If heaven is a place where the food is good, the music is sweet and the people are warm then Tennessee might just heaven on earth. We drove in via Lynchburg, home of course, to Jack Daniel’s, the world’s best-selling American whiskey. Derived from sour mash and filtered through sugar maple charcoal in huge wooden vats before aging, 119 million bottles of Jack are shipped world-wide each year. We toured the distillery sniffing, ogling and hearing all about how each and every square bottle of Jack Daniel’s was made right there in Lynchburg. But, being in a dry county, we couldn’t actually take a single sip. Not one. Us Brits aren’t known for our temperance and frankly it felt like a form of torture to be so immersed in the sight, sounds and smell of whiskey without being able to drink any of it. But don’t let that put you off. The tour was fascinating (and totally free of charge), the countryside beautiful, the local BBQ smoky and sweet and we made up for the temporary abstinence by drinking Jack and cokes as soon as we got to our next destination that night…
Nashville, or perhaps Nash Vegas to you, is a music city. Some would say The Music City. And here we spent two nights, sleeping in the comfortable Marriott Nashville at Vanderbilt University hotel, a little way from downtown, which Josh especially loved as the room had a view of Vanderbilt stadium. In 1930, Nashville became home to the Grand Old Opry, a radio program which still broadcasts to this day where many country musicians begin their careers and now you can visit the Grand Ole Opry House or the Ryman Auditorium for immersion into
country music. Otherwise you might want to wander around the ‘District’ which is full of neon-lit honkytonks including the famous Tootsies Orchid Lounge (which has been open over 50 years, has two stages and is where the liquor flows freely) or our personal favourite Layla’s Bluegrass Inn where we heard some of the meanest banjo-playing imaginable. Truly breathtaking and brilliantly hillbilly. Another night we whiled away the hours and expanded our waistbands by eating cheesy chilli chips, pulled pork and listening to live blues at the B. B. King Blues Club. The great thing about Nashville as there are so many music spots to choose from you can pop your head into the door and if you like what you hear go and grab a beer and settle down.
We couldn’t get enough of the lively country music and so during our trip we dedicated a few hours to the Country Music Hall of Fame. This Museum identifies and preserves the evolving history and traditions of country music and educates its audiences. It is also fun, kitsch and sweetly solemn. Here we looked at some of Dolly Parton’s costumes and spotted Elvis’s great shiny gold piano. It was easily worth the $22 entrance fee. The affiliated Hatch Show Printers is a wonderful place to pick up souvenir posters and other printed goodies.
Fans of ‘Man Vs. Food’ might like to venture to Prince’s Hot Chicken, a tiny faded shop-front home to cayenne-rubbed hot chucks fried to juicy perfection and served on a slice of white bread with a side of pickles. A local legend, the shack serves mild, medium, hot and (what must be blisteringly) extra hot chicken to lucky locals. We grabbed a giant soda and ate until our ears rang. The skin of the chicken was fiery
hot, but smoky and good. Inside the bird the white meat was soft and soothing. God only knows what would have happened if we’d ordered anything hotter than a medium. Tears certainly. As soon as he started eating his chicken Josh looked distinctly worried. He gulped hard and stared ahead. “I don’t know if I can eat this” he murmured plaintively before breathing hard and ploughing on. And we did it, we cleaned the plate. We may have been sweating and shaking slightly but we did it and it was incredible. An experience like no other.
Even though two nights was simply nowhere near enough as ever we had to push on to Memphis, named after an ancient Egyptian capital and famous for it’s lively Beale Street, Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination and for another “King”, Elvis Presley.
Martin Luther King Jr’s life ended tragically on April 4, 1968 when he was shot by sniper fire on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel by James Earl Ray. Today the Lorraine Motel is home to the humbling and fascinating National Civil Rights Museum. The assassination of King struck a devastating blow to the American civil rights movement however, despite the murder of the movement’s most important leader, African Americans continued to struggle for the equal rights that were guaranteed to them under the U.S. Constitution. The Museum chronicles the struggle of African Americans from the time of slavery to the present. Multimedia presentations and life-size, walk-through tableaux include historic exhibits: a Montgomery, Alabama, public bus like the one on which Rosa Parks was riding when she refused to move to the back of the bus; a Greensboro, North
Carolina, lunch counter; and the burned shell of a Freedom-Ride Greyhound bus. It felt strange to see the balcony where King was slain but incredibly moving to learn more about his life and legacy.
