Odd ducks and Beale Street

IMG_5313 (800x600)Memphis might be the home of the blues but in the heat of the sun on a Thursday afternoon in June, it’s heart was bordering on depressing. Beale Street was like an aged hooker the morning after the night before. Tired, worn, and not at all attractive. When I was last in Memphis, we hit Beale Street at night – and it was buzzing. Alive. Happening. Have made a note in the Captain’s log that this is when it’s at its best. I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but neon has its moment.

IMG_5312 (800x600)IMG_5318 (600x800)All that said, if you like Blues, then Beale Street is the place to be… at night! Lined with clubs and bars and restaurants, most with outside stages and patios, it’s a  virtual smorgasbord of all that’s good about the genre. You’d be hard pushed not to have a good night out on the town, even if an afternoon in said same place leaves something to be desired.

I had to laugh, though, at the dress code and wondered about the preoccupation with sunglasses…

IMG_5296 (600x800) Apart from Graceland, Sun Studio, and Beale Street, Memphis has one more attraction on its ‘must do’ list – The Peabody Hotel. As hotels go, it’s upmarket and plush, but its attraction is not its decor – it’s the ducks.

IMG_5337 (800x600)Five trained mallard ducks (one male, four females) work in the hotel for three-month stints before retiring. In a tradition that dates back to the 1930s, they’ve made famous the Peabody Duck March. Each day at 11am they descend in the lift from their rooftop penthouse and march along a red carpet into the fountain. They return to their penthouse at 5pm, ably guided by the resident Duck Master. Not a bad number, considering they get to die from old age, enjoy three months of fame, and are the in the spotlight twice a day, daily, for their entire working life (NB: the hotel doesn’t include duck on any of its menus).

So  if you’re in the vicinity of Beale Street waiting for the evening to kick off, take yourself by the Peabody and see the ducks in action. It’s stuff like this that makes America so, well, American.


When the sun came out

IMG_5291 (800x600)Sam Phillips didn’t know his ass from his elbow when it came to recording music. He winged it. And he made mistakes. And those mistakes gave birth to Rock’n’ Roll. Phillips was a radio engineer who, in January 1950, started up the Memphis Recording Service on Union Avenue. He recorded anything from weddings to funerals, and would travel anywhere the customer wanted him to go. For just $4, anyone could walk in off the street and cut their own record. Just as Elvis Presley did in 1953.

IMG_5260 (800x600)Phillips made one recording of Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88 which went on to make Chess Records a small fortune. This was when he cottoned on to the fact that had he had his own label, he could have released that single. Famously, Brenston’s amplifier fell off the car on the way to Memphis and he’d plugged it with some paper. That rustlin’ sound was later to become the unique sound of R&R. And Sun Studio was born.

Our tour guide was good. She looked the part and were she to give the same tour 100 times a day, I have the feeling that her passion would never wane. The Sun is like that…relentless. It’s an institution that has been left untouched since the 1950s. I doubt it’s even been painted.

IMG_5284 (800x600)As we entered the studio itself (which is still used most nights of the week to record today) and saw the black-taped X on the floor marking the spot where Elvis stood to record his first hit, I was more taken with the fact that Johnny Cash had also stood in this same room. I’d never done the math – never put the two together, never heard of the million-dollar quartet – Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley – all of whom happened to drop by the studios on the same day and have an impromptu jam session that Phillips recorded unbeknownst to them, a recording that was released in 2003 under the title ‘Bits and Pieces’ (it’s on my Christmas list). The photo he had the local paper take is probably the most famous photo I’d never seen.

IMG_5279 (800x600)As I stood there and half-listened to what was being said, I fixated on this photo and wondered, not for the first time, how much musicians enrich our lives. (Maybe the Serbs have something we all could learn from.) I never knew Carl Perkins, don’t care much for Jerry Lee, only discovered Elvis when he died, but I’ve had a thing for Johnny Cash since I first saw him live, on stage, in Dublin, a lifetime ago. For me, Sun Studio wasn’t about Elvis – it was about Johnny.

IMG_5252I sat on his stool and wondered what I’d have said to him, had I ever had the chance to meet him. Would I have been dumbstruck in the presence of such greatness or would I have talked to him as if he were some ordinary man? I then tried to imagine life without Hurt – his cover of the Nine Inch Nails song. I remember when it came out in 2005 I watched it over and over and over and over again and still get goosebumps when I hear the song now.

