Category Archives: USA

Nashville Country

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Nashville was the final stop on the USA road trip, chosen partly because it’s located within driving distance of Atlanta where the car needed to be dropped off, and partly because it’s a city that’s soaked in the love-hate, bitter-sweet poignant stuff that is country music, and the end of one trip, the start of who knows what, deserves a little poignancy.

I, personally, don’t like country music much (although Joaquin Phoenix is alright); I don’t think it travels, but in the right place a good country singer with that big round sound with a scratchy edge, plus some slide and honky tonk and lyrics about girls, trucks and revenge is just what’s required. There may well be more country music fans in New York City than Nashville, and some people may call this little city Trashville or Nash Vegas (which is pretty good actually) but if you were playing a game of word association and someone called out ‘country music’ you’d snap back ‘Nashville’, as quick as a flash. It may be past it, or a blousy version of what it once was, but iconic things generally are.

You don’t have to stroll through a barrage of songs along Broadway and 2nd Avenue, but why not? On a warm weekend night every bar in this neon-lit strip has at least one live band playing, and sometimes three – all at the same time on different floors. You can hear a dozen just by standing and turning full circle by the traffic lights. Past the flashing signs, through every window in every direction, you can see drummers and bass players and the back of a singer in their cowboy hat; singers coming up and old-timers, dreams unfulfilled, on their way out, all playing Ring of Fire to drunk students.

And you don’t have to visit the Grand Ole Opry. To be honest, I didn’t. But I like the idea of the Opry as a historic hub for talented, troubled, ill-fated, drunk and plucky people, and I’m definitely going to read music journalist Robert K. Oermann’s  Behind The Grand Ole Opry Curtain: Tales Of Romance And Tragedy. It’s not new, but it is definitive. They say the Opry is cursed, that a large number of people linked to it have met untimely deaths, from Patsy Cline and Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Jim Reeves in plane crashes, Dottie West in a car accident, Stringbean (of Hee Haw fame) who was murdered, Hank Williams from drug-related stuff in the back of a car at 29 – and so on. Anyway it was at the heart of a world, that must have seemed a pretty exciting one for a time.

I’ve got a problem with Hank Williams. ‘Hey Good Lookin’ ‘ is about as fun to listen to as ‘Yellow Submarine’, however he did also write ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ so: OK. Anyway my point was going to be that despite the Hey Good Lookins there’s a lot of heart-wrenching stuff about being poor and having no pa in old school country, and I’m not sure today’s country singer-songwriters have such peaks and troughs in their lives anymore. If they do, it doesn’t seem very convincing when the backing singer is chewing gum and doing hi-de-hi waves to men at the bar.

But one theme that has been at the root of country and survives intact today is the push and pull of moving on or staying put. Nashville itself is a place that everyone is either keen to reach or desperate to leave. ‘gotta get back to Nashville or my heart will break in two’ say the Everly Brothers; Catherine Britt wants to hop an old freight train (which, I have to say, sounds quite tempting) and ride it to Nashville so she can learn to play honky tonk guitar; the Delmore Brothers ‘aint got no hat, aint got no shoes’ but they do have the Nashville Blues and want to get back to Arkansas, and Hank Williams III wants to high tail it out of ‘Trashville’ to Texas, and so on. Life on the road, partings, break-ups and loss, lonesome quests, regrets, the seduction of comfort and a good woman (rarely a good man) – it’s all there in verse chorus verse chorus verse chorus chorus.

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Motels and Shootings

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The road trip was initially going to be from east to west. That was so nice, I added a return trip – west to east. The minute the car was turned around to face Europe, or at least Atlanta, the journey was touched with poignancy. Not only was there the knowledge that we were going back (that it was a bit over, and more over every day) but, involuntarily, through a series of coincidences, I found myself in the summing-up phase, making ‘best of’ lists, defining themes, fumbling towards conclusions as the days finished earlier.

We’d started the cross-country leg of the trip in Atlanta, birthplace of Martin Luther King, then we’d travelled along one thousand and one Martin Luther King Boulevards until turning around in Northern California, and now, we were nearing the end of the road trip in Memphis where King had been assassinated. When we had left Atlanta it had warm, crisp, bright, encouraging; now, some weeks later, pulling up in Memphis the day was damp, cold, depressing. It was unfortunate scheduling that saw us in this particular spot just as the whole country was discussing shootings and grief and what to do. I’d grown up believing that the shooting of Martin Luther King was a crime that helped people to think enough was enough. If I hadn’t been staring at tail lights trying to make some sense of America, I probably wouldn’t have put the assassination of King and the Sandy Hook School shooting in the same box, but they are connected by something so blindingly obvious it’s generally overlooked: that guns give people with the least to offer the ability to take away the people with the most to offer – whether that’s fully fledged ideas, or potential, or love. And that’s as much the truth in 2012 as 1968. No big change there.

