I’m cheating a bit with this blog entry, as some of you will realise. Most of the text here was first written as a series of postcards during our time in America in April/May 2012, or has been adapted from those missives. It seemed silly to reinvent the wheel! The linchpin of our three-week road trip was The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (aka Jazz Fest) in Louisiana, but as our route plan took shape we were soon taking in the southern states of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama as well. This blog post takes us from Atlanta to our arrival in ‘Nawlins’…
First stop: Atlanta, Georgia
After a stroll through Piedmont Park on our first day, we caught the Marta (underground) to Philips Arena and picked up tickets to our first “ball game”: Atlanta Hawks vs. New York Knicks. Incredible! Someone had told us before we came that basketball in the U.S. is two and a half hours long with only 48 minutes of actual sport. I don’t think I’d really believed them. Luckily, in amongst the cheerleading, choirs, brass band, trick shots, and plentiful ‘time outs’, we witnessed some nail-biting basketball. I quickly became a Hawks fan, complete with foam hand and sweatshirt. The final score: 112-113 to the Knicks – gutting, since the Hawks had attempted a slam dunk in literally the final second, only for it to be nudged away by a 7ft giant. Energised by the game, we had a brisk walk through Centennial Park and decided to take a tour of The World of Coca-Cola. Hmm. The history, pop culture and branding parts were actually quite interesting, but Atlanta’s pride at being home to the soft drink verged on the disturbing.
The next day saw us at the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Centre. The National Park Service basically bought up a couple of blocks in the Downtown area in which ML (as he was known to his mates) grew up – so you can walk up Auburn Avenue, look round Ebenezer Baptist Church and have a guided tour of his birthplace. The exhibitions in Freedom Hall were also quite well done. Having studied the Civil Rights Movement for a term at uni, I was really keen to see it all. Coupled with a fascinating hour at the Civil War exhibition in the Atlanta History Centre, it turned out to be quite an educating day. At the time I boasted that if anyone had any questions about the political movement for black equality or the four-year conflict between the Union and Confederates, they should come to me (inevitably, I’m more than a tad rusty now!).
At the end of our short stay in Atlanta, we had a delicious meal at a very hip restaurant in Midtown, then got a taxi to Poncey-Highlands (great name, huh?) and went to Blind Willies blues bar. While I wouldn’t rush back to the city, it was an enjoyable introduction to our deep south adventure.
Second stop: Blue Ridge, Chattahoochee National Park
A short drive from Atlanta found us at ‘Serenity in the Mountains’, Blue Ridge. Peculiarly perched on a bank overlooking the interstate, the “spa motel” nevertheless proved a good base for exploring the Georgian woods. And our suite was gigantic: three rooms, a jacuzzi bath, big stone walk-in shower and a remote-controlled fire. Plus, I enjoyed the best full-body massage I’ve ever had (not that I’ve had that many to compare it to…).
Our first day in North Georgia was overcast and pretty chilly, but we had a pleasant stroll around ‘downtown’ Blue Ridge (mainly craft, art and antique shops), then drove out to a lake and local orchard. Loaded up with a huge apple pie and nice bottle of wine, we settled in for the night with books and movies. Our only really lazy night in of the trip! We we woke, the sun was out, so we set off on a 90 mile drive around the mountains and national park. Paul mumbled and grumbled as he tackled a rough track through the forest (discovering that you worry about invalidating your hire car insurance when you hit your mid-30s), but it was worth it for the wild-west style swinging bridge over the river at the end. Onward to the lovely town of Dahlonega – which saw the first recorded discovery of gold in the US back in the 1820s – before checking out the spectacular views at Amicalola Falls. The only real disappointment was the lack of bears.
Third stop: Nashville, Tennessee
Leaving Georgia behind, we next crossed into Tennessee. The weather had become hot and stormy, but we didn’t let that deter us from some serious sight-seeing. After a brief tour of Downtown Nashville, we enjoyed a delicious – and extremely messy – meal at Joe’s Crabshack.
Having mastered the different cracking, sawing and scooping implements, I’m now a convert to the hard-shell (and have since taken it to the next level with Rob and Laura, devouring the gigantic Neptune’s platter at the Poopdeck in Devon). In the evening, we first travelled into the ‘burbs to hear five up-and-coming female country singers at the Bluebird Cafe. The room is really intimate and the show was good, if a little earnest at times. My favourite track was by a precocious local who instructed us to “use what your moma gave ya” (a recurring theme for church-going country girls). After the Bluebird, we hit the honky-tonk bars on Broadway and 2nd Ave. Party-central: big neon signs, whisky and bourbon, music blaring into the street. Great fun! In Robert’s bar, we were even treated to a guest spot by Jeannie C. Riley…only learning the next day that the sweet old lady from the crowd that the band had humoured was actually a big country star from the ’60s.
