At the end of September 2000 me, Phil Davies and Ian Calford descended on Tennessee for two weeks. On 29th September Phil and I were to attend Jerry Lee's 65th Birthday Bash and the following week Ian was to record a follow up album to his Vampirella release, Strapped For Cash.
After being dropped off at Cardiff airport and spending a couple of hours in Schipol Airport, Amsterdam, we were flying across the big pond, Memphis bound. We met a lovely Dutch couple who were also going to the Jerry Lee Convention. As we flew over Tennessee at about 7pm you could see the meandering Mississippi River shining in the moonlight and we talked about how close Dyess was from Memphis on a jet, but for a young Johnny Cash during the Depression it must have seemed like another planet. As soon as we breezed through customs we headed for the Dollar Car Rental and picked up a new fangled people carrier. We didn't have much idea where we were or where to stay so we drove around until we found Elvis Presley Boulevard. Within ten minutes we looking out the windscreen at Graceland and the lump in out throats told us we had truly arrived. Every shack we passed was followed by Ian saying he didn't expect it to be this poor and did we think Johnny Cash had ever been into that building over there. Sad, real sad.
Another ten minutes and we turned left onto Union Avenue. Past the Baptist Memorial Hospital where Elvis died, trying to guess which room it was, then there it stood, Sun Studios, 706 Union Ave. The place conjures up so many feelings, this tiny studio where the music world was turned upside down. The neon sign acted like a stop sign, so we obliged and pulled over. Fifteen minutes into our holiday and we were already taking photos. Once we 'd got our breaths back we headed west towards downtown. We booked into the first place we found, the Best Western on Union, right opposite the world famous Peabody Hotel. We'd only been awake twenty-odd hours so we dumped the bags and headed to Beale Street. First stop was Presley's where we witnessed a very disappointing show by the Dempsey's, who were all show and no substance. They went down amazingly well with the pundits though, playing the likes of Twenty Flight Rock and Tequila but nothing from Sun rockabillies like Billy Lee Riley or Warren Smith. Beale Street was dead on a Tuesday night so we toddled back to the hotel and were treated to some astounding snoring noises from Ian. Phil and me chatted all night and I sat in the window looking out at the Autozone, the new baseball park for the Memphis Redbirds. The snoring got worse, Phil said "let's kill him", I said "where's Joe Bean" and Ian woke and said "hang the sun-of-a-bitch anyway". Great way to start the day - some quote Shakespeare, some quote Cash.
A quick glance through the essential Memphis-Elvis Style book told us that the Gridiron, just down from Graceland was the place for breakfast. We were the only white folks in the joint and we were treated superbly. The grits, pecan pancakes, coffee, steak and eggs (over easy!) went down smoothly as we played Elvis, Bobby Bland and BB King on the jukebox and chatted with the locals. Elvis used to sit on this one here, one bloke informed us - well it must have been in the '50s or '60s I thought, coz his '70s ass wouldn't have fit on that stool. Next was the obligatory visit to Graceland and though I' ve been done the tour four times before, it still has a magic feel to it. To be in the house of the icon of the 20th Century, marvelling at his outlandish tastes. If you wander why you're there, a couple of minutes in the trophy room served as an instant reminder. What qualities do you need to get a job there - I heard one employee asking another, "did he die on the toilet then?". Better than "he was a singer was he?" I suppose.
Once we'd taken in the grounds and the planes and cars we headed uptown for a visit to Sun. The bus driver turned out to be none other than Mike Freeman, author of the Memphis-Elvis Style book we'd used earlier. He seemed a really nice guy, who shows total dedication and pointed out places of interest all along the route. It's hard to breathe properly in Sun - the air conditioning is fine, but the sense of I'm in heaven is overwhelming. Jerry sat there, Elvis stood there, Johnny had a cigarette there, Billy Lee came through that door with a gun - it all gallops around your mind as you try and take the surroundings in. It's been said a million times what a small studio it is, but man, how could so much brilliant music come from within them four walls. One guy sat on the floor the whole time with his head in his hands, listening to the snippets of the Wolf, the King and the Killer. We knew what he was thinking, but some looked at him in disbelief. You're a follower or you ain't, I suppose. After the tour was over Ian slipped the guide ten bucks to be able to sing in the studio. The only guitar in tune was one donated by Marty Stuart so Ian dropped her into gear and tore through So Doggone Lonesome. It was a great feeling to video it, so what Ian must have been thinking I wouldn't like to guess. Whatever it was, a quick change of underwear and he was ready to go again.