No big change in South Main either. While the area bisected by South Main Street is called the Historic Arts District it feels like it hasn’t been so much actively preserved, as left. For all the alleged fledgling arty happenings, it can’t be much different to the rundown place it was the day that King was shot. The Lorraine Motel is exactly as it was moments before the shooting, everything left in the rooms untouched from rumpled beds to cigarette butts in the ashtray, and his car parked beneath the balcony. The motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum (across the road), and possibly the most moving, compelling part. In the museum itself, there’s a film that focuses on King’s last 24 hours, showing him overcome at the end of the magnificent and prescient Mountaintop speech, describing how the church shutters banging in the storm made him jump, and revealing the jokey conversations in the moments leading up to his assassination. At the motel though, you climb the stairs and walk along the balcony passing rooms 306 and 308, and the corner where King fell, and you stand at the railing his foot stuck out from under as he lay dying, and it all looks for all the world like a place you’ve just checked into, that everything happened yesterday and could happen again tomorrow. Of course, I have been spending a lot of time in motels recently, but to me it felt real; I was as close to being there on the day as it gets. It’s somewhat sobering when the past is a bad past, and you feel it all around you.

I don’t know if this lack of artifice is a Memphis thing, but somewhere else that effortlessly transports visitors into the past is The Arcade, the South Main diner that Elvis favoured. I’d read about it, but then finding it quiet and half-full, and the local clientele chowing down on the usual eggs, bacon, pancakes, hash-brown combos, and a complete absence of ‘Elvis dined here’ signs, I reckoned I’d made a mistake. However just as I was finishing my peanut butter and banana sandwich I spotted a family sliding into the end booth and posing for pictures. Turns out it was his favoured booth (and if you look closely, there is a small picture above the table). I found that quietly exciting although as shrines, or even tourist attractions go, it’s pretty low-key.

Anyway, melancholy was the overall mood in Memphis. Only going on hunch here, but I imagine King would be fairly disappointed to see the state of things today, regardless of the fact the President is black. Anyway, here’s an excerpt from that Mountaintop speech given at the Mason Temple the night before he died. His flight to Memphis (where he was marching in support of equal rights for African American garbage workers) was delayed by a bomb threat, so the risk was real and on his mind. But this is still an extraordinary speech for someone to give the night before they die. Hear it at the National Museum of Civil Rights.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

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Elvis Fans in Memphis

Elvis Fans Arcade Somewheresville

Some people are more clued up on the whole where Elvis ate his sandwiches thing than me. I was wondering whether I’d got the wrong place when this family arrived at the Arcade Restaurant, South Main, Memphis, and, without ordering, slipped into what turns out to have been his favourite booth. There was something lovely about how the kids showed interest because they loved their mum.

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Leaving Texas for Little Rock

somewheresville route mapFort Worth to West, to Huntsville to Little Rock Arkansas: 599 miles, 9 hours, 57 minutes.

I recommend a trip to the Czech town of West (B). I was itching to visit an Amish community south of West, and also Waco, but Dave said we didn’t have time. Anyway, if I hadn’t have been going to see Dan Phillips of the Phoenix Commotion at Huntsville, I probably wouldn’t have seen that patch of eastern Texas or gone to a drive-thru liquor store in a barn. The area down towards Huntsville, is hilly and forested and bucolic. Huntsville is better known as the birthplace of Sam Houston, and for it’s vast prison (and many Death Row inmates). The drive to Little Rock was pretty boring, a necessary evil.

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Holiday Shootings

Is there anywhere in the world more people throw themselves more enthusiastically into the impossible task of creating a perfect, goofy, schmaltzy, stuff-your-face, nostalgic Christmas day than in the United States of America? It’s classic folksy film moments full of snowballs and singing and grandparents and grateful kids people are after, not reality, and a giant effort is made every year to provide them. For the shootings at Sandy Hook School, Newport, Connecticut to occur when a large percentage of the entire nation is trying hard to make out – just for a couple of days – that things are better than they are, that it’s okay to be hopeful and innocent and optimistic, seems too terribly cruel.

I was in Fort Worth, in a mall full of children when the news of the shooting broke, and there was disbelief that one troubled person could take Christmas away. The gun debate rumbled on on the car radio for days afterwards. It was impossible not to be brought low by the pain the families were enduring, but also by the polarised predictability of the argument between normal people and people – including the priest whose own church had been caught up in a previous mass shooting – who think it’s okay to have an assault rifle lying around the house just in case. Obviously I don’t have a solution or a suggestion here other than to not have assault rifles lying about. It’s a mess.

By Sunday during Obama’s live broadcast to the nation and the grieving parents, it seemed people were bored with being sympathetic. The customers at the bar I was in shouted throughout the address for the f**king football to be put back on. I found attitudes to (non-hunting) gun ownership shocking, the shooting shocking, the defence of gun ownership shocking –  but this stupid disrespect most chilling of all.

Interview in The Bone House, Texas

Excerpt from a video interview with Dan Phillips, founder of the Phoenix Commotion at the Bone House, Huntsville Texas. I’ve posted an intro to Dan’s work here.

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