The King and I

Jour­ney­ing through the south­ern states of the US is a tune­ful ex­pe­ri­ence, writes Rachel Collins

The Irish Times Magazine - - INSIDE - There’s a pretty lit­tle thing Wait­ing for the King Down in the Jun­gle Room

Rachel Collins goes on a mu­si­cal jour­ney to Grace­land and Nashville

It’s 40 years this month since Elvis Pres­ley last en­ter­tained pretty lit­tle things in his Mem­phis home. But on a late- night tour of Grace­land, the mem­o­ries are still very much alive for Ge­orge Klein, one of Pres­ley’s old­est friends. The pair met in the eighth grade and now Klein, a sprightly 81- year- old with a filthy laugh and a col­lec­tion of sto­ries about the King ( them­selves a lit­tle filthy at times), gives pri­vate tours around his friend’s former home.

Grace­land is big busi­ness on the mu­sic cir­cuit of the south­ern states. More than 20 mil­lion vis­i­tors have crossed the thresh­old of the home Elvis bought in 1957. He died 20 years later and is now buried in the garden, mak­ing t he house a must f or rock’n’roll fans. Ear­lier this year, a huge $ 45 mil­lion “Elvis Pres­ley’s Mem­phis” com­plex opened across the road from Grace­land, which it­self is sur­pris­ingly modest in size, if not in dé­cor. The over- the- top fur­nish­ings – the Jun­gle Room has to be seen – pale only in com­par­i­son to the col­lec­tion of cars, plat­inum discs, be­jew­elled stage out­fits and Elvis’s pri­vate jets, one of which has been fit­ted out with a gold bath­room.

Grace­land is the jewel in the crown for many mu­sic lovers trav­el­ling a well- worn path from Nashville to Mem­phis and then New Or­leans in search of south­ern soul and rock’n’roll. My jour­ney be­gins in Nashville, where I join a nine- day tour with In­sight Va­ca­tions, which ar­ranges guided hol­i­days with lots of unique add- ons – such as that pri­vate tour of Grace­land.

Ten min­utes from Nashville air­port, the Gay­lord Opry­land Re­sort is a mind- bog­gling ho­tel com­plex stretch­ing over nine acres of cov­ered gar­dens. At full oc­cu­pancy, the 2,882- bed­room ho­tel would have a big­ger pop­u­la­tion than Car­rick- on- Suir or Loughrea – but with more cof­fee shops, wa- ter­falls, and crowds. Check­ing in is akin to en­ter­ing a theme park; the ex­cess and op­u­lence a good in­tro­duc­tion to the high- oc­tane hos­pi­tal­ity of the south.

For­merly a pub­lish­ing hub – those Gideon Bi­bles in ho­tel rooms around the world? Printed here – Nashville is now a boom­ing, modern city. But it’s coun­try mu­sic that beats at its heart, and in­jects bil­lions of dol­lars, and count­less dreams of star­dom, each year. Mov­ing here is a must if you want to crack the coun­try scene ( Tay­lor Swift found fame here) and ev­ery­where you go, LA’s clichéd ac­tor- slash- mod­els are repli­cated in Nashville’s wannabe singer/ song­writ­ers.

Sur­pris­ingly for such a bustling high- rise city, the power­bro­kers of the mu­sic scene base them­selves just out of town in the un­der­stated two- storey houses on Mu­sic Row. It’s here you’ll find RCA Stu­dio B, where some 45,000 songs were recorded from 1957 to the late 1970s by the likes of Elvis Pres­ley, Dolly Par­ton, Fats Domino, and Wil­son Picket. Pres­ley alone recorded 262 records here, in­clud­ing Are You Lone­some Tonight in 1960 ( you can still see a hole in a stu­dio cup­board, which the bored singer al­legedly kicked do­ing karate moves dur­ing a break in record­ing). You can make your own record­ing here in Stu­dio B – but kick­ing in cup­boards is def­i­nitely not al­lowed.

Across town, at the Coun­try Mu­sic Hall of Fame, you can take a “Sto­ries be­hind the songs” tour with lo­cal leg­ends. The day we visit, our guide is Grammy win­ner Richard Leigh, who has writ­ten eight No 1 hits, in­clud­ing Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue. Over three floors, the mu­seum has more than two mil­lion arte­facts on dis­play, from Carl Perkins’ blue suede shoes to flashy Cadil­lacs and ev­ery colour of se­quined jacket. It charts the ori­gins of coun­try mu­sic right up to the big stars of to­day, such as Garth Brooks and Tay­lor Swift. Yes, her again. There’s a lot of Tay­lor in Nashville.

But the high­light of a visit to Nashville has to be a record­ing of the Grand Ol Opry – the old­est ra­dio show in the world. Fans of the Nashville TV show will be fa­mil­iar with the Ry­man Au­di­to­rium, where the Opry has been housed since 1943. This former church has orig­i­nal wooden pews, which you scooch along to find a seat for the per­for­mance. The Ry­man has hosted lu­mi­nar­ies such as Ray Charles, Roy Or­bi­son, Louis Arm­strong and Johnny Cash, and these days the stars are lin­ing up to ap­pear, al­though Opry mem­bers – a select group by in­vi­ta­tion only – can per­form when they please. On the night we visit, Ali­son Krauss head­lines a rau­cous night of mu­sic and song, and re­gard­less of your mu­si­cal tastes you find your­self join­ing in the whoopin’ and hol­lerin’. The mu­sic con­tin­ues at the honky tonk bars along Divi­sion Street, which host up- and- com­ing acts that play their coun­try loud and long into the night.