Memphis may belong to Elvis, but for my money, Sun Studio … that’s Johnny’s domain.

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What a waste of a good man

Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis’s voice seeps through cracks in the pavement and every public TV shows him in action. Hotels have guitar-shaped pools and 24/7 Elvis movies. Pink Cadillacs are the order of the day and sideburns are de rigueur.

IMG_5227 (800x600)You can’t come to Memphis and not go to Graceland. Well, of course you can, but if you do, you’ll never know quite what you missed. What makes it interesting is that, in its own way, it’s very understated. To my mind, Elvis didn’t have a whole lot of taste – but then, just look at his costumes and let me rest my case right there. It’s relatively small, as mansions go, and other than the carpeted walls and the carpet in the kitchen, there’s little that could be branded as ostentatious. Yes, he built a racquet-ball court and had an indoor shooting range, and room for more than a few ponies, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s somewhere I might buy, were I to come into a million or three and wanted to live in Memphis.

IMG_5152 (800x600)IMG_5167 (800x600)So his sofa is 15 feet long – but then if you never let anyone other than immediate family upstairs and did all your entertaining in the living room, you’d probably need that extra ten feet of seating. And if you never particularly cared for alcohol but had a IMG_5175 (800x600)coterie that drank like a school of fish, then you’d need a flash bar.  And if you liked to play pool, then why not have a games room with ruffled, pleated material covering the walls instead of wallpaper. It’s certainly not bland. The kaleidoscope of colours wouldn’t be kind to a hangover, but then the King didn’t drink,  and therefore didn’t suffer so.

The self-guideIMG_5203 (600x800)d tour was quite informative. I hadn’t realised that Elvis had dated Priscilla for nearly seven years before they got married. And that he flew Lisa Marie to Colorado when he realised that she’d never seen snow. It helps to have a couple of private jets parked in the backyard and so what if some thought the gold-plated seat-belt buckles a trifle OTT. His parents hadn’t known that Gladys was having twins so when Jessie was stillborn, Vernon went outside to grieve and saw a blue flash in the sky – and then heard Elvis cry.  Some think that perhaps Elvis was so blessed with his voice because he spent his life singing to his twin.

I love Elvis. I remember where I was when he died – Fethard-on-Sea in Co. Wexford. I’d just discovered popsocks. I hadn’t a clue who he was but this girl staying at the B&B was inconsolable. My age. Eleven. She was distraught and I couldn’t fathom why. I lived in bi-channel TV wonderland and wasn’t at all into music. But the fact that she was so upset stuck with me and etched the date forever in my mind.

IMG_5214 (600x800)IMG_5190 (800x600)I first went to Graceland back in 2001 with RB, whose son Shawn was a great fan (and a great singer, too). Back then, the trip was a pilgrimage of sorts. This time, I was a tourist, alongside the hundreds of others that traipsed through the grounds that day. It was a different sort of experience. To see all those awards in the trophy room, to watch the video-taped interviews, to see the old movies, and then to realise that this man died at the age of 42, bloated, fat, and addicted to prescription drugs. What a waste. What a horrible waste of a life.

IMG_5200 (600x800)Why? What could have happened to a man whose dreams, by his own admission, had come through a hundred times? He was married to the love of his life, had a daughter he doted on, had a fan club that spanned the four corners of the world. Yes, he would have preferred to play more dramatic roles but was typecast in light romance and comedy – if that was the worst of it, could it really have been that bad? And he’s not alone. What is it about fame that shortens people’s lives? What is it about notoriety that poses such a challenge to living? Why do so many famous people die so young? And if dying young is the price one pays for fame, why do so many people chase it so?

And for the rest of us, it might be worth taking stock and measuring our riches not in terms of money or success but in terms of friendships and experience. Which would you rather more: a wealth of happy memories or a seven-figure bank balance and no one to share it with? Yes, when money burns a hole in your pocket, you’re never alone at the fire – but is it really all there is? Are fame and fortune the twenty-first century’s answer to the Holy Grail? I hope not.

Her Majesty

Meet Her Majesty. Her friends call her ‘Her’, as in ‘I know Her!’. Her has been a professional hula hooper for four years now and sets up shop outside Honky Tonk Central on Nashville’s Broadway. She hoops almost every day in a variety of costumes, no two of which are ever alike. She has seventy different wigs and as many more permutations and combinations of clothes and garish make-up. She’s quite the personality.