Graceland, needs no introduction we’re sure, but here’s one anyway. A large white-columned mansion within a 13.8-acre estate, and now one of the most-visited private homes in America with over 600,000 visitors a year, Elvis Presley bought Graceland for $102,000 for himself and his family in 1957. And it turns out the King had seriously kitsch taste in home furnishings. Whilst on our tour we saw the famous “jungle room”, walls padded with thick green carpets, a fake indoors waterfall and Hannah daydreamed of moving in and not renovating anything. Elvis died here in the upstairs bathroom in 1977 – which reasonably you’re not allowed to go and gawp at – and his grave is located next to the swimming pool out back. We also poked around a couple of the Presley’s planes and at a collection of his cars, which again we’re brilliantly brash and rock-and-roll. The tour was staffed by some of the least friendly people we’ve ever encountered in America, but maybe they were having a bad day and it was a tiny fly in the ointment as Graceland was a dream-destination for lovers of retro style and Elvis’s musical legacy.
Our first time staying in Memphis and there was really only one place we could stay: the Peabody Hotel. Home, and why not, to a raft of
ducks who march through the lobby every day at 11am and 5pm as they – or their grandparents and parents – have done since 1933. The hotel was really lovely – with a beautiful marble lobby (including the fountain that the one drake and four hens splash about in every day), a great roof with stunning views of the Mississippi, comfortable rooms and a subterranean swimming pool which is helpful if you want to swim off some of the soul food you’ve been indulging in.
With only one night in Memphis and so many incredible sounding places to eat we had to plump for one restaurant only, alas and we plumped (and it’s no coincidence I’m using this word) for Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, which is located in a downtown alley as it has done since 1948 and serves up 5 tonnes of their ridiculously fine dry rub ribs each week. For $17.50 you can get a full rack and for $14.50 a small order. Along with BBQ beans and creamy slaw, this was show-stopping eating. Smoky, sweet and with juicy tender pork falling from the bone, the ribs looked colossal on the plate but were soon seen off. And you don’t need to take it from us, Bill Clinton, Justin Timberlake and Al Green love these ribs. The Rolling Stones got sticky fingers here. It was unbeatable and we’ve already planned a return visit for this year.
It was horrible to have to leave Memphis but before waving good-bye we stopped at Sun Studio, a studio/record label founded by Sam Phillips, where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and a host of other musical legends began their careers during the 1950’s. The Sun Sound began when Sam Phillips launched his record company, naming it Sun Records as a sign of his perpetual optimism: a new day and a new beginning. He rented a small space at 706 Union Avenue for his own all-purpose studio and it’s here where Elvis Presley recorded “That’s All Right” that propelled him into super-stardom. For $12 we had an hour-long guided tour where we saw memorabilia, artifacts and heard scratchy raw recordings of bluesy rock and roll. … We posed for silly pictures in the recording studio that saw Million Dollar Quartet… and imagined for a moment what it must have been like to see a beautiful, undiscovered Elvis Presley shaking his hips.
Tennessee was one of those special places that we talk about often. Something about the Deep South can get under your skin and beg you to return. Nashville and Memphis are both soulful, exciting cities but with contrasting fortunes.
While Nashville is seemingly booming with a vibrant downtown, Memphis remains a little bit down-on-its-luck, but that should not put you off. If anything it drew us in, in the same way that you root for the underdog. We guarantee if you spend any time in either place you will want to go back.” Tennessee’s slogan is “America at its best” and they might just be onto something.
Rate the State:
Good for: Jack Daniel’s, barbeque, all kinds of live music, civil rights history
Bad for: Those trying to avoid fatty foods.