We spent ages in the cafˇ, the old Taylor's Cafˇ where many a Sun classic was written. None of us write songs so we had a cherry coke and a moon-pie instead - which was nice! We dragged ourselves back to the glorious sunshine outside and stood on the sidewalk pretending we were waiting for Mr Phillips, coz we'd like him to hear our little band. Not exactly how it was, but a few had tried it in the past. The van rocked to the sounds of Charlie Feathers as we headed east to Jackson, TN. We drove around Jackson for hours until we finally settled in the Days Inn. After resting for all of three minutes we went for a Shoneys and were served by some lovely staff, who knew how to treat a customer, but knew bugger all about Jackson's best loved rocker. "Do you know where Carl Perkins' house is?" "Who's Carl Perkins?" "The guy who owns that restaurant twenty yards over there, Suede' s". "Never heard off him". "He did Blue Suede Shoes". "I thought that was Elvis". The amount this girl knew she could have got a job at Graceland! One guy knew and he gave us directions and said there was music notes on the door. We got back on the road and looked in vain in the dark.
Forgiving the staff for their musical shortcomings we went back to Shoney's for breakfast and in the blistering heat went back on the hunt for Carl's house. It's in a beautiful area north of the interstate, the houses are big and the US flag flew proudly in most the gardens. It was great to know that Carl had risen from extreme poverty to this place of comfort. Ian dropped a CD through the post-box and a note to Stan, Carl's son, who he will be backing in the UK next year. We went to Suede's next and met Carl's son-in-law Brett Swift, who showed us plenty of southern hospitality and made us most welcome. The restaurant is packed with memorabilia and it was a touching moment when I took Phil's photo next to the Now Dig This plaque that he'd presented to Carl in '96. As we drove on towards Nashville we crossed the Piney River and we all thought that name rings a bell. The next sign had Centreville and Dickson and then we realized they were places from Saturday Night At Hickman County which Ian had covered on his Strapped For Cash album. We were smack in the middle of Hickman County and were still buzzing when we had a burger in Dickson. Phil phoned Bob whilst me 'n' Ian braved the natives, most of whom seemed like bit part actors from Deliverance. Just as me and Ian were buying a raft and a banjo, Bob arrived and took us to Burns.
As soon as we entered the Rockabilly Hall of Fame office we heard the strains of a full-blooded, Folsom Prison Blues courtesy of Burl Boykin and C.W. Gatlin. After shooting the breeze with them and studio honcho Gordon Stinson, Burl, CW and Ian jammed for about four hours, starting with some Cash and ending with CW playing the blues from John Lee Hooker to Jimmy Reed. It was agreed that they would return in a few days time to play on Ian's follow up tribute to the Man In Black. We all left the studio late with the crickets filling the night air. We drove back to Jackson, whilst Burl and CW drove to Oxford, Mississippi and Helena, Arkansas respectively. It had been another great day and we still hadn't seen Jerry Lee yet.
When we left Jackson the next morning there was only one thing that was gonna come out of that vans speakers - the Killer. We were headed back west to Memphis to visit the worlds greatest singer at his home. Me and Phil were like dogs with two dicks, filled with the usual anxiety that the anticipation of a Jerry Lee show gives you. The lump in our stomachs got bigger as we met a traffic jam, still 70 miles from Memphis. We filled up the van for an amazingly low $30 and laughed as the gauge went round real slow, not like at home where the money signs flash over and over. When we finally arrived at the Holiday Inn Select we were amazed to see it was about ten yards from the Dollar rental. The hotel was superb and they'd even laid on a mini-bus to the Killer's ranch in Nesbit, MS about twenty miles away. The crowd on the bus were from all parts of the States including a fun loving ex-pat, Tom from Birmingham and a young lad from Belgium who'd travelled on his own. As soon as we turned up at the gates on the ranch, we were met by Jerry Lee III and his mad mate from Woo Pass, Mississippi (or Woop Ass as he had great pleasure in telling me).
It was an emotional moment walking around Jerry Lee's garden, sitting on his boathouse?? looking across the sun drenched lake at the horses, idling in the field. The hotdogs were okay and the ice cold cokes hit the spot but it was JLL we were waiting for and when the allotted hour approached, the in-laws lit the cake. They burned like Atlanta and by the time Jerry made his appearance, they'd disappeared leaving burn marks on the cake. As Jerry made his way to the stage it was obvious that he wasn't in the best of health. He looked weak and old, a shadow of the man that has spent his life trail blazing the world, singing his songs. After a few words from the stage and then chatted as he made his way back towards the cool of the house. We wondered how long he could play tomorrow night, the way he looked we thought we'd be lucky to get anything above fifteen minutes. The tour of the house is another wet eye moment. You see the first piano he ever had, the one his daddy Elmo mortgaged the house for. The living room is in a beautiful spot overlooking the lake and as with Carl's place you get a warm feeling knowing that your hero has some nice creature comforts.