Trav­el­ling on through Ten­nessee, with the Smokey Moun­tains to the east, we head west to­wards the Mis­sis­sippi Delta and the home of the blues. Mem­phis has a very dif­fer­ent feel: slower, sleepier and much grit­tier than Nashville, which suits the griz­zly- voiced blues singers whose mu­sic went on to cre­ate rock’n’roll. Pro­ducer Sam Phillips is cred­ited with help­ing to cre­ate this new genre at Sun Stu­dios. A tour of the stu­dio ex­plains how Phillips al­lowed the likes of BB King to record “race mu­sic” here, spawn­ing a gen­er­a­tion of mu­si­cians such as

Grace­land: Elvis is buried in the garden, mak­ing the house a pil­grim­age for fans of rock’n’roll; right: Mem­phis, Ten­nessee – Beale Street at night with lo­cal bars and clubs, and mo­tor­cy­cles lin­ing the streets Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Pres­ley and Carl Perkins who would make rock’n’roll a global phe­nom­e­non.

But while African Amer­i­can singers were wel­comed in Sun Stu­dios in the 1950s, they were fight­ing a bat­tle for equal­ity in the rest of the coun­try, and this is ex­cel­lently – and mov­ingly – re­told a few blocks away at the Na­tional Civil Rights Mu­seum. Built on the site of the former Lor­raine Mo­tel, where Martin Luther King was as­sas­si­nated in 1968, the mu­seum tells a har­row­ing story, from the ar­rival of African slaves to the US in the 1600s, through the Civil War and right up to to­day and the is­sue of racial equal­ity in the US. It’s a sober­ing visit, es­pe­cially given re­cent racial ten­sions in the US.

Live mu­sic is a must in Mem­phis, too. Along Beale Street, Scot­tie’s has du­elling pi­anos and the mu­sic varies from the blues ( try Rum Boo­gie Cafe) to rock’n’roll, with mu­si­cians belt­ing out their hearts all night.

The com­pli­cated past of the south is also ev­i­dent as you travel down through ru­ral

Mis­sis­sippi and Louisiana to­wards New Or­leans. Frog­more cot­ton plan­ta­tion has pre­served its cot­ton gins and slave dwellings, to ed­u­cate vis­i­tors on the cot­ton trade and what life was like for slaves be­fore the Civil War.

We stay in Mon­mouth House, ( mon­mouth­his­toricinn. com) a beau­ti­ful plan­ta­tion man­sion just out­side Natchez, Mis­sis­sippi, once home to half of all the mil­lion­aires in the US, thanks to the sur­round­ing cot­ton plan­ta­tions. It’s here we taste the fa­mous mint julep, a po­tent blend of bour­bon, sugar and mint that prompts one New Yorker to quip: “Mint juleps are the rea­son your grandma had to get mar­ried.”

Fur­ther south we travel, into sugar coun­try, and Houmas House, the “Sugar Palace of the South”, a Greek re­vival man­sion on a sugar plan­ta­tion be­tween Ba­ton Rouge and New Or­leans. The op­u­lence of the an­te­bel­lum pe­riod has been per­fectly pre­served, giv­ing an in­sight into the wealth of its Ir­ish owner, John Burn­side, be­fore the war.

Our fi­nal port of call is New Or­leans, a se­duc­tive city that un­for­tu­nately still bears some of the scars of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in 2005. It’s a place split be­tween beau­ti­ful, French- in­flu­enced grandeur and con­sid­er­able poverty, but it’s im­pos­si­ble not to like – and it’s easy to get caught up in the blend of jazz, ex­cel­lent Cre­ole food and re­silient Louisiana spirit.

Canal Street is at the cen­tre of the city, and sep­a­rates the French and Amer­i­can quar­ters, which have dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent ar­chi­tec­ture. ( It’s also on Canal Street that the city’s ef­fi­cient green and a red street­car lines meet . . . no Luas jokes, prom­ise). We stay just off the main drag in the beau­ti­ful Ho­tel Mon­teleone ( hotel­monteleone. com) in the French Quar­ter, a grand build­ing dat­ing back to the 1880s and home to the fun, but rather dis­con­cert­ing ro­tat­ing Carousel bar. New Or­leans is a good spot to em­bark on a steam­boat cruise – we spend a few hours on the Natchez, the last orig­i­nal steam­boat on the lower Mis­sis­sippi, where we have our fill of live mu­sic and enor­mous por­tions of fried cat­fish.

New Or­leans is the home of jazz, and while the fa­mous Bour­bon Street houses lots of pop­u­lar clubs, the strip clubs and hawk­ers di­lute its charm some­what. We buy last- minute tick­ets to the Preser­va­tion Hall ( preser­va­tion­hall. com), a ram­shackle wooden room on Peter Street, where you may end up on a wooden bench or sit­ting on the floor while lo­cal mu­si­cians belt out some of the best jazz in town. It re­ally sums up the spirit of the south – whether it’s de­liv­ered gussied up in gold se­quins or sit­ting on a bat­tered wooden floor, the mu­sic is what mat­ters here.

Rachel Collins trav­elled as a guest of In­sight Va­ca­tions. The next Lux­ury Gold South­ern Grace tour de­parts Oc­to­ber 27th, from ¤ 3,399pp, based on twin shar­ing, ex­clud­ing flights. See lux­u­ry­gold­va­ca­tions. com; 1800 98 98 98. The trip in­cludes air­port trans­fers, ded­i­cated travel concierge, eight nights’ five- star ac­com­mo­da­tion, break­fasts and din­ners, trans­fers on lux­ury coach with busi­ness class seat­ing, sig­na­ture ex­pe­ri­ences and pri­vate tours.

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