My Great American Songbook: ‘I’m going to Graceland’ Nashville to Memphis, Tennessee

1 May

Before we can head down Interstate 40, the Music Highway, we visit South Carolina-born lawyer Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage on the outskirts of Nashville. The seventh president bought this cotton and subsistence plantation in 1804 and built a grand family home here for his beloved wife, Rachel, their adopted son and extended family. Eleven years later Jackson led American troops to victory against the British at the Battle of New Orleans and in 1829 became President for the first of his two terms. There is nothing quite like reading a man’s own words, walking his rooms and his land, albeit much changed, to understand his world view.

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Andrew Jackson

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Rachel Jackson

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Jackson’s house at The Hermitage

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Our greeter

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Slave family’s shack

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Jackson’s detached kitchen, added after a kitchen fire burnt much of the original house

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Jackson’s grave
It appears to me that amongst other things Jackson was a canny pragmatist. A slave holder who bought his first slave when he was just 21, he supported the Union (although he was not active in politics by the time of the Civil War) and signed the Indian Removal Bill to remove Indians from land wanted for farming by white settlers. His approach to slave holding appears benevolent but his management was based on good business principles, such as keeping families together in shacks on the property so they’d be less likely to abscond. See the copy of a newspaper ad in which he appeals for help to recapture an escaped male slave and offers a fifty dollar reward (extra if recaptured out of state) ‘and ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes, any person will give him to the amount of three hundred’.

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Jackson’s only heir, the adopted Andrew Jackson Junior, made costly, bad decisions and ran into challenging economic times. He sold the estate to the State of Tennessee to pay his debts. Jackson Jnr died by his own hand, shot himself in the foot in a hunting accident and died of the wound.

An early start without breakfast and fresh air tramping the Hermitage gave us quite an appetite. We’d been curious about the ubiquitous 24 hour Waffle House restaurants dotted along major roads so here was our chance to try one and experience grits for the first time. The concept is simple, everything cooked in full view of the diners with orders shouted from waitresses to cooks. Quite how they remember I don’t know as every order was different. The American tendency to individuality was on full display as a cooked breakfast was served up countless ways. I ordered cheese omelette with grits, toast and coffee from Mae who disturbingly was missing half of one of her top front teeth. The grits were watery and tasteless but the omelette was okay and the service was exemplary.

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Memphis is only 3.5 hours due west of Nashville but with heavy traffic, switching drivers and a fuel stop we didn’t reach out hotel until 4pm. Our plan was to hit Sun Studio before they closed at 5pm. We just made the last tour of the day. It was only as I was standing in the lobby cafe gazing at the posters, photos and memorabilia covering the walls and ceilings that it sank in that I was really there, at the epicentre of modern music history. Goosebumps.

Sun is still used to record at night, they have not changed a floot or ceiling tile in the studio to keep the distinctive sound, and recently Lisa Marie Presley used it to cut some tracks.

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If you’re familiar with music producer Sam Phillips and the black and white artists he recorded, you’ll understand my shock and awe. I was looking at original contracts, telegrams, record pressings, musical instruments and listening to the first recordings of pivotal songs such as arguably the first rock ‘roll single ‘Rocket 88’ , by Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner in March 1951 and Elvis Presley’s first single ‘That’s All Right’ recorded on July 5, 1954. I like this live versionof the song Elvis sings at the Louisiana Hayride a few weeks after it’s gone meteoric.

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Sam Phillips
The icing on the cake was standing on the cross on the recording studio floor where Elvis used to stand with his back to the glass fronted booth to record. Hard to believe how nervous he was in the early days. We were allowed to hold the same microphone and I could not resist belting out a few bars. ‘Well it’s one for the money…’.

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Our hotel was two blocks from Beale Street. Both nights we bar hopped to catch as many bands as we could, then returned Sunday for a lunch set at BB King’s restaurant. Police barricade both ends of Beale Street at night and search everyone entering the pedestrian area but it really only gets messy after 11pm.

20130501-012946.jpg Highlights for me were Ugly Juanita’s and the Memphis Night Band and the Boogie Blues Band at the Rum boogie cafe.

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Memphis Night Band


Boogie Blues Band
As we walked into Juanita’s the band was ripping into ‘Honky Tonk Woman’. I can’t stand still when that song’s playing. A chubby, young black woman in the tightest white jeans you can imagine jumped up and took both my hands. We danced up a storm that would make Mick proud. I couldn’t find out the name of the singer, who looked to be in his late sixties, but he had a beautific Nelson Mandela smile. The next night we wandered into Handy Park and there he was again playing a gig. He flashed me a huge grin so I went up and gave him a hug. Lo and behold another black woman invited me to dance and it was righteous!

You don’t need blue suede shoes to feel ten feet off of Beale.