When we got back to the hotel everyone was gathered in the hotel lobby. We got talking to Jerry's former road manager Ray Hale who was a good laugh and assuming Wales was part of London, wanted us to teach him some Cockney slang. We also met Buck Hutchison who we discovered could talk a glass eye to sleep. About forty of us headed to the Sawmill for a glorious Cajun dish - she was lovely but I forget her name! Phil showed his age and stayed at the hotel (talking to Frankie Jean's son), whilst me and Ian joined the Scotsmen Des and Chick and Claudio Fort from Jersey and went uptown to Beale Street. We met Bob Timmers there and also Fran who helps with the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Bob and Ian joined the Dempsey's on stage at Presley's and then we headed down Beale. The street is buzzing on a hot Saturday night and there was blues coming out of every joint. Des and Chick were in their kilts and the locals seemed to part as we walked down the middle of the street. They stared in disbelief, smiling and waving - I'm sure they'd only ever seen anything like this in Braveheart. One Southern Belle checked what Chick kept under the kilt and was surprised with the answer. After the quietness of the previous Tuesday, it was great to be on Beale when it was really lively and the atmosphere was one of a street party with no hint of violence - perhaps they were intimidated by Des and Chick! It was a great way to finish off a brilliant day.
The following morning all the Jerry Lee fans met for the big day of the Convention and it started well with Phil and I appearing in colour on the front page of the Memphis papers. There was Jerry blowing out his candles with two Welsh boys in Hawaiian shirts smiling away behind him. Later in the day Phil did an interview back home to BBC Radio Cymru/Wales and said that Elvis had had to die to get on the front page of the paper whilst all we'd done is turn up - and his was in black and white whilst ours was in glorious Technicolor! The prize draw was amazing, the first ticket out was mine and I won a limited edition Jerry Lee plate. The third ticket was Phil 's and he won a plate as well. When Kerry displayed the final prize Phil sat in astonishment and told me that it was something he gave to Jerry when he came to Newport in '94. It was framed print of the history of the Lewis name. Unbelievably, Des won it. Phil made some comment about it going full circle and then disappeared to the toilets. When he returned he was speaking in tongues and said that he'd met Kerrie who told him that it was only a coloured photocopy as Jerry wouldn't let them raffle of the original which he kept on the wall in his room -- it was a time for more tears.
I went to the room and phoned Texan record man Joe Leonard to make arrangements for our meeting in Nashville. We'd been in contact via e-mail ever since I'd done an article on one of his artists Buck Griffin, but we'd never spoken so I was a bit anxious about the whole thing. I needn't have worried, Joe was a real gentlemen and we had a nice chat about the weather and all such British things!
Back in the hall, special guests Kay Martin, Elaine Orlando and Gary Skala talked about their Jerry Lee experiences and all three came across as true friends and fans of the Killer. Finally Jerry Lee made an appearance and signed autographs for a couple of hours. He looked so much better than the previous day and was in fine spirits. He joked with Kay and Elaine and even recreated the fifties shot where they both kiss him. When a very well endowed lady leans over for a photo Jerry laughed and confirmed that yes, he would like a copy of the picture - there's life in the old dog yet! After more food, the stage was set for the special guest of honour, the legendary producer and owner of Sun Records, Sam Phillips. As ever Sam looked immaculate and belied the theory of age - there's no way you can look like this and be in your seventies. He milked the standing ovation before delivering a twenty minute sermon. It was full of his usual exuberance and wit, before he finally introduced the Killer. Jerry was running late - nothing new there then - but when he arrived they had a big huddle to the delight of the gathering. It's hard to describe how brilliant a feeling it was to have Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips within ten feet of me, so I won't bother.
When the show finally kicked off, Jerry Lee was obviously out to impress and was in a great mood to boot. I won't bother to review the show as Phil Davies' fantastic review captures everything perfectly (see Now Dig This December 2000 issue or elsewhere at the Rockabilly Hall of Fame). The only point he doesn't raise is that Jerry didn't do Middle Aged Crazy despite my many requests (Hey man, he's 65 -- Phil). Sam was boppin' away on the dance floor and hundreds were clamouring the stage for a closer look at the Ferriday Fireball. After the show, everyone stammered shell-shocked back to their seats. Sam signed autographs for an hour for everyone who wanted one -- could there be anyone who didn't want one? Back in the foyer we chatted with BB Cunningham and his lovely wife, who seems very knowledgeable and proud of her old man. He told us that he played on Marlon Grisham's Ain 't That A Dilly and seemed surprised that we actually knew it. Know it, we bloody love it, BB. Me and Claudio met Jerry in the corridor by the lift, he seemed shattered, but was happy to have his photo taken with me. That's happy as in he let me, not happy as in it was an ambition of his. Nobody wanted to go to bed, so we all sat around, still in a daze, asking one another if he really did do Filipino Baby.
