“Where you at? Where you at?” A well-dressed woman is shouting and gesticulating at me from across the street as I’m photographing the graffiti-strewn building that is Morgan Freeman’s blues club in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Recognising me as a stranger in town she is apparently trying to establish where I am come from. She identifies herself as Princess and immediately shoots out another question. “You know Kingfish?” I tell her I have no idea what she is talking about, so she rummages around in her handbag and pulls out a CD. It is a demo by Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, and Princess says she is his mother.
“He’s playing tonight. Delta Blues Room. You should go hear him.” And with that she is gone.
That night I do, indeed, go to the Delta Blues Room and can barely believe what I am seeing and hearing. Kingfish is a 16-year old who is the size of a baby whale (note to Princess: put your son on a diet before it is too late) and who plays blues guitar like a god and sings the blues like a grizzled veteran. There are no more than 20 people in the shabby, dimly-lit Delta Blues Room, mostly British and Australian tourists, and all seem as amazed as I am. That night I drop into three more Clarksdale blues clubs, including Freeman’s much celebrated Ground.
Zero, and in each I hear similarly impressive live virtuoso performances that at home would fill the Albert Hall.
It should not be that surprising really, for the South is the source of all the popular music we’ve been listening to for the past 50 or 60 years. Blues, rock’n’roll, soul, country, jazz, gospel, rockabilly, jazz - it all comes from the South and it migrated out of the Mississippi Delta, north along Highway 61 to America’s big cities, when the cottonfields became mechanised in the early 1940s. And from those cities -Memphis, Detroit, Chicago and New York - the music spread across the planet and has become the soundtrack of our lives.
As Kingfish proves that night the music is in these Southerners’ DNA, something that European and Antipodean travellers increasingly recognise. It seems we are discovering a source of living history that until quite recently we have we’ve completely overlooked.
I must confess here that I have long had a thing about the Deep South. Perhaps that should read “thang.” I love the accents, the people (particularly the Southern belles who are as eye-flutteringly seductive today as they were in Gone With The Wind), the turbulent history, the vast, ever-changing countryside and, most of all, the music. This is, I fear, an infatuation that can never be sated for I go back there whenever I have an opportunity and with every visit become more intoxicated.
This latest journey has all the makings of a perfect Southern excursion - a 600-mile road trip in a convertible Ford Mustang that takes me from Muscle Shoals in Alabama, up through Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis Presley, to Clarksdale, where Tennessee Williams set his great Southern Gothic plays and where the blues was born, up through the cottonfields of the Mississippi Delta to Memphis and then finally across to Nashville. And although music is at the centre of the journey, there is much more. The South remains apart from the rest of the US, a culture significantly different to that found north of the Mason-Dixon line and a people who have a great sense of place and separate identity. To fully understand this you have to take in Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, visit the Civil War sites that remain perfectly preserved, immersing yourself in the heart-breaking stories and gruesome, tragic battles, and, of course, drench yourself in the music and nightlife of these towns and cities. Added to that, you should take to these famous highways in a V6 Ford Mustang with the top down. That’s southern bliss, y’all.
I STARTED IN MUSCLE SHOALS because it is one of the unheralded birthplaces of modern music. It was the sound that came out of these recording studios in the early 1960s, sung by a bellhop at the local hotel (Arthur Alexander) and a hospital porter (Percy Sledge) among others, that provided the British beat groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones with their early inspiration and turned this modest place on the Tennessee River into the Lourdes of rock. What followed through the 1960s was a stampede of rock artists – the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and so on - eager to drink from this magic cup.
In fact, The Shoals is a collection of four tiny side-by-side villages – Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Tuscumbia – adjacent to the Tennessee River. In the 18th century the Tennessee was known to the Yuchi Indian tribe living along its banks as Nun Nuhsae, the river that sings. I visited the keeper of the Yuchi flame, Tom Hendrix, who lives just outside Florence and who, over the past 25 years, has been building the Wichapi Commemorative Stone Wall, now the largest dry stone wall in the US and the largest memorial to a native American Indian. That person is his great great grandmother, who in 1839 was removed from her Muscle Shoals home and relocated in an Indian reservation in distant Oklahoma. “When she got there,” Hendrix told me, “she said she listened to streams and rivers and there were no songs. So she decided to come home to this river and she walked all the way back. It took her five years.”
