Having secured transit from Panama to Australia, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. And here I was in the capital of country music, Nashville. My sister has been trying to get me into Country for years with some limited success. She showed me The Thing Called Love, an 80s film about an aspiring singer-songwriter who finds success at the Bluebird Café open mic night, and Rachel always said we should go to Nashville together. So I felt a little guilty being there alone.
I watched a country and western band and ate a burger in Robert’s Western World as suggested by my recent friend Danni Nicholls (of growing Americana fame). But I wasn’t feeling it, and moved on to her second suggestion, The Listening Room. Four singer-songwriters playing “in the round” – meaning they take turns to play a song. It is a great format – mixes it up for the audience and artists. And the audience was dead silent. These singer-songwriters were 4 of thousands of songwriters in Nashville writing predominantly for other artists. Being on your own isn’t awkward in a music venue where no-one’s talking anyway.
A quick visit to the Johnny Cash museum reinforced what a good bloke and prolific artist he was. Not sure it was worth the money though tbh.
The Bluebird Café, being mid-week low season, had no queue at al and I got a seat. If you do go, pre-buy tickets on the website. Despite being made world famous by The Thing Called Love film and Nashville TV series, it is a small café in an unassuming promenade of shops seemingly in the middle of nowhere. This wasn’t the famous Monday open mic night with the sign-up process akin to buying Glastonbury tickets. A fundraiser for a local hospice, we were treated to 4 singer songwriters, playing their own songs that had been recorded by other artists. The audience was dead quiet except when applauding or laughing at the witty banter and exchanges between the performers.
It was an experience of a lifetime, and I was surprised to hear Eric Clapton’s “If I could (Change the World)” performed by its original songwriter, who was one of the most relaxed, charismatic and talented performers I had ever seen. Coincidentally one of the performers was James House, whose songwriting workshop I had attended in Belfast on a Foy Vance pilgrimage a few years ago.
Returning to Broadway the vibe had changed into one of unpleasant loud American drunkenness. I sloped off to the hostel to sleep before the next day’s bus to Memphis.
Memphis was all about the Blues. It was a little touristy, yes, but the music was good so who cares? Bars defiantly allowing smoking indoors, genuine Hammond organs, cocky harmonica playing frontmen, bassists with sunglasses in dark rooms, and an octogenarian saxophonist. One band was seemingly original, playing lesser known blues classics with drawn out solos by every member of the band. Another played exactly what we had all come here for, Stax classics from Sam and Dave, through Otis Reading to interpretations of what Beatles songs would sound like if they had been recorded in Memphis. Think “Yellow Submarine” but with the band from the Blues Brothers. Not sure I can imagine it but it would have been good.
The next day I got another Greyhound down to Baton Rouge where Dave made his second cameo appearance for a weekend in New Orleans.
We tried the heralded “things to do” like beignets and coffee and jazz at Presevation Hall. The former tasted like fat sponges and dishwater, with the latter making us wish we skipped the coffee so we could have a snooze. I remembered that I hate jazz.
But there was music of all sorts everywhere. Getting into the slightly less touristy area towards Marigny, every bar had a band of some sort, ranging from ragey girl grunge through indie pop to smooth Memphis RnB, which is where we ended the night. It was better than Memphis itself, in my very limited experience.
The next day we drove to Houston, where Dave lives, and I stayed with him for a week for some much needed rest and relaxation. The quick travelling pace and bus sleeping had given me a fever and sore throat (yes I can hear your sympathy). It was comforting to spend a week planning in Dave and Nicole’s house with the company of their very cute two sons. It now felt like I was sitting at the top of the road through Central America to Panama, and I had the space to plan the onward journey.