The next morning we took Buck Hutchison for breakfast at the Waffle House on E. Brooks Rd. Buck was a great talker and we spent about three hours there, I know the meals are big, but three hours! He told a '60s story about Jerry and the boys getting back to an hotel about three in the morning, after a gig, and Jerry starts playing Al Jolson 78's, real loud. The guests next door complained to the hotel manager who comes knocking at the door. Jerry answers the door and the manager asks him if he could kindly turn the music down a touch. Jerry looked at him and swaggered, "I don't believe I can", shuts the door and goes back to the record player signing "maaaameeee". Buck was understandably proud of the time he spent with Jerry and feels that the likes of Tarp Tarrant, Charlie Freeman, Hawk Hawkins and himself don't get the recognition they deserve. A feature that Phil will soon be doing will hopefully put this right. When Buck drove off, we gave him the "we're not worthy" bow and his smile filled the windscreen.
We headed uptown and cruised around the side streets, stopping on Beale and Union. At sunset we crossed the Hernando Desoto Bridge over the Mississippi River and the whole sky was a perfect orange. It was one of the nicest sights I've ever seen. The sun was a orange-yellow and it was melting into Arkansas before our eyes. The postcard signed by Sam Phillips is similar to what we saw, but as with most holiday snaps, photos never do the experience justice. We drove back down Highway 55 to the Waffle House and without a distinguished guest, boys started being boys and as the air got cloudier we ordered more steak and eggs. At this stage, Des and Chick were still having a lift with us as they hadn't bothered to pick up the hired car they'd paid for.
When we got back to the hotel we went to meet another former Jerry Lee guitarist Joel Schumaker. Joel is not in very good shape at the moment and is waiting for major medical treatment. Despite this he was more than willing to chat with us and over came his shyness to tell us some great stories. He joined Jerry Lee virtually out of school, having come to his attention winning a guitar competition in Memphis. He spent about 17 years as a member of Jerry's Memphis Beats in the 70s and 80s. As a kid he was mates with the Stanley brothers (Elvis' step-brothers) and therefore spent many hours running around Graceland. It was interesting that Joel thought Kenny Lovelace is a better guitarist than the more famed James Burton. It appears that Kerry gave Joel his marching orders when Joel was first starting his illness -- an unfortunate end which thankfully hasn't left him bitter. In fact he really seems to love Jerry Lee and feels happy to have enjoyed his many years with the Killer. It was a real honour to meet someone as unassuming as Joel and we'd like to thank Lucio for arranging it.
After Joel left we had a few beers in the lobby bar and spoke for hours with Kay, Gary and Elaine. Their devotion is amazing, Gary has seen Jerry something like 5,000 times. Kay was a bit upset because Jerry Lee had stayed up all morning waiting for them to visit him in Nesbit, but thinking that he'd still be sleeping they left it until the afternoon. By that time he was sleeping and they wouldn't get to see him before they flew out of Memphis. It was about four in the morning before we crawled into bed, I was so tired I didn't even hear Ian snoring.
Much as we loved Buck the day before, he was pushing his luck when he rang our room at 7 in the morning! Phil answered the phone with his ear plugs still in and couldn't understand why he couldn't hear anyone on the other end. We were tired, man! I took Des and Chick to pick up their car and we planned to meet them in Nashville. We went to Sun for a coffee and then travelled the two blocks to the Phillips Recording Studios at 639 Madison Avenue. Sam Phillips bought the property in 1958 and started recording there two years later. It has remained an active studio and to this day one of Sam's faithful employers is Sun guitar legend Roland Janes. The way our luck had been going so far, it wouldn't have been surprising if Roland himself had been there. We walked in through the front door and sat behind the desk to greet us was none other than - Roland boy. The dˇcor is so fifties with two tone salmon and lime colours and more chrome than Detroit. Roland was very quiet but was glad to hear that Jerry was still knocking 'em dead. Roland just sits at the front desk looking like your miserable Uncle Luther, hard to believe that he's the guy who plays that space age intro to Flying Saucers Rock'n'Roll or swaps licks with Jerry Lee on many a Sun classic. The janitor took us on a tour of the studio which saw the birth of such classics as Charlie Rich's Lonely Weekends and we all played pretend piano full of glissandos and boogie runs -- there were no air guitars available. As we soaked up the hot sun outside the front door, the world kept moving for the locals who drove by oblivious to the historic place behind us. Then again, if they slowed down every time they passed a Memphis landmark they'd never get to work.
We stayed on Madison and found first the Audiomatic record store, and then the infamous Shangri-La Records. There's some great stuff here, more rockabilly and country singles than was healthy as well as some neat posters and books. They also had a fair bit of Charlie Feathers memorabilia including a framed Karate certificate and some drawings of him. It was late afternoon when we left town and headed east to Nashville on I60. The sunset in the rear view mirror was typically splendid. Back in Britain a sunset can be a sad affair as you're never sure how many weeks will pass before you see the sun again, here in Tennessee you just know it'll be back tomorrow. We stopped for a pecan pancake and maple syrup in Dickson and amazingly bumped into Bob Timmers and his lovely wife Sonja. They were also going to Nashville so we made plans to meet them on Lower Broadway. Finding Music Row wasn't as easy at it should have been but we finally did and booked in to the ??? Music Row was a building site and so we went to the Hall Of Fame Inn and watched the talent contest. Ian got up and surprised us all (!) by singing a Johnny Cash number. He went down well and the young band even knew the song. Also in the competition was Alvin from Memphis who we'd met at the Convention. He dedicated a song to me (not like that!) (Yes it was -- Phil). We finished the night drinking cold longnecks and getting the dust off the old records on the jukebox. We wondered how long it had been since the likes of Jerry, Merle and George Jones had had a spin.
