It was to be a journey to the very birthplace of American music. Our tour would take us from Nashville to Memphis, then follow the Mississippi to New Orleans, via the slave plantations that once made the South so prosperous. It was those slaves who brought the rhythms of Africa to the shores of America and spawned some of the greatest music the modern world has ever heard. After a long overnight flight from South Africa, I landed in Nashville, the home
of country music, where I met up with the rest of the Insight Vacations tour group. Accommodation for our first two nights was in a vast conservatory, the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. It was December and the interiors were lit by two million Christmas lights, decorated with giant nativity scenes and resounded round the clock with every carol you have ever heard. The next day, I took a wander through downtown Nashville. Broadway Street is
at its centre, lying in the shadow of the ‘Batman’ AT&T Building (so dubbed for its resemblance to the Caped Crusader), backdrop to countless movies. Live music pours from honky-tonks, starting at 10 am each morning. The infectious foot-stomping, finger-picking sounds filled the street, and I was sucked inexorably into bar after bar. Broadway thronged with pick-up trucks, men wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots, and women with blonde curls and caked-on make-up. There was no doubting that I’d arrived in the South. Our group visited RCA Studio B, where Elvis, Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison and many other greats recorded an endless string of hits. One legendary night in 1960, when Elvis was recording his first album since his military service, he asked for the studio lights to be switched off and sang, ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ in the dark. We trawled through the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a repository of fascinating memorabilia from stars such as Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn and Bob Dylan. Then we were led upstairs to a room where singer-songwriter Richard Leigh shared the stories behind some of his country hits, such as ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’. He sang a few of his favourites, interspersed with his dry humour: ‘After I sold my first hit song, my Indian nickname at the local pub was Running Tab.’ That same night, we had tickets to the Grand Ole Opry and joined the audience of America’s longest running live radio programme. This takes place each week at the atmospheric Ryman Auditorium, also known as The Mother Church of Country Music. It was a bizarre evening, with radio adverts for health insurance and hunting rifles read by the host between acts. There were ancient crooners, square dancers, folk stars and finger-picking youngsters playing mean banjos and guitars.
Boarding our luxury coach, we headed west to Memphis, the home of the blues. Our hotel was just around the corner from Beale Street, where we partied the nights away. Best of all was BB King’s Blues Club & Grill, where the house band played edgy blues that had us on the dance floor until the wee hours. Memphis also gave us a chance to engage with America’s darker past. The National Civil Rights Museum traces the history of black emancipation from the 17th century to now: slavery, the Civil War, racist Jim Crow laws, Rosa Parks’s passive resistance and the civil-rights activism of the 1960s. The museum is housed in the old Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jnr was assassinated. His room has been left as it was on that fateful day in 1968. A wreath adorns the balcony where he fell. In the building across the road, a bathroom window is still left open where the sniper aimed his rifle. It’s a very powerful and affecting museum. We all sang along as the coach sound system played Paul Simon: ‘I am going
to Graceland, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee, I’m going to Graceland.’ That evening was devoted to Elvis Presley and his influence on popular American culture. Our tour of the Graceland house was led by Elvis’s close friend, George Klein, now in his 80s. George told tales of fabulous stardom, generous largesse and Nixon’s phone calls. He led us down to a den with multiple television sets, a ‘jungle room’ with shaggy green walls, and outside, to view the gold- plated interiors of Elvis’s jet aeroplanes. The tour was rounded off with a Southern dinner in Graceland’s automobile museum, surrounded by Elvis’s cars -– every vehicle from Cadillac and Rolls-Royce to Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz. While we dined, big screens beamed vintage footage of the leather-clad, loose-hipped, honey-voiced king of rock and roll doing his inimitable thing in front of adoring fans. Next, we headed south down to Natchez. Founded by the French in 1716, it became home to a flowering colonial culture. We checked into the country-mansion hotel on Monmouth Plantation, built in 1818. Before dinner, we attended a mixology class and learnt the science of mixing the South’s signature drink: the mint julep. Then we all settled down to a feast in the grand candlelit dining room. From Natchez, we crossed the Mississippi River to Frogmore Plantation, transporting us back to a time when cotton was king. Our hosts, dressed in period costume, led us around this reconstructed 19th-century slave-owning plantation. Later, we were able to compare the old part of the farm to its modern-day operation, which produces more than 900 bales of cotton a day. But it wasn’t only cotton that ruled the South. Sugar was another source of untold wealth. We visited Houmas House Plantation and Gardens, which was once the largest producer of sugar in the country. It’s a gracious mansion – with colonnades, wide verandas, oak avenues – and was even referred to as the Sugar Palace back in its antebellum heyday. We carried on south along Highway 61, the Great River Road, via Baton Rouge to New Orleans, which rose out of the misty bayous like a Cajun spaceship. Our hotel was in the French Quarter, the heart of the music district. Tours with a local expert took us to the city’s curious cemeteries with their above-ground tombs of pirates, politicians and voodoo queens. We visited the Warehouse District, Louis Armstrong Park and Jackson Square, where the city’s colonial history unfurled at every turn. Our nights were filled with food and jazz. One evening was spent attending a class at the New Orleans School of Cooking. We discovered the flair of Creole cuisine during a lively demonstration, and then enjoyed the delicious creations: gumbo chicken, baked trout, shrimp étouffée and white-chocolate bread pudding. Our group’s farewell dinner was held at the famous Arnaud’s restaurant. Then we hit Bourbon Street for a riotous night of slave rhythms, jazz and soul, bars by the dozen, outrageous dancing, and perhaps one Jack Daniels too many. Next morning, I bade ‘au revoir’ to my travelling companions and climbed into a stretch limousine, wearing a silly party hat and suffering the effects of an almighty hangover. What better way to leave The Big Easy?
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Text: Justin Fox; Images: Gallo/Getty images; iStockphoto