April, 1968. The Lor­raine Mo­tel, where he was shot on a bal­cony, is now part of the city’s mov­ing Civil Rights Mu­seum.

A short drive away on Union Street sits Sun Records in an un­der­stated build­ing with an im­pres­sive past. One of the first rock ’n’ roll songs, Rocket 88, was recorded here in 1951, pro­duced by Sam Phillips, who had opened the record­ing stu­dio with the slo­gan, “We record any­thing, any­where, any time.” Among those who availed them­selves of the ser­vice was a lo­cal teenager, Elvis Pres­ley, who in 1953 walked in, handed over a few dol­lars and cut two songs, his first record. Al­most a year later he was sum­moned back to the stu­dios by Phillips and recorded

That’s All Right, the song that launched his ca­reer. The build­ing’s in­te­rior has been care­fully re­stored in re­cent years, down to an old tele­phone and soft-drink dis­penser in the front room. In the ad­ja­cent stu­dio sits the same pi­ano Elvis used dur­ing an im­promptu jam ses­sion in late 1956 with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, the record­ing of their ef­forts dubbed the Mil­lion Dol­lar Quar­tet. From Sun Records, another drive takes us down Elvis Pres­ley Boule­vard for an af­ter-hours visit to Grace­land, ac­com­pa­nied by Ge­orge Klein, who met Elvis in their eighth-grade mu­sic class and has toured in­ter­na­tion­ally to speak about his fa­mous friend. Now 81, Klein gives an en­ter­tain­ing and of­ten im­promptu nar­ra­tion through the prop­erty, dis­clos­ing snip­pets of trivia from at­tend­ing his friend’s wed­ding in Las Ve­gas to Elvis’s fond­ness for his movie co-star Ann-Mar­gret.

There is more mu­sic to be had as we leave Ten­nessee. Af­ter an overnight stay in small town Mis­sis­sippi, we head for New Or­leans via Route 61, a 2300km road known as the Blues High­way. Fol­low­ing the Mis­sis­sippi River, it’s a route that has in­spired count­less songs, and its en­vi­rons were home to mu­si­cians in­clud­ing BB King, Ike Turner and Muddy Waters. The long road, and our jour­ney, fi­nally ends in New Or­leans. On a lively city tour we pass South Ram­part Street, home to the old Karnof­sky Tai­lor Shop, whose own­ers gave a young Louis Armstrong an ad­vance to buy his first cor­net, and near the French Quar­ter we pass the pub­lic park named in Armstrong’s hon­our.

Mu­sic, once again, is ev­ery­where. Our farewell din­ner at Ar­naud’s, a cen­tury-old restau­rant serv­ing Cre­ole cui­sine, is ac­com­pa­nied by a jazz quar­tet. A short walk away, out­stand­ing jazz is played ev­ery night at Preser­va­tion Hall, a shabby old space fea­tur­ing per­for­mances by veteran mu­si­cians. And around the cor­ner on busy Bour­bon Street, busk­ing by day gives way to more or­gan­ised en­ter­tain­ment at Fritzel’s, the old­est op­er­ated jazz club in town and home to a very en­ter­tain­ing house band.

The mu­sic con­tin­ues even as we make our way to the city’s Louis Armstrong in­ter­na­tional air­port, where a jazz quar­tet ser­e­nades trav­ellers. Fly­ing home never sounded quite this good.

Bour­bon Street in the French Quar­ter, New Or­leans, above; jazz at Ar­naud’s, left

Guests record­ing a track at Stu­dio B, above; Nashville neon, right; song­writer Richard Leigh, far right

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