As the morning sunlight burnt our eyes we bumped into Des and Chick who were not only staying in the same motel, they were only about four doors from us. We went to the Country Music Hall Of Fame and Museum whose move to a newer, bigger complex is imminent. It's a must for country lovers with its many highlights including Webb Pierces' Cadillac and a Hank Williams tribute area. You could spend a full day there and another full year downstairs at the Country Music Foundation which unfortunately was closed when we visited. In fact, that is probably the only thing that didn't fan out during the holiday. We headed to Lower Broadway and went to Jacks BBQ for dinner. Chick had been struggling to get the locals (and us) to understand his broad Scottish accent all week and when he was stood at the front of the queue me and Ian looked at one another and grinned. There was no way this waiter was going to grasp the order and Chick repeated it about five times before looking round at us, laughing and then just pointing to what he wanted. The food was beautiful, thick BBQ steaks, black-eyed peas and southern sauces.
After a quick visit to a somewhat disappointing Ernest Tubb Record Store we went to Roberts, home of BR5-49. The band were playing real country and the glamorous singer Kimberley Davies had the crowd in the palm of her hands (the very thought of it!). It was so refreshing to hear this kind of country being played live in Nashville, a far cry from the pop-crap it produces for the charts. The band in the world famous Tootsies were also quite impressive but not quite as good.
I went over the road to phone Joe Leonard at his hotel as planned. He'd left a message for me, asking me to call him at Bob Moore's house. Here I was on a wall phone in downtown Nashville, phoning the legend who had played bass on Crazy, It's Now Or Never, El Paso, Only The Lonely and thousands of others. They'd been waiting for me to call and were going to take us for a meal. As we'd already eaten, Bob said they'd grab a bite and meet at our hotel on Music Row. Me, Phil and Des jumped in a taxi and went straight back to tidy up. We were like a bunch of college kids tidying the room before mum and dad visited. We put suitcases under beds, picked up socks and pants, cleaned the sink and Des bought loads of cokes and got a bucket of ice. I was a bit nervous, hoping there'd be no embarrassing silent pauses but with Phil around there wouldn't be much chance of that. Joe and Bob were both really friendly and we chatted about everything from Elvis to how things were different in the fifties. Phil had bought a Hawkshaw Hawkins EP at Shangri-Las and showed it to Bob, who said it was the first session he ever played on - it was that sort of holiday! Eventually, they left for Bob to do a radio interview and we went back to Roberts for some more music. We had a boozy night in Robert's a met a couple of English guys who'd been to the JLL Convention.
Today was Ian's big day so while he and Phil discussed finances I lazed by the pool in a burning Nashville morning. On the way to the studio we stopped for a couple of hours at The Great Escape record shop. It has an amazing selection of country singles and albums. Ian was understandably quite all the way to Burns, he was taking things serious but it paid off for him in the end. When we arrived everyone was there including Joe and Bob. Bob Timmers inducted Joe Leonard into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. The photo is included but what it doesn't show is Bob Moore showing his ass to them to get them to smile. A last minute replacement for ?? on bass was local boy Mark Winchester, who after years with the Planet Rockers plays in the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Brian's spin-off three piece rockabilly band, '68 Comeback. As well as CW and Burl, we met Domo (Richard Perdomo), a wealth of knowledge for the mid-Tennessee rockabilly scene of the fifties. He was a real friendly guy (bit of a running theme that) who gave us some stuff on Carl Mann, Check out his website at www.rockabillyhall.com/domo.com.
The session started brilliantly and got better. They managed to get down six tracks and with some great production from engineer Kurt Storey the sound is tough, in-yer-face Johnny Cash. The end results are first class, achieved through hard work, no shortage of talent and above all, a total love of the subject matter from all concerned. Get the album when it comes out, you won't regret it. As we were listening to one of the playbacks, a train whistle blew and it sounded so lonesome and was fitting in the circumstances. After the session we all headed for the Cracker Barrel and I spent some quality time with Sonja and Fran talking about cats (whilst the real men talked about music -- Phil). Bob T. looked bored - he just needs to get in touch with his feminine side. CW and Burl were like a vaudeville double act,
Burl - "Hey, CW, you got a light?"
CW - "Sure have" - click.
Burl - "Got a cigarette to go with that?"
CW - "Sure have" - not batting a lid.
