My Great American Songbook: ‘Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike’ NJ to Nashville, Tennessee

23 Apr

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel got into my head first as we turned onto the New Jersey Turnpike.

The trigger for this trip was Sarah and Brian’s wedding, as perfect an expression of love and commitment supported by family and friends as you could hope to see. It was a fine affair and we felt privileged to be a part of it. Thank you to Lynn and Alastair and to the rocking DJ who kept us all on the dance floor.

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The wedding served as a springboard for travel through the Great American Songbook looping from Allentown to Atlanta and on to Nashville, Mempis, Clarksdale and New Orleans. So many sights, songs and sounds I’m going to have trouble compressing them into four posts but I’ll do my best not to bore.

Driving past Pleasant Valley Road the Monkees 1967 version of ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ penned by Carole King and Gerry Goffin came out of my mouth. It was an ear worm then and still is!

The New Hope, Pennsylvania, wedding location gave us time over the weekend to meander around the region, along the Delaware River, and revisit the picturesque university town of Princeton.

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Our Ramada hotel room rate included breakfast but after one plastic and polystyrene self service encounter we preferred to walk down to the 24 hour Eagle Diner where Kevin served up real eggs on real plates and fresh coffee in real mugs. We lingered there just to eavesdrop on conversations about hunting and fishing, a few tall tales, and ruminations about the recent cold snap. I am a big fan of the laconic dry wit of Pennsylvanians.

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From the shape and markings on the buildings we got a strong sense of the historical significance of this region and the waves of migration that still influence it strongly today. The food, the barns, the expressions, echo Dutch and German farming communities. Not everything is fixed in time however as the Triumph Brewery and Restaurant in New Hope demonstrated. This gastropub on the railway line is a vibrant live music venue. Another good meal was our lunch in the sunshine at The Landing on the riverside watching a crew train for a dragon boat style race. A final visit to Lynn and Alastair’s river house for a hit of tennis and we were on the road again.

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View from Al and Lynn’s home
Rather than stay in Allentown where we were taking our flight to Atlanta we stopped in Quakertown, unsurprisingly named for the Quakers who first settled here. Of note are Synes Five and Dime store and milkbar, in continuous operation for 101 years with very few if any obvious changes since the 50s. The Civil War memorabilia and original newspapers on display prompted me to review that bloody time in US history before we headed south.

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Report of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech

On the way Billy Joel’s ‘Allentown’ was on repeat in my head. I’d forgotten what a raunchy video he made of it.

Maybe it was the flat landscape with deciduous trees still starkly bare, or the reminders of people fallen on hard times and foreclosed homes, or maybe it was the ubiquitous evidence of damaged veterans of US conflicts (2.6million and counting), but I was happy to move on to Atlanta, Georgia and the 85 degree weather awaiting us.

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Our first stroke of luck was the charming Camryn at Sixt offering us an upgrade from a rattly Jetta to a Mercedes C Series with built-in GPS for less than the original deal. Traveling in style! The second was getting tickets to ‘Zorro, the musical’ at the Woodruff Centre. The show is unbridled entertainment and quite slapstick, but the music was brilliant and the leads’ voices fantastic.

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We stayed on West Peachtree Street in Midtown and walked the three kilometres to the Woodruff three times to see the show then back for the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition at the adjacent High Museum. The works and information displayed gave me a much better insight into both of them and confirmed that I prefer her work to his. I also learned the cause of Rivera’s death, penile cancer, the ultimate irony for the Don Juan.

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Midtown Atlanta is clean, green and people were chatty and kind. Margaret Mitchell’s home at the time she wrote ‘Gone with the wind’ and also the Federal Reserve Museum are on Peachtree. One day was ridiculously short to spend here and I’d be happy to come back.

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It’s a good four hours interstate highway drive from Atlanta to Nashville and we copped a thunder storm an hour from our destination. Aquaplaning is a real concern on those highways so we drove conservatively, especially around the crazy truck drivers. We stayed out of town in the ground floor apartment of Luis and David Menendez but had no trouble driving ourselves to the music meccas of the Bluebird Cafe, Opryland, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Ryman Auditorium and Broadway.