Her can trace her ancestry back to the Patriarch of Middle Tennessee and the First Citizen of Nashville – one Jacqués Timothé Boucher, Sieur de Montrun. And with such a royal pedigree, it’s little wonder that Her took Majesty as her family name. A year-round hooper, she’s now hitting her busy season and with so many tourists in town, hopes to reap the rewards of doing something that little bit different and I wish Her well.

What I also wish is that I could get over my annoyance at the American tendency to refer to someone as HER when they’re sitting right there, not just within earshot, but in company! Use ‘she’ or ‘her’ in Ireland when referring to someone in company, you’d quickly be asked who she is – the cat’s mother? It grates on me and I need to either tune in my cluas bodhar (deaf ear) or just get over it. Sadly, I know my limitations. Her Majesty was on to something when she took that name… perhaps I could do the same: Her Murphy.

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Horses for courses

Belle Meade – the fifth richest city in the USA per capita – is about 3.5 square miles and lies on the outskirts of Nashville, TN. And amidst all the luxurious manor-like mansions, sits the old horse plantation that is now a museum to times past. With its slave quarters and family mausoleum, it is a sharp reminder of the South as it once was. I watched Django on the plane on the way over, so the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves were still fresh in my mind as I toured the plantation. The mind boggles at the thought that here, in what’s now a celebrity-laden suburb, 136 slaves were freed in 1865. But it positively baulks at  the thought that they were ever enslaved in the first place.

IMG_4925 (800x600) (2)I know that Sherman was no angel (His policy of expanding warfare beyond the battlefield and into the civilian infrastructure, called ‘total warfare’ and ‘scorched earth’ strategies, has led to him being known as one of the fathers of modern warfare. He is considered by some to be one of the Civil War’s greatest heroes, but residents of the American southeast, especially Georgia, pretty much still hate him.) I know that many atrocities were committed on both sides during the Civil War. I know that many innocent people suffered at the hands of those ‘damn Yankees’ and yet I simply cannot get my head around the idea that one set of humans could enslave another. I know I’m naive and I know that slavery is still a twenty-first-century issue but still, man’s inhumanity to man will never cease to amaze me.

Belle Meade Plantation House

Belle Meade Plantation House

As we wandered the grounds and took it all in, I was surprised to learn that this was the place for horses back in its day. Thoroughbred breeding started in 1816 and in 1823, John Harding first registered his racing silks with the Nashville Jockey Club. And, in 1881, Iroquois, one of the Belle Meade horses, won the Epsom Derby in the UK – the first American horse to do so. So prized was he at Belle Meade that he had 60 acres to himself while all the other residents had a mere 20. So reluctant was the family to let him go, that when he died, his hooves were inlaid with silver and turned into ink wells. A tad too gory for my taste.

Slave quarters at Belle Meade

Slave quarters at Belle Meade

Perhaps the most famous horse I’ve never heard of was Bonnie Scotland (another Belle Meade luminary, purchased by Harding when the horse was 19) … but some that I have heard of can trace their ancestry back to him, including Seabiscuit and Secretariat.

As we toured the neighbourhood, our guide (one of Belle Meade’s finest) pointed out Al Gore’s house and Vince Gill’s and many more that simply didn’t register. Apparently burglary is a big issue – high-class silver burglary – with one resident reporting the theft of a 20lb silver ashtray. How far Belle Meade has come since 1865.

The house that Vince bought

The house that Vince bought

As RB trotted out the names of who lived where, and I parried with questions about who had married whom since I last immersed myself in country music, I was struck again by the familiarity of it all. We spoke of these country stars as if we knew them, knew them. Such is Nashville. The city where everyone knows everyone by face and by name.

2013 Grateful 28

I’m rapidly eating into my 15 minutes of fame. I made the newspaper in Henderson, KY and was one of the screaming masses in Nashville, TN, for yet another live recording of the Grand Ole Opry. The world’s longest-running  live radio show, it’s been on air for more than 85 years. Some visitors to Nashville may well eschew it as being too cheesy to bother with – yet this, my second time at the Opry, was no less impressive than my first, back in 2001.

IMG_5036 (800x592)It is more than a radio show – it’s an institution. Performers have 12-minute sets (about enough to do three numbers, with a bit of banter), which are followed by a series of radio commercials and this runs for about 3 hours with a short intermission. In a line-up that includes today’s chart-toppers alongside the stalwarts of yesteryear, the Opry is a home from home for so many country artists.

