Greg turns off the studio light and my skin prickles as we’re bathed in darkness. The speaker crackles and Elvis’s butter-smooth voice rings out, breaking the silence, asking: “Are you lonesome tonight?”
We listen to the whole song in the velvety blackness, just as Elvis recorded it. There’s a thump, a click, the song cuts out and the lights go up. “That thump was Elvis’s head hitting the microphone. That was right here,” our guide Greg beams, gesturing proudly to the middle of Nashville’s RCA Studio B. He has transported me back in time with just a flick of the lights.
It was 3 April 1960 and Elvis had recorded 13 songs from 6pm until 7:30am the next morning, fuelled by a conveyer belt of hamburgers, French fries and milkshakes. Around 4:30am, the frazzled King had demanded the lights be turned off and, sure enough, history was made —the song topped the Billboard Top 10 for six weeks.
In total, 240 of his songs were recorded here and you can still find evidence of Elvis’s presence around the studio. The garish blue, red and green spotlights were added at his request; a cupboard still sports the hole he kicked in it (“He liked to practise karate,” is Greg’s explanation); and you’ll still find the Amex one-tape recording console he used, back when every song had to be nailed in one take.
Nashville lives and breathes music. Besides RCA Studio B, it’s home to the vast Country Music Hall of Fame, whose exhibits document the city’s musical journey. Five minutes away is the Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ole Opry, the historic country music radio show that’s still recorded live every Saturday evening.
A guide book in the gift shop of the Ryman (which these days shares hosting duties), quotes Johnny Cash: “It’s the ambition of every hillbilly singer to reach the Opry in his lifetime. I feel mighty lucky to be here tonight.” I do too as I squeeze on to a creaky pew to watch the live recording. The heavy velvet curtains draw back to reveal fiddle players from New Jersey and dungaree-clad local musicians who share the bill with contemporary stars such as Alison Krauss. It’s a buoyant performance, served up with originality and cliché in equal measure, and by the end, the crowd is whooping.
Outside, the glow of the lights lure me down to Broadway, the mile-long homage to neon signs and country music. The honky-tonk bars are extremely popular with tourists, for good reason. As we move from bar to bar, I bump and twirl my way across crowded dancefloors, and frequently find myself in a sea of Stetsons. At Robert’s, hands blur over banjo strings. At The Second Fiddle, a tattooed singer jams with the band. At Tootsies, we pause for tequilas. And at Legends, I dance and sing along until the lights come up.
In the morning, we refuel with grits. This savoury cornmeal porridge, the breakfast of choice in the South, is dolloped on to my plate with rock-solid crisped bacon. It’s heavy but necessary after the night before. Sure, it induces something of a stupor, but we’re not in the land of ‘lite’ options.
“It’s the people that make the food here,” Larry tells me, gazing adoringly into his rotisserie smoker in the kitchen of Blues City Cafe on Beale Street. We’re looking at some dark and sticky ribs that’ve been smoked for over six hours before being glazed and dashed on to a plastic plate with fries and a hunk of bread. I tear the bones apart and the pink stringy flesh falls away.
I’m carving myself out a rib trail of the city — you can’t come to Memphis and not go for barbecue. Central BBQ goes for the pit-smoked version, while the Bar-B-Q Shop in Midtown promises the ‘Best in Memphis’ with its signature sauce. Inviting interaction, Southern food is ideal for bringing crowds of strangers together. Hands collide as we tear at nachos loaded with pulled pork, while spoons dive from every direction into piles of mac’n’cheese. We even help ourselves to a bowl of leftover fried chicken from a neighbouring table.
Across town at Sun Studios, Nina (“pronounced Nine-a,” she explains, rolling her eyes) reveals more of the region’s musical secrets. For instance, Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats (the Cats were actually Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm) had a broken amp when they turned up at the studio to record in 1951 — but that distorted sound ended up creating what became widely considered as the first rock ’n’ roll record.