ASHLEY MONROE AT THE GRAND OLE OPRY, NASHVILLE
So, if you are inclined to believe in such Jungian spiritual synchronicity then this wonderful story offers some explanation of why W.C. Handy, the father of the blues, Sam Philips, the father of rock’n’roll, and Rick Hall, the creator of the Muscle Shoals sound, have all emerged from these little villages on the Alabama border beside the river that sings. Handy and Phillips are long gone but Rick Hall, now a remarkably fit 82, is very much alive and if you were to take a tour of his FAME studios you are likely to see him still attempting to turn some young discovery into the next Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett. Times have changed since the early days of FAME, for when he was recording black artists and working with black and white musicians in the 1960s Alabama was being torn apart by race confrontations and white separatist politicians such as George Wallace were preaching segregation forever. Talking in his cluttered office above the studio Rick Hall told me he was recording the international hit Land of 1,000 Dances with Wilson Pickett “the same day that George Wallace was standing in
that schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama saying we didn’t want black people there. Down here the music always wins.”
From Muscle Shoals I pointed the Mustang west and headed for Mississippi, stopping off briefly in Tupelo to join the daily throng visiting the shotgun shack where Elvis Presley was born before arriving in Clarksdale. The thing about this town of just 17,000 residents, apart from being the birthplace of the blues (Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for mastery of the blues at the crossroads here) and being a breeding ground for guitar prodigies like Kingfish, is that it has a history far above and beyond the music. In its day Clarksdale was known as the golden buckle on the cotton belt; in 1920 the Wall Street Journal called it the Magic City because it was home to so many millionaires. It was also the social backdrop for Tennessee Williams’ plays. Over breakfast at The Yazoo cafe I was introduced to the proprietor, John Cocke, who revealed he was the son of the real Baby Doll. He also told me that Brick, the Paul Newman character in Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, was actually Clarksdale’s sheriff in the early 1950s. Although a dusty shadow of its former self - you can buy a Southern mansion here for around $300,000 - Clarksdale is riding a wave of enthusiasm for the blues and is looking to tourism to fuel an economic recovery.
Memphis is only 70 miles north of Clarksdale on Highway 61, Blues Highway, and the 90-minute drive through the white sea of cottonfields in bloom allowed me a little time to channel hop the local radio stations, switching from ranting right wing talk show hosts to hollering preachers to machine-gun-delivery DJs. After such an audio barrage it was a relief to see the bright lights of Memphis ahead of me.
The very name Memphis evokes the romantic roots of rock and soul music. In Sam Phillips’s Sun Studios (still the most dramatic and best studio tour in the South) rock’n’roll was born way in 1951, in the following decade Stax Studios became, until Martin Luther King’s assassination, the heartland of southern soul (Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Sam and Dave and many more), and, of course, this was where Elvis Presley’s career was launched and where he created his garish mansion Graceland. It is a rough and tumble city where African Americans are in the majority, where real uncompromising blues clubs are to be found in distant suburbs, and where on a Sunday morning the sound of gospel soars through the air like some enchanted call.
In Memphis I parked the Mustang for three days and bounced from landmark to landmark, Beale Street to Sun to Stax to Graceland and, of course, to the Loraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. It is now the National Civil Rights Museum, a $25 million institution that traces the travails of America’s black people from the abolition of slavery through to the civil turbulence of the late 60s to the rise of the country’s first black president.
I stayed both at the historic Peabody, otherwise known at the Delta’s Grand Hotel, conveniently located a five-minute walk from the Beale Street clubs, and also at the Madison, a hip, contemporary hotel whose rooftop bar looks over the mighty Mississippi River. It was at the Madison’s Eighty3 restaurant that I had my first decent meal in 10 days. It was a respite after a succession of typically Southern meals which largely comprise a starter of deep-fried onion rings, a main course of deep-fried something (chicken, shrimp, catfish ) followed by a dessert of fried something else (deep-fried ice cream, I kid you not). This is possibly the only place on earth where macaroni cheese is regarded as a vegetable, so to describe much of the South as a culinary desert is being kind – most of it is a gastronomic wasteland.
My last day in Memphis was a Sunday, and I celebrated by attending Bishop Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. It was an explosion of gospel music, wild dancing in the pulpits and firebrand preaching from the former million-seller soul singer himself. If only our own churches had embraced their religions with such unrestrained passion and undiluted pleasure they would surely not be as empty as they are today. But they’ve got soul in the South and even this hard-hearted atheist was moved almost to tears by the fervour of these swaying, harmonising, wailing parishioners.