IMG_5114The audience the night we were there included some 3000 nurses who were in Nashville for a conference. Requests from the audience sent birthday greetings to those in their nineties and congratulated one couple on 56 years of marriage. One young lad of 20, who was spending his last night stateside in the Opry before shipping out with the US Marines, got a standing ovation. The Opry is Southern. It’s American. And it’s a source of national pride. When Charlie Daniels took the stage and did The Devil Went Down to Georgia, the place exploded. It was impossible to keep still. He got my No. 3 vote for best song of the evening. To see a man who has come out the other side of middle age give every ounce of what he has to satiate an audience who really appreciated being in the company of one of the all-time greats of country music – well, it brought a tear to my eye.

IMG_5048 (601x800)Jeannie Seely is another old-time favourite who took the stage that night and when I grow up, I want to be just like her. This lady oozes class, charm, and a certain rebelliousness that is evident in how gracefully she is aging. She’s adorable and her rendition of Let it be me had me in tears … I know, I know, I’m a wimp… but there is something magical about the Opry that stirs the depths of my soul and brings the water to the surface of the well. I couldn’t find Let it be me on YouTube but did find her at the Opry in 1966 singing Hank William’s Don’t touch me. I was definitely born into the wrong era. Jeannie got my No. 2 slot that evening.

IMG_5080For me, though, the song of the night went to the Black Lillies, a relatively new band on the scene. Their song The Fall is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard in a long, long time. Front man Cruz Contreras has a voice to die for, one that is perfectly harmonised with that of Trisha Gene Brady. Together they make an amazing sound. This is when I broke out the tissues; I even bought the CD.

The whole Opry experience is nothing short of amazing. Country is probably the only genre of music that has that family thing going – where everyone seems to know everyone else and all call the Opry ‘home’.

This week, having said goodbye to Kentucky and Tennessee, I’m grateful that despite being tone deaf, music – the right kind of music – can still make me cry. In a world where senses are increasingly being deadened by technology, it’s nice to simply, and uncomplicatedly, feel…

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

A stream of Southern consciousness

IMG_4936 (800x600)As I write, I am sitting somewhere north-west of Nashville, Tennessee, on the second of a three-day stopover in the state. It’s been a little more than 12 years since I was last south of the Mason-Dixie Line and it’s still as polite as ever. I’m a sucker for cowboys and that southern drawl, so to borrow a moniker from the ribs joint near Centennial Park, I’m in hog heaven.

This trip, three things have struck me so far.

Polite civility

I’ve banged on before about manners making the (wo)man and here in the South, they are very much part and parcel of the complete Southern package. On any of the tours we’ve done, we’ve been ‘graciously’ asked not to sit on the furniture, or take pictures, or think aloud. When standing in line at the grocery, people with trolleys or baskets have stood back and let us and our couple of items go in front, answering our thank you with a ‘my pleasure, ladies’.  Doors are held open, hats are tipped, and there’s a general air of gentlemanliness about the place that I’ve missed.

Americans have an innate ability to feign a polite interest in people that nips at the edge of familiarity and draws a person out. Once a casual conversation is initiated, you can measure the amount of information you divulge according to your mood and taste. You can give as much or as little as you please. The resultant sense of camaraderie, however fleeting, can only stand the country (and its tourist industry) in good stead.

Mind you, for those with a limited bandwidth, like me, it’s important to delete any unnecessary information gleaned during a conversation at the checkout, or in line at the airport, or even in the loo. The American tendency to share personal and private details of their lives with total strangers has long since bemused me – and perhaps, to my chagrin, even rubbed off on me a little. Mmmm…  food for thought there!

Large portions

Speaking of food, I bought a fridge magnet that reads: I went on a diet for two weeks and all I lost was 14 days. I don’t need to weigh myself to know that I’ve piled on the pounds since I first set foot stateside. Despite my best intentions and daily remonstrations, it seems as if the American food industry is conspiring against me. To say that portions are huge is an understatement. Yet years of indoctrination about the necessity of clearing my plate leave me struggling valiantly to do just that. And each time I clear my plate, my stomach gets a little bigger and a little greedier. Its ‘full’ marker moves a little higher up the scale and satiation removes itself by one more degree. Add to this the fact that being in the South, food is fried. And fried food is so good. Finger lickin’ good.