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Opryland

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Backstage Grand Ole Opry

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At this point I must mention my Father, Don Tickle. The first music I heard was country and western, as it was called then. Dad taught himself to play guitar and older brother George, who was a farmer, played the squeeze box. They’d crank out country tunes at frequent family gatherings lubricated by lots of grog. Sometimes my Mum, Margaret, would join in for a duet ballad. No such thing as babysitters so we kids stayed up until we passed out under the table. Hank Williams Senior was a particular favourite. Hank was born in Alabama but a staple on the Grand Ole Opry. ‘Your cheatin’ heart’ and ‘I’m so lonesome I could cry’ were probably the first songs I learnt from Dad along with Loretta Lynn’s, ‘There goes my everything’. Dad and George are still with us but it’s been a long time since I heard them play together.

Here’s just a sample of ‘Your cheatin’ heart’.

Like many of you I’m sure, music makes a direct connection from my ears to my tear ducts, so I spent much of the two days in Nashville smiling through salty water. Nothing disappointed me. The tour back stage of the Grand Ole Opry felt personal and I was humbled to stand on the same circle of wood on stage where every lead singer stands in front of the microphone and looks out at the 3450 audience theatre. The closest I got to singing country was a brief stint with a four piece country group when we lived in Kobe, Japan. We performed at the Yellow Rose in Osaka. I recall two numbers in our set were ‘Tennysee Waltz’ and ‘Honky Tonk Angels’. Oh yeah, we rocked!

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A little GOO trivia. Of the 66 current invited members of the Grand Ole Opry (a very big deal) only one was born outside the USA. Yep, you got it – Keith Urban. New Zealand born but raised in Queensland, Australia, Keith is unique in country music. The night before we arrived he had organised and presented a huge fundraiser concert for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville (he was inducted in 2012).

We saw the Opry Country Classics show at the Ryman Auditorium hosted by Larry Gatlin, hoopin’ and hollerin’ along with everyone else for the benefit of the live radio broadcast. 82 years without missing a single live radio show is quite an achievement considering the floods, wars and economic depressions Nashville has experienced. The acts were a mix of young, commercially successful artists like Rebecca Lyn Howard and older revered names like Charlie Daniels and his band. At 68 Daniels is still blistering on guitar and fiddle. What stood out was what polished performers they all are and the gentle good humour and ribbing they gave each other.

‘Devil went down to Georgia’

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The Country Music Hall of Fame’s special exhibit on Patsy Cline is outstanding. What a loss when she died suddenly in a plane crash aged 30 leaving her husband and two small children. Her voice has the power to reach out and touch new generations. Listen to her sing the Willie Nelson composition ‘Crazy’live at the Opry if you haven’t heard her before.

We tried to listen in at most of the bars on Broadway and enjoyed all of it, especially Dusty Hundley at Margaritaville, and Jake Maurer on guitar with Ally Summers of fiddle at Rippys. Jake has a wicked sense of humour. At Tootsies we saw two young singer guitarists, Justin and Alex play in the upstairs back bar, then caught the Jimmy Schneider band downstairs. There is so little space the drummer sits in the bow window. For the price of a beer and whatever tip you care to leave you can be entertained all day and well into the night on Broadway.

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I was too late to buy tickets online for the show I really wanted at the Bluebird Cafe but it was still very cool to sit in that special ‘listening room’ out on Hillsboro Pike to watch Irish singer songwriter Gerry O’Bierne play. I imagined being there when an undiscovered Garth Brooks stepped up on Open Mic night.

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Gerard O’Bierne at the Bluebird

No visit to Nashville would be complete without picking up a pair of cowgirl boots at the Boot Barn. My handsome red leather stitched boots have been on my feet more than off since I bought them!

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I leave you with one of Urban’s hugely successful ‘She done me wrong’ songs.

Next stop Memphis!

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