That night I rather undermined my spiritual revival by spending a few hours in a dark-and-dirty blues club. I’d met up with the ever-languid Dennis-Hopper-lookalike Tad Pierson, who operates a bespoke tour service called The American Dream (clients include Elvis Costello, Aerosmith and Wilson Pickett) and who had taken me to the city’s outer limits on previous trips. Tad believes that people are “called to Memphis, the altar of experience,” and he uses a beaten-up barge of a ’56 Cadillac that passes as pink (it’s more caramel) to transport his clients around the city. This night Tad took me to The Blues Club in a distant suburb at the far end of Lamar. We were the only white people there, everyone was gracious, friendly, and what we witnessed was the most wild, out-there, orgasmic blues and soul celebration I experienced on the whole trip. This was nightlife as unselfconscious sensuality writ large, an experience buttoned-down Caucasians should experience at least once in their lifetime. What a Sunday.
IT WAS TIME TO TAKE to the road again and on a bright sunny Fall morning I left Memphis and headed to Corinth to spend a few hours at the Civil War Interpretive Centre in this historic Southern town and to visit the nearby Shiloh National Military Park, the best preserved Civil War battlefield in Tennessee and possibly the entire South. Shiloh is a 22-acre park that attracts 200,000 visitors a year and it transmits the same overwhelming sadness and sense of despair one feels in the First World War battlefields in Flanders. The battles of Corinth and Shiloh were fought over the Corinth railway crossroads in the centre of the town and it was carnage on a grand scale, 8,000 dying in the Battle of Corinth and in the subsequent Battle of Shiloh more than 23,000 died, the bloodiest battle in American history. As with Flanders fields this is now a peaceful, idyllic park however so powerful is the representation of this terrible battle that one leaves feeling emotionally drained.
Driving away from Shiloh towards Nashville I was left feeling powerfully aware of why Southerners still refer to the Civil War as The War, as if none of equal importance has taken place since. It is a significant component of many Southerner’s make-up and provides them with an ideological platform upon which to operate. There is a bit of Johnny Reb about most Southerners, black and white.
And so to my final stop, Nashville. I arrived just in time to drop my bags at the 404 Hotel - one of many new boutique hotels across a city that has a shortage of hotel rooms thanks to its success as a major convention centre – and head for the clubs. First stop is 3rd & Lindsley, a bar-and-grill venue, to hear The Time Jumpers, a collective of Nashville’s top session players that included the country superstar Vince Gill and the brilliant Hall of Fame steel guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin. After the Memphis club the previous night this was like Mozart violin quartet meets the Hot Club Of France. Genteel, lilting, melodic, all restraint and discipline, it was the antithesis of that hot, sweaty, rude night of Memphis blues.
It also summed up rather succinctly the essential differences in the two cities. If Memphis is somewhat dishevelled, dangerous – it is the US’s 10th most murderous city – and, in part, down at heel, Nashville is well groomed, neatly clipped and well behaved. Small, manageable and friendly, Nashville consistently tops ‘favourite city’ polls, and has seen many big stars (Nicole Kidman, Jack White, Ed Sheeren, Johnny Depp) buy homes here in recent years because it is safe and discreet. It is also becoming something of a foodie city as top chefs also move down here for the better life. The surrounding countryside is filled with perfectly-coiffed farms and quiet, law-abiding dormitory communities. Cutting through it, and then on to Mississippi for some 400 miles, is the Natchez Trace Parkway, one of America’s most beautiful roads. This impeccably-maintained two-lane blacktop swoops through forests of maple, hickory and oak trees and tended grasslands that must require the attentions of fleets of giant lawnmowers.
The Tennessee countryside provides a perfect contrast to the neon-lit jukebox clamour of downtown Nashville, where the rowdy Broadway honky-tonks bang out live country/rock/blues/folk music from early afternoon until late at night, moving bands of outstanding musicians all playing for tips and in the hope that some A&R man is going to come by and discover them. Then there is the more serious side where mainly Southern, mainly country, music is played in those famous places – the Ryman, home of the Grand Ole Opry, the Bluebird Cafe, the Station Inn, and 3rd & Lindsley. The big stars such as Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris and Brenda Lee are still around but in Nashville is much more than a retirement home for rich country singers. There are more hot, talented up-and-coming singers and songwriters here than in any other world music capital. This is, as the advertising slogans proclaim, Music City.
Then it was over. Twelve days on the road, 600 miles covered. But that barely tells the story. As Susan Sontag once wrote “if you start dancing on tables, fanning yourself, feeling sleepy when you pick up a book, developing a sense of rhythm, making love whenever you feel like it – then you know. The South has got you.” Quite so.