WHAT ANNOYS – DELIGHTS – AND IS OFTEN UNEXPLAINED.
What is ANNOYING me this week?
Hanging around airports
What is DELIGHTING me this week?
Beale Street – Memphis.
The Stacy Mitchhart Band – Live at BB Kings.
SOME OF MY DOINGS.
Since my last blog I have been to Tennessee and back. We went on the Elvis and the Southern Sounds tour organised through Arches Direct. Now I must say from the start the thought of an organised tour did not fill me with delight, but as this was booked at the last minute and had to be fitted in with the poetry trail commitments, then this was the best option. I am happy to say that I am a convert to these organised trips. It was a hectic schedule of Memphis and Nashville, but all the worry and hassle was taken away from us, we just had to make sure that we got on the coach at the right time. Patrick Neilson, our tour guide, took the strain, kept us amused and informed without giving us an information overload, after all we were on holiday.
The trip started in Memphis, home of the Blues, Rock and Roll and Elvis. We stayed at the Heartbreak
Hotel on Lonely Street, the hotel was a little faded but comfortable and more than adequate for our needs. Day one started with a tour of Memphis, with our tour guide Dee who at times was a little confused, I suspect she was more interested in getting her Elvis story across, everyone has an Elvis story. But we took in the Levitt Shell where Elvis first performed, His school – Hume High School and also the Lorraine Motel, now the Civil Rights Museum where Dr Martin Luther King Jr was killed on 4th April 1968.
Across the street is a lone protestor Jackie Smith, who for the last 23 years has protested against the Motel being used as a civil rights museum, she was the last resident when it closed and holds a belief that the Civil Rights museum as a tourist attraction would be better utilised as public housing. Whether you agree with Jackie or not, her protest does make you question why the museum is there and if it is for me “the tourist” then I should ensure I go away with an understanding of the message it wants to convey and that goes for all museums, if I am not prepared to engage with exhibits to gain the understand then it may as well be public housing. Perhaps because she is there, then her protest is self defeating, she makes us consider the museum more and then take away the understanding, which on the scale of tourism has potentially a greater value, than it would serve as public housing for a few people. But it was only because she is there that made me think of that way.
We next visited the Rock n Soul Museum, where to a guitar lover there are some fantastic artefacts, not just guitars owned by stars such as BB King, Howlin Wolf and others, but guitars that were wonderful examples of their time and showed the development of the electric guitar. There was a great display of how Sun Studios (more on that later) and Stax records developed. Stax being the great Soul label, where musicians of all races stood side to side and played; the music that resulted was in the soul of everyone.
The afternoon was spent at Graceland, the famous home of Elvis Presley, which he bought in 1957 for $100,000 and where he died twenty years later. I am not a big fan of Elvis’ music; I always preferred singers and musicians who write their own material. I am however now a bigger fan of Elvis the man. His home is not as big as you imagine and is decorated in the main as a homely, comfortable place to live. His extravagances are in his TV room, the Pool room and the Jungle room, but these were his dens where he relaxed, so why not. He was a great philanthropist both to social groups and individuals. Everyone has an Elvis story because he spent so much time with ordinary people; he always found time for everyone. This came across as genuine and not a manufactured branding to encourage the tourists.
The Branding came in the gift shops, where they put his face on everything from Notebooks, to ashtrays, to jackets, to pens to bottles of water. It is obvious who is “Taking Care of Business” now.
The evening was spent on Beale St, where else would any Blues fan want to go, we had dinner and then caught the set by Memphis Bluesman David Bowen.
The next day was an early start as we headed into Mississippi to Tupelo where Elvis was born in a humble two room wooden shack that his father built.
This in my opinion was one of the best tourist experiences that I have ever seen. Care had been taken to show how Elvis lived for the first thirteen years of his life, before the family moved to Memphis. The two small rooms, where he learnt to crawl, walk and talk are furnished with examples of period furniture, donated by local people as the originals have been long lost, but it was laid out as the Presley’s had it, as Elvis’ father Vernon, had been consulted on what should be where.
Just over three years ago they moved the chapel that the Presley family attended, from its site a little further down the road on to the birthplace site. They have renovated it and now show a 15 minute film of how a service would have been conducted in the chapel in Elvis’ day. I would encourage anyone who is thinking of making a tourist experience film to invest in a trip to see this film. It is shown using three screens, one at the front and one either side. The screen at the front shows the service, whilst the side screens show the congregation. The surround sound system draws you into s that you are in the middle surrounded on three sides with images and sound that makes you part of the experience. You are not an observer of a re-enactment that happened 70 years ago, that means nothing to you. You are a participant, invited into the fold of this small community church, for a few minutes maybe, but never-the-less, it gives you a real memory to take away.
In the afternoon we returned to Memphis for a tour of the Sun Studios, where Elvis cut his first record, and greats such as Johnny Cash also started their careers. Sun Studios was a small unassuming building in its day, now it has a large cream Gibson Les Paul hanging above the door and large Sun Studio mural painted on the side wall. Inside there is a small front office and behind this the studio and the control room. Simply laid out, a DIY build with angled acoustic tiles, painted white. The studio now has images of the singers who have recorded there.
Some people have an idea that a studio is some sort of glamorous well furnished place where the stars go to record. But this too me was exactly what I thought a studio should look like, this was the office, the factory, to get the right sound only the necessary items needed to be there. Whilst they had marked the spot where Elvis stood when he started to mess around with the song, “It’s alright Momma” and they had the microphone he used, which they assured all the Elvis fans amongst the group did not have any of Elvis’ DNA on it or in it, for me, I wanted to know where BB King and Bono stood when they recorded “When love comes to town.”