Saturday was the big one. Graceland. People who don’t get Elvis think it’s bad taste to visit the home he died in aged 42 and his grave site but music is my religion and this was a personal pilgrimmage. Not just for myself but in remembrance of my Nanna who lived in the granny flat downstairs. She’d drop everything when an Elvis movie came on telly, make a strong cup of tea with condensed milk, then sit and watch the screen closely, chair dancing to the musical numbers. I must have been about ten at the time but I remember watching ‘Viva Las Vegas’ goggle eyed just like it happened yesterday. He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen or heard. Still is to this day.

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It’s actually a pretty tasteful family home apart from the jungle room

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He played this piano the day he died.

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Elvis’s grave between his parents and next to his stillborn twin brother Jessie

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Lisa Marie Presley owns the property and has done since she turned 25 and came into her inheritance. Her mother, Priscilla, as executor of his will, along with his father who died two years after Elvis, made the decision to move Elvis’ grave there for security reasons and create a public museum to generate income necessary to maintain it and Elvis’ personal effects as Elvis’s liquid assets at the time of his death only amounted to five million dollars. When Lisa Marie took over it was worth 100 million. It is still the third most visited private home in the US and judging by the crowds when we went there is no sign of The King of Rock ‘n Roll’s popularity waning.

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With his parents

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As a boy

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The man

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The costumes

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Whoever is running the show is doing a grand job, it’s a well oiled machine with enlightened HR policies. They employ many physically disabled people and staff are genuinely happy to work there, many have been there for decades. We ate in the Graceland cafe and I swear to God I had no idea that Elvis’ favourite sandwich is mine too, peanut butter and banana on lightly toasted bread. I always thought he had it made with bacon and deep fried but that was just a lie….

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The toys

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Last one but a goody, the 68 Comeback Show

This is getting rather wordy but I would be remiss not to mention the Peabody Hotel, across the road from where we stayed, and our Segway downtown tour. The Peabody is a venerable institution in Memphis. The lobby bar is the place to see and be seen and brides-to-be fight to get into its function rooms for their weddings. The Peabody Ducks in the lobby fountain sound hokey until you see them march in and paddle about and by the second Jack Daniel’s based cocktail you begin to wonder why every decent hotel bar doesn’t have them.

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I particularly commend the Lynchburg Lemonade, a long cocktail made with Sweet and Sour, Sprite, Triple Sec and Single Barrel Jack Daniels.

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As we only had a weekend I thought a Segway tour could be an interesting way to see parts of Memphis we might not otherwise get to. I hadn’t bargained on how tricky it is to ride those suckers! We were coached in the technique before being let loose on the streets and footpaths but it took me a while to realise I had placed my feet too far forward such that I struggled to stay still when we got to pedestrian crossings with crowds of people and cars in all directions (it was the Crayfish Festival on the riverbank). Segways don’t have brakes, you control the forward and backward motion by shifting your weight. At one point I started to take off down the pavement and our guide had to whizz down and retrieve me. Once I sorted my foot placement I was cool. Stuart did brilliantly as you can see.

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James, our guide, took us to the Lorraine Hotel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jnr was assassinated, past the Arcadia Restaurant, down Beale Street, past trams and along the Mississipi riverside walkway.

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As a vegetarian the majority of the local cuisine is wasted on me but I know people go crazy for their fried fish, boiled crayfish and such so we queued up at the popular Flying Fish restaurant just to see what people ate. And eat they did. I’ve never seen such heaped plates in my life!

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Customers can name their fish on the wall

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Hysterical restaurant sign in the Flying Fish

The music in Memphis was amazing but it was time to explore the bedrock of Blues by going deeper into the Mississipi delta. It was time to take Route 61 to Clarksdale.

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5 Responses to “My Great American Songbook: ‘I’m going to Graceland’ Nashville to Memphis, Tennessee”

  1. EyeGee May 1, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    Glad to see somebody else who loves flamenco AND The King! cheers, -ig

    • Sharon Tickle May 2, 2013 at 12:46 am #

      Until the day I die! (And they will both be played at my wake ;-))

      st

  2. Chevalier May 2, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

    Thank you Sharon for all the pictures of Graceland, Loraine Hotel, Sun studio, beale street… , I stayed twice in Memphis, the last one in 2006, and I love this place.
    I have to go again to see my friends and to go to Beale street , Yes after 11 at night it’s crazy !
    Where are you to day???? I am in Belgium visiting friends, and in 10 days I will be in Rome ….lol
    Bye and see you soon in Paris.

  3. Julie Kempnich May 4, 2013 at 8:46 am #

    Thank you for all the Elvis / Gaceland photos and news, Sharon. I love him too..looks and music and moves…what a man he was. Between your cow girl boots and your Elvis experiences, I am getting quite envious of you on this trip! Hey you had better start eating your grits up, girl..you are looking v tiny in the mike photo. Great reporting. Thanks for sharing. Julie xx

    Sent from my iPad

    • Sharon Tickle May 4, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

      Back in the Old Dart so a few Cornish cream teas and beer and there’ll be a whole lot more of me Julie!

      Thanks for reading.

      Sxx

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