When we finally got back to the Hall of Fame we spoke with Gordon about the Rockin' The Ryman show. Both Phil and I thought that the ideal way to do the show was get Dave Edmunds, a well respected rocker who has done sterling work behind the likes of Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and the Everly Brothers. It was late when we got back to Nashville so we just went to the Hall of Fame bar. Ian got up again and sang an old Johnny Horton song, which he finished by saying it was one he wrote at the bar and would sell it for a dollar. Some guy in a big stetson and big boots actually told him it was a great song and he should keep it! The guy looked the part though! Des and Chick had spent the night watching Hank Williams III doing a punk set somewhere in town. His tour bus was in our hotel car park and it sounded like there was a party inside but we never saw him.
We took a taxi to Broadway and me and Des stopped off in a Post Office and the girl behind the counter started to chat to us and before we left she gave us both a crystal. Next we headed north-east to Hendersonville, a small town which houses loads of country singers. As well as the House of Cash, Hendersonville was home to Conway Twitty's house at Twitty City. We pulled in but were horrified to discover it was now a religious park with not a mention of Conway. The road to Johnny's house on the lake is an affluent one, littered with gorgeous southern houses. Just after Bob Luman' s you pass Roy Orbison's, then Mrs Cash's, then John Cash Jnr's. Next up is the wonderful sprawl of Johnny Cash's. Sat on the lakeside, it is a spacious wooden building with long lawns covered in bells (he adds a bell every time there is an addition to the family). We walked up and down for ages, hoping in vain that someone would come out and invite us in to see Johnny. A charming lady neighbour stopped her station wagon and showed us some Mark Collie memorabilia that was going to be auctioned for charity but no one came out of Johnny's house so we left and went back to the old House Of Cash complex. Ian is going to back Tommy Cash later in the year so went to the house door with one of his CD's. He rang the doorbell and was answered over the intercom by Tommy's wife who was taking a bath and she told him to leave it in the car outside. After spending about ten minutes looking through the keyhole he finally realized the bath wasn't in his line of sight and gave up.
By the time we arrived back in Nashville the van was hot and we could smell a bit of burning. When we pulled up next to the Ryman Auditorium I went to put the handbrake on but didn't need to, it was already on! In the car park we bumped into country singer Billy Walker who had played with Elvis when Gladys still walked him to his gigs. He put down his giant cookie and posed for photos. He looked great for his age, and as with everyone we met, he was a real gentleman. The day we were there, the Ryman was celebrating 75 years of radio station WSM, the home station of the Grand Ole Opry. We saw bluegrass giants Jim and Jessie do a few numbers and watched interviews with Millie Kirkham, Bill Anderson and Dee Fitzpatrick.
We hadn't had a beer all day so we headed down the world famous Printers Alley and found a little club with two guys playing for a small crowd. They did requests for modern country stuff like George Strait but didn't seem to know much of the old stuff. Ian got up and did a Johnny Cash and a Hank number. When we made a comment about Miss Audrey, the two singers (country singers in Nashville!) didn't know who she was. We were gob-smacked. We met Bob and Sonja Timmers at Roberts and watched a fantastic two hour set from the Don Kelly Band. Featuring Kelly's fine singing, Dave Roe (Johnny Cash band) on bass and stunning guitarist Johnny Holland, they played a mixed set ranging from the fifties to the seventies, the highlights of which were Fox On The Run, Under Your Spell Again, Six Days On The Road and some Freddie King numbers like Hideaway. It struck us all as amazing that Nashville has such great live bands, but such banal radio product. Where do the likes of Tony Brown and James Stroud spend their evenings. Not doing their homework in Roberts, that's for sure. It ranks alongside Wayne Hancock's gig in Bristol as the best country show I've seen. We said our final goodbyes to Bob and Sonja and went strolling, ending up in the Wildhorse Saloon. The CMA awards had held a party there that night and the outside was packed with limos and fans. We passed on and drove over the bridge to the Alephia Stadium, home of the NFL's Tennessee Titans. Its an impressive stadium but not as mind blowing as driving back over the river with the lights of downtown Nashville glistening on the water.
After a few more hours buying records at the Great Escape, we went to a Mexican diner for a bite to eat. We shared a table with a bloke who just happened to be Wink Martindale's cousin. He was very interested in Wales and knew quite a bit about our history. This impressed Phil so much he gave him the Welsh rugby shirt off his back. In return he was going to send us some Titans merchandise -- we're still waiting Mr M. We left Music City for the last time (on this visit!) and headed back to Memphis. We watched as Des and Chick cut across two lanes to make the right turn -- it looked for all the world like they were going to crash and once the shock had gone we laughed all the way to Hickman County. When we stopped for gas at a truck stop, Phil caught me in a moment of weakness and persuaded me to buy a Titans NFL football, which is as useful as woodworm in an old man's walking stick. We stopped at Jackson for another Shoney's and took Des and Chick to Suede's. A car with no lights nearly hit us on the side as we pulled across the four lane road and Des and Chick had to swerve into the car park as they nearly missed it. Both cars nearly crashed and it was only a thirty yard drive. Still it was easier than walking all that way. We took them to see Carl Perkins' house and Chick asked whether we were hoose hunting again.