Day three saw the move from Memphis to Nashville, home of country music. We arrived in Nashville around 3:00pm and were back on the coach to the Grand Old Opry by 5:30.
The Grand Old Opry is the country music showcase radio show and now TV show, which has been running since 1925. It is now broadcast from its own purpose built theatre in Music Valley. It has a standard format of four 30 minute parts, each part sponsored by a different company, each part having its own presenter. Because it is broadcast live, it has to run to time and is a slick operation when it comes to putting on a show.
I enjoyed the show, not so much for the music, which had a mix of country, hillbilly, bluegrass and Shetland Isle folk music; yes I did say folk music from the Shetland Isles. Country music is not my type of music, I just do not get it, but it was good to experience it in the company of those that do get it. It is a great family show, with whole families getting into the whole show, even the kids joining in with their enthusiasm for whooping and hollering.
Like English folk music, which I do get, there are families with many generations in country music, when we toured the Country Music Hall of Fame; there was a great display on Hank Williams’ family, now into its third generation of country singers. It brought to mind the Waterson Carthy families in English folk music. I have always admired this building on traditions through families; there is something really good in that.
Day Four saw us start with a tour of RCA Victor’s Studio B, this was where Elvis recorded over 200 songs after his contract was sold by Sun to RCA. Like the Sun studio this was another unassuming building, surrounded by equally unassuming buildings, all recording studios. Studio B with it’s pale green stucco walls is highlighted by two large plastic guitars at either side of the building, like quotation marks, it almost goes T’da here I am.
It was here that we had more freedom to explore and could get into the control room and talk to the sound engineer. This studio is now longer used as a full time studio, so why would they have a real engineer there, why not just let us see the control desk with its knobs and slides, its channels and tracks and let us move them about, have out photos taken pretending we know what we are doing. So why the engineer, because we as a group got to record a version of “Can’t help falling in love” which will be number one in our house at Christmas but not available in stores or on the internet, what a treat you are all missing.
The day followed on with a tour of Nashville and an evening of Dinner and Country music at the Nashville Night Life Dinner Theatre – which if you have ever been to a Social Club in the UK on a Saturday Night – you will get a picture of what it was like.
Our Last day was a free day and brings the reason for the heading of this blog post. There was talk of storms coming in, but the tour guide seemed to think it would be OK, it was a storm warning and they had them all the time. By lunch time we were heading downtown to find some food, it was raining lightly and we made a pace to get to the Big River Brewery pub. As we passed the Bridgestone Ice Hockey arena, a siren began to sound and as it pulsed other sounds disappeared, a silence fell between the pulses. We had no idea what this meant, but it did not sound good. We continued on to the Big River pub and just made it inside when the winds blasted through and the rains came. We were just glad that we had made it inside and were not getting drenched in this down pour.
The bar was fairly empty but those that were there were watching a TV screen, the channel completely taken over on Storm Watching and those that were in the bar were obviously agitated by what they were seeing as they watched the weather map with its black, yellow and red patches as they drifted through central Tennessee and were now overhead Nashville downtown was covered in a patch of red.
The rain poured down and was so heavy it almost drowned out the lightening flashes; it was only the thunder claps that seemed to slap the top of the building that indicated a flash had occurred. Still we watched not really knowing what was going on and still not overly concerned, we were in the dry and it would pass over.
After ten minutes, I realised that it was more serious than this and that I did not know what was going on, how to read the map, where we should move to if it became unsafe. A guy at the bar was watching the storm maps both on the TV and on his mobile phone. It turned out he was from Kansas and was used to this type of storm, although it was a little early in the season, so was taken a little by surprise at the ferociousness of it.
He told me that the yellow and red areas were the storm and the front edge of the storm was known as the squall, this was heading south east into the black area of the map, where you had to watch in case the squall split and started to turn, this would become a tornado.
If that happened then we were to head to the bathroom as there was no glass in there, they were built that way for precisely this reason.
So now I knew and watched with an equal anxiety until the storm passed over, until the map turned to green and we were left with a little light rain.
It was later in the hotel, when the news reports came in that showed that around Nashville, four funnels had formed, three of which had touched down, these had been bouncing tornados, they didn’t drive themselves along the ground ripping out everything in their path, but bounced between ground touch down to ground touch down, most of the time touching in fields but occasionally ripping out trees and the roofs of houses.
Then came the footage, taken by a film crew from a car, which had been forced to stop just around the corner from the Big River pub. Here we saw the Newspaper vending cabinets, heavy metal boxes flying through the street, hitting the cars, and then floating off as the rain water sought out a place to drain. The car rocked leaving the camera man unsteady, as people caught on the streets fled into doorways. No sooner had it started and it was gone, the red and yellow passed on to the next district, leaving debris on the street, which was cleaned up as soon as it was safe to do so.
By the evening there was still a light shower and the odd rumble of thunder as we headed downtown to BB Kings Blues club, the crowd was not as big as it could have been, but we still finished off the holiday with a live band The Stacy Mitchhart Band, whose sound was reminiscent of Van Morrison or the Commitments. Here was a bluesman in a country music town, this was a good way to leave with The Blues.
COMING SOON DOINGS
Just a couple of readings in April.
22nd April – Spoken Worlds – The Old Cottage Inn – Burton-on-Trent. – 7:30pm
18th April – Shindig Leicester – The Western, Western Ave, Leicester. – 7:30pm
Some Links to some of the places mentioned in this weeks blog.
Archers Direct – Elvis and the Southern Sounds Tour
Rock n Soul Museum – Memphis
Tupelo – Mississippi
Grand Old Opry
Country Music Hall of Fame and Studio B.
The Big River Pub
BB Kings Blues Club – Nashville.
Nashville Night Life Dinner Theatre
Stacy Mitchhart Band