Take a sweet-sounding Southern road trip from the blues to rock ‘n’ roll
By Robert Thatcher
Paul Simon hit the road in the early 1980s seeking inspiration. His drive from Louisiana to Memphis became the song “Graceland.”
This road trip may not give you a song, but it will surely inspire anyone who loves music. Hop in for a drive to four musical meccas.
“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers”
Muscle Shoals, AL
This river town is all about musical beginnings. So start at the W.C. Handy Home and Museum, the log-cabin birthplace of the “Father of the Blues” in Florence. Stand by the piano where he wrote “St. Louis Blues” — and the blues were born.
Muscle Shoals is also the humble birthplace of another sound that shaped modern music. Think “Brown Sugar,” “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “Free Bird.” It’s hard to believe these global standards and more were recorded in two small buildings here — Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
Tour dim rooms where “the Swampers” mixed gritty R&B and country soul to create the “Muscle Shoals Sound.” Then record your own demo at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in nearby Tuscumbia.
All this music will leave you with a question. Why Muscle Shoals? Locals say the answer is at our last stop, Tom’s Wall, near the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Resident Tom Hendrix built this mile-long monument to his great-great-grandmother, a Yuchi tribe member. Forcibly removed during the Trail of Tears, she’s the only person to make the long walk back to Muscle Shoals. What motivated her?
She didn’t hear the river singing to her in Oklahoma. But she heard it here.
On the Menu: Dine with a view at Florence’s 360 Grille, Alabama’s only revolving restaurant, or under a rock at the Rattlesnake Saloon in Tuscumbia. Also, slurp down “The Harvey” milkshake at the Palace Ice Cream Shop in Tuscumbia.
“Long-distance information give me Memphis, Tennessee”
Memphis, TN – 151 miles via Highway 72 West
W.C. Handy’s musical road led to Memphis. So follow him to the street he made famous for the blues.
Whether you want authentic soul food or live music, Beale Street has it all. And for a full dose of blues, visit May 1-3 during the Beale Street Music Festival.
Rivers and railroads made Memphis a melting pot of musical styles. Blues mixed with country to form rockabilly. And it all combined with a rhythmic force named Elvis Presley to create rock ‘n’ roll.
Start where he started — Sun Studio. In 1953, an 18-year-old Elvis walked into this corner building with a cheap guitar and a dream. Stand where Sam Phillips helped make the dream come true for Elvis and other stars including Muddy Waters, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash.
Then drive to where the dream ended. Tour Graceland’s colonial mansion, visit the grave, view the airplanes — and pay tribute to a talent that left our world too soon.
If you arrive between Jan. 7-10, help Memphis blow out the candles for Elvis’ 80th birthday celebration. And sing “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby!”
On the Menu: Rendezvous Ribs (If there’s a wait, try TOPS, Central BBQ or Corky’s.)
“I’m goin’ to Jackson, look out Jackson town”
Jackson, TN — 88 miles on I-40 East
On the way to Nashville, stop by the International Rock-a-Billy Hall of Fame in Jackson.
The brainchild of Henry Harrison, this museum is aptly located in Carl Perkins’ hometown, between Memphis (home of rock ‘n’ roll and blues) and Nashville (home of country and hillbilly music).
But Harrison is quick to point out that this tour is not about glittery memorabilia. It’s about stories of the stars as ordinary people. These stories come firsthand. Harrison claims to be a childhood friend of Johnny Cash, classmate of Elvis and the man who once repossessed Jerry Lee Lewis’ car.
“We don’t tell you how many gold records Elvis had,” Harrison says. “Everybody can look that up. But we do have a picture of Elvis playing touch football beside Humes High School when he was in the 11th grade, wearing Converse tennis shoes and a pullover top. And he was just one of us.”
“There’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville”
Nashville, TN — 129 miles on I-40 East
It’s fitting to end our musical drive at the dream destination for would-be stars.
But don’t be fooled by this city’s honky-tonk past. Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline is now filled with skyscrapers. And the “Country Music Capital” is now a center for all kinds of music — bluegrass, blues, Americana, jazz, you name it.
Start with a stroll down Music Row and Broadway, the heart of Nashville’s entertainment industry. Take in the record labels, browse Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop and pause by publishing houses. Then tour historic RCA Studio B to sample the famous “Nashville Sound” from the ’60s.
You’ll also want to tour the historic Ryman Auditorium downtown. This former tabernacle was home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974, and it still hosts the “world’s longest-running radio show” Nov. 1 to Feb. 4. Otherwise, head to the Grand Ole Opry House east of downtown.
Many come to Nashville with a guitar and a dream. So before you leave, catch a rising star at a “writer’s night” — one of Nashville’s small acoustic sets for songwriters to try out new material. Try the Listening Room Cafe or the Bluebird Cafe.
On the menu: Hattie B’s Hot Chicken is a mouth-burning must. But you’ll need a hearty breakfast to fuel your drive home. Try the Pancake Pantry, a Nashville tradition since 1961, or the Loveless Cafe. You never know when you might see a star enjoying a good flapjack, too.