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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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Blues and BBQ

Henderson, Kentucky, sits on the banks of the Ohio River, right across from the state of Indiana. Back in the late 1700s, one Colonel Henderson and his cronies purchased 17 000 000 acres of land from the Cherokee Indians under the Treaty of Watauga. The Virginia State Legislature voided this deal and, in return for the original $50 000 that Henderson et al. had forked over, they received  a plot of 200 000 acres. What Henderson hadn’t realised (or perhaps ignored) was that purchase of land from Native Americans was the purview of the government (the British, the governments of Virginia and North Carolina and, later, the United States, all forbade private purchase of land from Indians).

IMG_4718 (800x589)It is on part of this 200 000 acre site that the city of  Henderson now sits. And it is here, every year, that the WC Handy Blues and BBQ festival takes place. One of the largest free music festivals in the USA, it celebrates the Father of the Blues, Alabama-born William Christopher Handy. Legend has it that Handy and his crew were on their way back from the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1892 when they ran out of money. Handy headed to Evansville, Indiana, and joined a local band. When they were playing a gig one night in Henderson, he met a woman by the name of Elizabeth Price, so he stayed a while. (It never ceases to amaze me how the course of a life can be changed by a chance encounter.)

In his autobiography, he says:  I didn’t write any songs in Henderson, but it was there I realized that experiences I had had, things I had seen and heard could be set down in a kind of music characteristic of my race. There I learned to appreciate the music of my people . then the blues were born, because from that day on, I started thinking about putting my own experience down in that particular kind of music.

IMG_4710 (800x600)The week-long festival is run by the Henderson Music Preservation Society, Inc., a non-profit organisation, and attracts up to 50 000 people. This year, the visitor who had travelled furthest to get there was none other than yours truly. I won a vintage T-shirt and the subsequent interview with the local newspaper has shaved a couple of minutes off my allotted 15 minutes of fame. I await the headlines with anticipation.

The line-up included Bill Howl-N-Mad Perry, Joanne Shaw Taylor (with Blues Caravan 2013), and a new favourite of mine, CJ Wilder. And that was just the afternoon we hit Henderson.

IMG_4700 (800x600)Two things struck me: one was the sheer diversity of the audience. Everything from twinsets and pearls to biker jackets and bandanas. Every age, size, colour, creed was visible.  And as people filed in with their collapsible chairs, the sheer innovativeness of the American Leisure Industry was apparent. Some deckchairs had footrests, others had rockers; all had the perquisite cup-holder. Alcohol was contained to the bar tents, even though Henderson is not one of the 50 dry counties in Kentucky (where the sale of alcohol is forbidden or restricted). And admittedly, having a drinking area along the lines of a smoking area, took some getting used to.

IMG_4709 (800x600)While European festival-goers might prefer beer with their music, this one focused more on food. Fried food. Good ole southern BBQ. There was even a Raspberry Cheesecake Springroll on offer at the one Asian stand and a lone  Greek stand didn’t fare too well, sandwiched as it was between one selling mutton BBQ and another selling ribs. Yes, you read that right. The second thing that struck me was that down south, in this area anyway, BBQ meat is mutton! Ye gods! BBQ’d lamb, yes. But mutton?

IMG_4716 (800x691)I couldn’t bring myself to try it so we opted for the potato rose (home-made potato chips smothered in cheese) and a rack of pork ribs cooked up by Tim and Barb, which literally disintegrated on touch.

IMG_4712 (600x800)Maybe it was the blues that kept things calm. Maybe it was the lack of booze. Maybe that’s just the way things are in the South – laid back and chilled. There was no aggravation, no rowdiness, nothing other than good cheer and sunshine. As we collected our things to leave, and made our way through the masses, I was peppered by Hi Mary! and Hey, Budapest! – and was, once again struck by American hospitality and that instant familiarity that so amused me when I first set foot stateside.