In an effort to distract myself from the physical act of eating, I’m left wondering if it’s possible to trace the characteristics of a nation through it attitude to food. For instance, the larger-than-life US portions nicely embody the larger-than-life US personality. The stylish complexity of French cuisine mirrors two key traits of the French. Mmmmm… I wonder.

Long memories

I wonder, too, at how long people’s memories are. Although the American Civil War was fought back between 1861 and 1865, for some it may as well have been yesterday. That North/South divide is talked about, referenced, and seems part of everyday speech. Those from the North are still referred to as Yankees – or even damn Yankees. As one chap told me: ‘I was twenty-one years old before I learned that ‘damn’ and ‘Yankee’ were separate words’. Another explained: ‘A Yankee is someone from the North who comes to the South for a visit and then goes back. A damn Yankee is someone from the North who comes to the South and stays here.’ While the Northerners refer to the Civil War as that – the Civil War – here in the South it’s still referred to as an ‘act of Northern aggression’. However much tongue-in-cheek this all may be, this bantering (if, indeed that’s all it is), creates a faint expectation that one should take sides.

I know memories are long and transgressions not easily forgotten or forgiven. Hungarian psychiatrist and Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus at the State University of New York in Syracuse, reckons that ‘the stupid never forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.’ History is full of acts that have been, should have been, or will never be forgiven. The first Apologia Politica I could find dates back to 1077 when the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV apologised to Pope Gregory VII for church-state conflicts by standing barefoot in the snow for three days. There is so much to apologise for that it would be nice if someone would simply draw a line and let the world move on.

First published in the Budapest Times 22 June 2013

Be still my fickle heart

Nashville is my heaven – or at least one version of what heaven might be like. What more could a gal ask for than country music and cowboys and conversation peppered with ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, little lady’. And if Nashville is  heaven, Broadway is at its heart. A busy street lined with honky tonks (bars that provide live country music), this is the bloodline of the Tennessee state capital. It was here that many country and western legends got their break and where many more ply their trade in the hope of being discovered.

IMG_5010 (692x800)Musicians play for tips and a chance to sell their CDs to an appreciative public. I wanted to go to Tootsies Orchid Lounge – that honky tonk where Willie Nelson caught a break; he got his first songwriting job after singing there. Rumour has it that Roger Miller wrote ‘Dang Me’ in Tootsies and rumour aside, his stool was the third one in from the door. It’s an amazing place, chock full of memorabilia, and a picture of Tootsie herself over the bar. In a future life, if not in this one, I’d like to try my hand at being a Tootsie – to be an incubator for live talent, to facilitate that fame … now that would be quite the accomplishment.

IMG_5004 (600x800)You can’t help but think about what it all must have been like thirty or forty years ago when Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Kline were in their prime. Bumping into one of those as you bellied up to the bar would have been nothing short of amazing. As it is, Broadway is bopping, even on a Monday night. Music seeps out of every pore and into every muscle. No one can stand or sit still. Such is country. It gets into your blood. If ever I missed a dance partner, this was it.

IMG_5009 (800x600)We struck lucky when we came across Jake Maurer, who along with his band, the Naked Truth, has been playing in Tootsies for five years – so you know he has to be doing something right. The guy is good … and cute!

And, in yet another bout of synchronicity, his bass player is none other than the CJ Wilder I was raving about from the Henderson Blues and BBQ festival. Maurer and Wilder have co-written some of the songs on Maurer’s latest album – American Hat. What a break – the music gods were certainly smiling on me.

IMG_4972 (800x600)Nashville has its tacky side – of course, it does. It wouldn’t be a tourist attraction without the requisite tacky shops and those selling seriously upmarket boots and stetsons (most of which are made in China!). It’s got its themed restaurants – the line outside Jack’s stretched half-way down the street – and famous crab-shacks and rib joints. Waiters and bar staff may work for tips, as do the musicians, yet it ain’t a cheap night out – which is probably why most of the patrons sip slowly on their beers and just enjoy the music.

IMG_4968 (591x800)In 1941, Nashville was granted the first FM license in the United States. Music City then became the first to enjoy static-free radio. And it was in Nashville, at  RCA’s Historic Studio B on Music Row where Elvis Presley recorded 200 of his hits. The city itself was founded on Christmas Eve 1779 by two teams of pioneers who had come from the Carolinas. Originally called Fort Nashborough, it would change to Nashville when the French were more in favour than the British.

Today, more than six million tourists visit the city annually – and this year, I was one of them.
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