Music tour of the American south
On the track of music legends in the American south
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