Having rolled in at 3am, Paul was feeling decidedly sluggish the next day. I, on the other hand, was surprisingly perky, so dragged him out of bed for more tourist fun! We walked to the Country Music Hall of Fame, past Ryman’s Auditorium, and spent a few hours educating ourselves on Nashville and Bakersfield music history. Deciding against the city park, home to the only replica of the Greek Parthenon in the US (?!), we instead toured the Capitol building. The state’s legislative period only runs from January-May, and they were wrapping up early that year to accommodate renovation work, so we caught them on their last day in session. Both the Senate and House of Representatives were sitting, racing through Bills at an alarming rate. The senators mainly seemed to be milling around eating popcorn and Doritos (no joke), with little debate, so we left feeling confident in Tennessee’s law-making. In the evening, after a steak dinner, we caught two excellent bands – The Preservation and Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears – at Mercy Lounge, a converted canning factory at the edge of Downtown. The strange thing about relatively small-town American cities is that, due to the fact that the whole population drives, bars do a roaring trade in low- and non-alcoholic beer. Given we could happily walk back to our digs, we stuck to the hard stuff!
The next morning it was off to Memphis, but not before calling in at Loveless Cafe on Highway 100 for breakfast. The half-hour wait for a table at the Tennessee institution was definitely worth it! I was in heaven: pit-cooked pulled barbecue pork, eggs over-easy, potato and cheese casserole, freshly-baked biscuits (scones) and jam. Yes, that was just mine! I made the important decision that it would be my chosen death-row meal.
Fourth stop: Memphis, Tennessee
It’s hard not to be swept up by Elvis-fever in the city where you hear ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’ everywhere you go. Graceland was actually pretty fantastic though, really bringing home just how much he achieved in a pretty short life. Not as gaudy as you might imagine either, but still brilliantly ostentatious. On the music history front, we also checked out the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Sun Records studios, the Stax Museum (tagline: “nothing against the Louvre, but you can’t dance to DaVinci”), and listened to some pretty authentic delta blues at the Southern Folklore Heritage Center. Excellent, every last one of them.
The obligatory Beale Street crawl was a lot of fun. The live music ranged from the Allstars phoning it in a little in B.B.King’s, to the hilarious Dr ‘Feelgood’ Potts and his original, harmonica-led stomps (“My in-laws, they ain’t nothin’ but outlaws”) in W.C.Handy’s. Just as good was the National Civil Rights Museum, which is housed in the old Lorraine Motel where ML was assassinated. It’s an incredibly moving and humbling exhibition. Listening to Rev Kyles recount the story of the ‘mountaintop’ speech and then watching the footage sends shivers down your spine. Oooh, and I’d be remiss not to mention Gus’ World Famous Fried Chicken. Certainly not worth joining the two-hour queue on a Friday or Saturday night, but if you pop in for a quick mid-week lunch you won’t be disappointed. Yes, it’s become a bit of a tourist trap, but the locals obviously still love it and they ain’t wrong.
Fifth stop: Natchez, Mississippi
The weather became increasingly hot and sticky as we headed south down the Mississippi…and the biting insects more plentiful. It wasn’t the most interesting of drives for Paul – almost 5 hours on the same inter-state – but it was easy and the air-con kept us sane. Our B&B – The Elms – was a charmingly ramshackle property dating back to 1804 and set in large grounds. The floors were uneven – the terraces having a good 45 degree slope – and everywhere creaked and moaned. Coupled with the owner’s laissez faire attitude to door locks and the numerous books of ghost tales around town, this made the place just a little spooky. Our room was large and lovingly furnished, though, and I needed a footstool to clamber into the enormous bed!
Esther, the owner, is proclaimed as one of the 20 best women chefs in America by USA Today, and her breakfasts were certainly impressive. Muffins, biscuits, pancakes, grits, eggs…all freshly prepared in her enormous kitchen, of which we were particularly envious. She wasn’t talkative though, so we were instead treated to conversation with wealthy speedboat-owning Texans and an over-excited couple from North Carolina who were also en route to New Orleans. As per the rest of the trip, everyone wanted to talk about the Royals! It’s incredible just how much they all seem to love Wills and Kate.
Natchez itself is packed full of gorgeous antebellum homes, funded by the pre-Civil War cotton plantation boom. With the end of the war and the dissolution of slavery, many landowners were forced to move back up north for work and the homes fell into disrepair. Luckily, many have since been restored and are maintained by the Pilgrimage Garden Club and the austere-sounding Daughters of the American Revolution. A fine last stop before NOLA…