The next day Des and Chick decided to go back east to Murfreesboro as there was a Scottish festival there. It looks close on the map but after driving for the best part of a day they got there as the last haggis was being packed away. (No wonder Hadrian built a wall, it was to stop the Picts getting lost!! -- Phil). With Warren Smith blasting from the speakers we headed north-west through Arkansas, headed for Dyess the hometown of Johnny Cash. We stopped near Joiner and looked up and down the railroad track waiting for a train but there was no water tank and there was no train. Undeterred we stopped at a roadside shop in Joiner and amongst the broken washing machines and dusty cups and saucers Phil found picked up a Bobby Bland lp on Duke. You never know unless you look!! Warren made way for Johnny as we breezed into Dyess.
Dyess was built in the thirties as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's commitment to a program known as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. An estimated 30 million Americans had been left jobless by the Great Depression. Over forty settlements had been set up with the surrounding land distributed equally to the new dwellers who were then expected to pay back the government as they made their fresh starts. Johnny 's father had been selected despite fierce competition for the 500 homesteads up for grabs in Arkansas. Originally set up to help the poor and needy, nothing seems to have changed in the proceeding half century. It's a poverty stricken collection of houses, built around a square (round!) with a shop, Clifton Cisco's filling station, school and the hall that in former days hosted some of country music's greats. Today it is sadly run down and is a sorry site. We were greeted like kings in the local store and talked to three women who remembered Johnny and seemed both intrigued and proud that we would visit their little town, all the way from Wales. They pointed us in the right direction to Johnny's old home and waved us off like folks off to war. We had a quick chat with the new garage owner who pointed out Clifton Cisco's house. His fuel tank was filled with thousands of dead cockroaches and a few poor bastards that were still crawling around, waiting to die (I shot a roach in Dyess jest to watch him die -- Phil).
Having seen Johnny's new house yesterday and the old one today, you see a living example of the American dream. The rise from such humble beginnings to the splendour he now enjoys, gives hope to anyone that given the drive and ambition and either God given talent or a strong following wind, anything is possible. The women in only shop in town had told us that the one with the tree bending over the house was the old Cash homestead and about two miles out of town on a dead-straight road there it stood, a simple dwelling that looked much as it would have when the Cash family arrived in March 1935. In fact it would have looked better in '35 as the paint was fresher. We took a few photos and had a chat with the current owner. He was happy to chat and show us the rear of the house. He pointed out where the out-house used to be and let us take photos and video footage. It's in a pitiful state of repair, and like the town is in need of a cash injection. Ian thought it was sad but I thought it looked more real like this. I'd been to Elvis' birthplace in Tupelo years before and the smell of fresh paint, money and it's new location (more accessible to the fans) leaves you feeling a bit cheated. No such problem here, the only new thing that the house now had was a massive satellite dish which looked like a NASA cast-off. Outside of town we stopped to pick cotton and sing, before Phil donned his old headmaster cap and told me and Ian not to go in too far and to be careful not to pick any cotton with boll weevil in it, it's a bug and he'd spank us if we took any back home. Rather than risk detention we jumped back in the van and headed south to Helena, Arkansas looking for the King Biscuit Blues Festival. The place was heaving with a carnival atmosphere despite the severe cold air. The Festival has four stages plus shows in the bars and cafes. We saw snatches of the brilliant Anson Funderburg and the Rockets with Sam Myers, Robert Lockwood Jnr but unfortunately missed former Sun legend James Cotton. We stopped by the music shop on Cherry Street and met the owner who told us stories of the young antics of Levon Helm, and Ronnie Hawkins. He laughed as he recalled the enthusiastic youngsters driving up Cherry on one of their first gigs and Will Jones sat on the back playing the piano as they sped away. We spent a few moments on the banks of the Mississippi and saw the spot where Conway Twitty's dad worked as a ferry boat captain. Whilst there we started talking to some locals and met a woman who used to date Conway's brother.
