When I woke up this morning, it was snowing in Memphis!! Just barely, granted, but: bloody snow was falling from the bloody sky! All the Americans who told me the weather would be lovely this time of year: I hold you personally responsible! You know who you are (it’s all of you).
Okay, it wasn’t too bad in the end, there was no wind so in fact it felt less cold than yesterday. We had to pack our things and leave, but before saying goodbye to Memphis we wanted to make one last visit: the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, in South Memphis, on the former site of the Stax Records label.
Like the Civil Rights Museum, this visit also starts with a short video introducing what you’re about to see, except this one looked like it was a VHS tape from the 90s that they just kept replaying. Not that the history of soul has changed since then, but a little update couldn’t hurt…
I enjoyed the visit very much, especially because the museum strikes a very good balance between showcasing the history of soul music as a genre and that of Stax Records as a company; the biggest stars but also the anonymous people making the publication of music possible. It also does a good job playing actual blues hits, and it’s curious to see Isaac Hayes’ ostentatious teal-and-gold Cadillac or the single-track mixing table where they recorded most of their hits. Apparently they mixed the song in a single track long after multitrack tables were available.
After the museum, we bid adieu (or, bye y’all, more like) to Memphis, and hit the road towards Nashville! It’s a three-hour drive, but it was more eventful than our previous roadtrip, partly because traffic was pretty heavy and there were lots of big, scary trucks. Of note: just like we managed to find a decent lunch in Jackson, Mississippi on the way in, we managed to find a decent lunch in Jackson, Tennessee on the way out! Yay for symmetry! Also, we refueled at what is possibly The Most American Gas Station Ever Built:
You can’t see it on the picture, but right behind that big sign is another one that says RV PARK.
We arrived in Nashville and found our fantastic rental home at about 5PM, so we dropped off our bags, checked every nook, and left immediately afterwards for the Grand Ole Opry, which is just across the Cumberland river from us!
One of Nashville’s institutions, The Grand Ole Opry is a live radio show that has been broadcasting country music since the 1920s, and you can buy tickets to attend a recording! Let me cut to the chase by telling you: even if you’re not a fan of country, even if you think that it’s all just about pickup trucks and beer… Go. It’s absolutely worth every penny.
The show isn’t a concert by a single artist, but a 2-hour revue of up to 10 different artists and bands playing two or three songs each. Because of this constant change of lineup, and because it’s a radio show, it’s extremely lively: there can’t be silence on the radio! So they’re chatting and making jokes as the artists come and go.
Some highlights from the show… Terri Clark took the stage by storm wearing a fuchsia cowboy coat and a black cowboy hat (…she’s Canadian!) and made us laugh by doing impersonations before singing. Larry Gatlin was a riot and totally stole an audience member’s popcorn. Mike Snider did a little bit of standup with an accent that you could cut with a knife -I could understand him because he sounded EXACTLY like the characters on Justified. I always thought the accents on the show were put upon or exaggerated, but it’s true to life! Then, after the comedy bit, he and his string band launched into an instrumental piece that blew my mind. He played the banjo, they had two fiddles, one upright bass, something that looked like a mandolin, and a strange instrument that was like a cross between a ukulele and an electric guitar. No drums or non-string instruments… And they were absolutely impressive, all of the . Amazing skills, a beautiful melody, and perfect harmony between the six of them.
After the intermission, the Oak Ridge Boys drew roaring applause from the crowd, who clearly knew them and sang along enthusiastically with them. Jim Ed Brown came onstage with the rest of the Brown family (including whom I thought was his elderly sister) and together they sang a very touching song called Jimmy Brown, also known by the people around us. Striking Matches were by far the youngest artists tonight, a duo from Nashville that has composed eight songs for Nashville-the-show. They too were amazingly skilled with their acoustic guitars, which is all the accompaniment they had -and all they needed! Riders in the Sky sang old-fashioned Texas country, extensive yodelling included. Lastly, Sturgill Simpson played some bluegrass, and one of his hits that the audience loved.
After the show, at 9:30, Striking Matches was signing their record on the lobby, and they were so amazing during their performance that I joined the queue before it got out of hand, and they couldn’t have been nicer. I hope they get the success they deserve!
All in all, it was a tremendously fun and varied show. Most of the performers had been in the business for many decades and it was great to see their familiarity, their skill and their experience on display. I couldn’t have asked for a better first impression of Nashville!