In Autumn 2015, my wife and I went on a trip for 3 months around the USA. We had a fantastic time and I started posting blogs about it. Since then, I’ve not been as productive as I’d have liked as I’ve only posted 6 blogposts about it, so this one is number 7. I think I have one more left to do to finish the trip. Who knows, I might even post that before 2021! It has been lovely reminiscing with my wife about the trip. Anyway, enough of that. What about the trip?
Well, after almost a couple of months on the road, we had already covered a fair bit of the East and West Coast. At this point, we left New Orleans and got back on the road for a long drive – thanks to my wife – and a stop-off for music-obsessive me in Memphis to visit Sun Studios.
The long drive from New Orleans to Memphis was pretty non-descript to be honest, although I wasn’t expecting so many small white churches en route. We did also stop off at a gas station which could easily have been in a David Lynch film due to its hyper-normal, suburban weirdness.
When we eventually got to Sun Studios, I was amazed at how small it was. It’s inevitably a tourist magnet and rightly so, due to its mythical status in rock and roll history. I stood where an 18-year old Elvis Presley stood and recorded his first ever record in 1953 and also performed with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins in 1956 as the Million Dollar Quartet.
It would have been wonderful to have spent more time in Memphis, but we had to make decisions from time to time on this trip because we couldn’t see and do everything we wanted. And so, next stop…
Although my wife had been really looking forward to visiting Nashville, I’ll be honest in that I hadn’t been that fussed about going originally. But I’m so glad we did as it ended up being one of the highlights of the entire trip for both of us.
There is the country music ‘Disneyland’ that you would expect with shops selling stetsons and cowboy boots and most bars full of live country music, however there is so much more to this wonderful city.
On reflection, what made an impression on a cynical old Londoner such as myself, was seeing a few people walking around in full cowboy Saturday night outfits without a hint of irony. That symbolised Nashville for me. It’s almost as if people were saying ‘This is who we are and maybe that’s not ‘cool’, but we like it and we’re proud of it.’ I found a lovely sense of honesty and openness in Nashville that was really quite charming and maybe something we could all learn from.
On our way out one night, we noticed a big crowd nearby and soon realised we had happened upon the annual Country Music Awards. The atmosphere was fantastic, but as we didn’t have tickets, we went for a bite to eat (brisket, hot dogs and slaw) at the wonderfully laidback Jack’s Barbeque. Another night we ended up having drinks at Robert’s Western World and also, the legendary Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge where on being asked which songs I’d like them to play, I suggested ‘Creep’ by Radiohead which threw them a bit which was a pity, as a country version of that could have been quite interesting.
Other than the sense of friendliness and warmth from everyone we met, my personal highlight was the Johnny Cash Museum. I’d grown up listening to country music as my dad was a fan, but I had never really ‘got’ country music and especially not Johnny Cash. But after spending a fascinating hour or so here, I became a total convert as until then I’d always seen him as ‘just another’ country singer. And I now realised that he was much, much more than that.
The AirBnB we stayed in probably wasn’t the best and it clearly wasn’t as close to the centre as described, but all in all, our trip to Nashville had been a surprisingly huge hit. And what’s more, our next stop was going to visit the shrine of another of one of my most favourite things – Jack Daniels.
I have been a JD and Coke fan since the age of 15 when I found out that it had been the drink of choice for musicians since the start of rock & roll. I hated it at first, but was determined to be as grown-up as possible at that age and so I persisted and now many years later, it’s still my favourite drink and so the idea of visiting the Jack Daniels Distillery, the source of all things JD, was just too good to miss.
As a fan, it was really interesting finding out how Jack Daniels whisky was still being made in the same way since it had been founded in 1875 in a distillery located in Moore County in the city of Lynchburg, Tennessee. Strangely, Moore County is a dry county – one that allows no alcohol sales at all.
A weird state of affairs for a company that sells whisky perhaps. So, the way they get round it is that you can visit the White Rabbit Saloon store to buy a souvenir bottle that just happens to have Jack Daniels inside!
After a lovely time in Lynchburg, we then drove back to Nashville for a flight to our next stop.
Like many places on our trip, I didn’t really know what to expect from Charleston and as was usually the case, it transpired that I really liked it. With its cobblestone streets, beautiful antebellum houses and Southern charm, we loved just walking around this delightful city.
We stayed at the Meeting Street Inn which was a bit like an old, stuffy gentlemen’s club, especially with its uber-chintzy interior design, although we had noticed that on our trip to that you seem to pay more for traditional chintz in hotels in the States.
Though Charleston is a small city and the centre is easily walkable, we took the tourist bus which we’re big fans of doing in new cities as it gives you your bearings and you can decide where to go en route.
Being in the South, we really wanted to visit one of the plantation houses to get more of a sense of the social, political and cultural history in this part of the country. Although hearing the stories based around the slavery of the time inevitably made us both sad and angry, actually being at a place such as the Macleod Plantation House in Charleston gave us a fascinating insight into a significant moment in history.
After this humbling experience, you think that things have got much better since then and although there has been considerable progress over the years regarding racial inequality, passing the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, one of the oldest black churches in the country, where there was a mass shooting in 2015 when 9 black congregation members were killed, is a telling reminder that things still have to change to eradicate racism.
On a totally different note, one of the joys of travelling in general is the food and being in the US was no exception. We’d tried all kinds of ‘traditional’ American dishes – including things like grits which like a naive tourist I was expecting to be more ‘gritty’ – and here I was going to have tater tots for the first time. For those such as myself before this experience who don’t know, they’re essentially deep-fried cylinder shaped potatoes. What’s not to like!
After a couple of days getting the feel of Charleston, our next stop was in Savannah. Funnily enough, another place we were looking forward to seeing especially as my wife is a big architecture fan.
The undoubted highlight of our visit here was visiting some of the incredibly grand cemeteries and seeing the magnificent Spanish moss which drape themselves across the entire place, so much so that it often felt like you were walking in a strange Southern Gothic novel or film.
On our wanderings around Savannah, we also came across a quaint, little bookshop run by a sweet American lady who was clearly obsessed with teddy bears and all things English. And what made it more interesting was that she’d never actually been to England, so the ‘Englishness’ she clearly loved was garnered from books, films, the internet and her own dreams and interpretations. She even made her own English tea, which was lovely!
So, after a few days in Charleston and Savannah, where next?
Last Leg of the Trip
After our wonderful southern experience, we were now heading off for the final part of our trip to Cuba before heading back to London. But first we were going to spend some time in Key West and the potentially glorious city of Miami, baby!