As the moon sparkled on Ole Miss we crossed over her and drove north up through the Delta. Destination, Tunica, MS and a chance to witness the piano wild man Jason D. Williams. You drive for hours through nowhere, it's a poor area and all you see is miles of flat land and a big sky above. Then out of nowhere there's big hotels and flashing neon signs. Tunica had spent the '70s and '80s as one of the poorest places in the United States. Legislation then made gambling legal in Tunica and it spent the '90s as the most upwardly mobile town in America. If ever Dyess was looking for a brighter future, surely this was a sign! As soon as you walk in you're greeted by waitresses with free beer and slot machines. We avoided the slot machines.· The gambling room runs for about 200 yards before you reach the stage. That's a lot of machines to avoid and waitresses to bump into, so before Jason D. came on stage me and Phil were bladdered. Poor Ian had volunteered to be the designated driver. It's a good job that his timing on rhythm guitar is better. Jason D. was wild, and behind all the antics is one hell of a musician. A stunning six minute version of Breathless segued into Dave Brubeck's Take 5 and back to the rocker. The opening fifteen minute solo monologue, interspersed with Hank, Jerry and Moon was like Jimmy Lee Swaggart and JLL in the same possessed body. Earlier in the day in Helena we'd seen an Oriental Elvis lookalike giving his all through some Chuck Berry numbers on a side street, playing for tips. We met him in the Casino and Phil, a bit tipsy at this stage, bought a tape off him for a small fortune (well, my last ten dollars -- Phil).
Sunday morning down south. We decided to spend our last full day wondering around down town, taking it easy. Beale Street was pretty busy and there was a magnificent Howlin' Wolf imitator playing from Handy Park. With just a three piece backing him, he had the ferocious moaning down to a tee. After a BBQ meal in BB Kings for lunch we went to the Peabody for a bit of culture. The main room is a glorious reminder of Memphis' elite status for the surrounding area and the tradition of the ducks in the lobby fountain attracted its usual admirers. While I was in the one shop buying Julie a Peabody Ducks throw (which she loved!), Phil and Ian were checking out the Lansky shirts and met Mr Lansky himself who still gets to the shop before daylight everyday despite being into his eighties. The fifties shirts are so stylish and reasonably priced, Phil bought a beauty to wear on his regular Heno TV appearances.
The newly opened Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum was well worth a visit and should continue to grow in stature. The tour starts off with a short documentary chronicling the city's immense role in the development of popular music and includes both rare footage and interviews with the likes of Jerry, Carl and Charlie Rich. There's a slow motion sequence from Elvis' Tupelo homecoming from September '56 where he just looks unbelievable. You get another kick-ass reminder why you're here and as my eyes watered over and I tried to swallow I looked across at baby boy Phil and he was also wiping his eyes. We both made some comment about how great he looked, we both preferred women though and did you see the game last night. This is a very touching part of the documentary and mixed with Phil and my shallowness, more lumps in the throat had to be forced down. As the sun was setting we crossed back over the Mississippi to a glorious redness and the scene was exactly as portrayed in the postcard I had signed by Sam Phillips (see photo). That night we were a bit de-mob happy and had a quick Waffle and went back to the room to pack for the last time.
The final day was one mixed of sadness that we were leaving Tennessee but glad in the knowledge that we'd soon be back with our loved ones (that's in case they ever read this!). The National Civil Rights Museum is at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot dead in 1968. There's a real sense of history before you even enter the building. A wreath hangs on the balcony at the spot where MLK lay dead and as you look around the area you can see all the potential hideouts for an assassin. The window where James Earl Ray shot from is across the road with a direct line to King's room and the fire station which the FBI were using is still located just down the street. When you stand there you don't physically have to cast your mind back to 1968, it just happens, it's as if time has stood still there, not letting anyone forget that devastating moment. We spoke about it, and all three of us sort of felt guilty for being white. It's a weird sensation and as with most things on the trip, hard to explain. The tour of the museum is a must for anyone visiting Memphis. It starts off with press cuttings and some horrendous photos as well as TV clips. There's an actual bus, which you get onto and sit down as normal at the first free seat. The white bus driver bangs the floor and shouts in a nasty tone "Get to the back of the bus". After about thirty seconds he repeats it and a recorded voice says "If you hadn't moved to the back of the bus by now in 1956 you would have been arrested". It's really well done and the ferociousness makes it a powerful exhibit. The tour finishes in the window next to the room where MLK was spending the night. Straight in front of you is the balcony and across the road, you're facing the boarding house where James Earl Ray is supposed to have shot from.
Next up was the Centre for Southern Folklore which borders the Peabody and has a nice selection of books. That was followed by a quick stop at Graceland for last minute tacky purchases. Elvis would have been proud of us. We did a whistle stop tour of Horn Lake and before you could say "what a superb holiday" we were sat in the airport watching our bags disappear down a conveyor belt, hoping to see them the following day. We all said our goodbyes to Tennessee, wondering when we'd be back. September sounds good to me, you know 66, that just has to be celebrated.
I'd like to thank the following for making the holiday so enjoyable; Julie (for letting me go), Phil, Mair (for letting Phil go), Ian, Claire & the girls (for letting Ian go and mending the heating), Des, Chick, Bob and Sonja Timmers, Fran, Gordon, Joe, Bob Moore, Kay, Gary, Elaine, Claudio, Buck, Lucio and last and never least, Jerry Lee for the greatest show I've ever seen. Meat man you mother.
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