Sam Phillips set up Sun Studio and its accompanying record label, which was the first to record Elvis. Phillips’ slogan was “I will record anyone, anywhere, anytime”. This throwaway phrase was hugely significant in a region blighted by segregation. The sobering National Civil Rights Museum, the Martin Luther King memorial at the Lorraine Motel and various Trump billboards speak of both the region’s chequered past and its uncertain future. The music, however, still bonds communities and propels the good vibes.
Nina swings round the original Shure 55 microphone, used to record Johnny Cash, before pointing out the piano the Million Dollar Quartet (Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Cash) crooned around. The studio is now used to record the eclectic sounds of modern Memphis, and is available to anyone willing to put down the $200 hourly fee — Norwegian Rockabilly bands are apparently du jour. There’s a makeshift feel to it even today, and the peeling acoustic tiles have survived the studio’s various reincarnations as a barber’s, a launderette and a surf shop.
Like much of Memphis, Sun Studios is fairly underwhelming from the outside. The streets don’t give much away; it seems the personality of the city is hidden behind the closed doors and sticker-clad windows, in kitchens and in basement bars. Beale Street seems the only spot where Memphis is keen to show off, and when I head back to this neon wonderland I slip into Mr Handy’s Blues Hall and join the nightly dance-till-dawn that I’ve quickly become accustomed to in the South.
Good times and gumbo
“It’s New Awlins. Not New Or-leans,” says Richard, a Southern gent in a bowtie. Elderly, suited men like him take the South very seriously. Its food, its music, its traditions, and its sense of chivalry, too — I find them holding open doors and imparting restaurant recommendations wherever I go.
New Orleans oozes this type of faded charm, from the steamboat cruisers to the Palladian mansions that line the grand avenue of St Charles Street. Whispers of voodoo and the lure of the bayous echo around, but nothing shouts as loud as the city’s party vibe that permeates everything. All along the wide avenues, kaleidoscopic beads — left over from the Mardi Gras celebrations — dangle down from the cypress trees, mixing with the etheral Spanish moss; like a plastic homage to the city’s good-time spirit.
Armed with my latest dinner recommendations, I head to the French Quarter and burst through the door of Johnny’s Po’Boys as it’s about to close. The worn-out vendor’s face is impatient, contorting as I bombard him with questions about the infamous sandwiches. I scan the list — there are over 30 to choose from. Crocodile catches my eye for a moment, but I end up opting for the classic: fried shrimp. I wolf down this mass of calories, doused in hot sauce, Southern-style, at table with a gingham tablecloth, sticky from the day’s diners.
A little while later I’m at the New Orleans Cooking School watching Kevin Belton as he coaxes butter and flour into a roux mixture on a hot stove. “The key to any gumbo is the roux,” he says. “Commit this smell to memory!”
I watch the fragrant smoke swirl up to the ceiling and catch my reflection in the mirror. My mouth is agape with temptation, but I’m in the right place: a local chef and a TV personality, Kevin makes a fantastic gumbo — the piquant local seafood soup — and the smell is as intoxicating as the taste. I allow these aromas to guide me round the city. They waft through the streets in much the same way as the music tinkles out from the bars.
There’s music everywhere in New Orleans. And there’s no escaping it. Even during a quiet moment while I’m browsing in Arcadian Books and Prints, a face suddenly pops up from behind a heap of French books. “There’s a free gospel performance at St Louis Cathedral tonight,” the owner says. The trajetory of my evening is inescapably clear and, having witnessed the gospel choir fill the high-ceilinged cathedral with their voices, I’m then serenaded again at supper at Arnaud’s.
I check out Bourbon Street, scamper over to its cooler little sister, Frenchman Street, and sample almost everywhere in between. Dishevelled and all danced out, I flick off the light and am cloaked in darkness once again. The beats from Bourbon Street below float up to my window. My head thumps on to the pillow. It’s all committed to memory.
Luxury Gold’s nine-day Southern Grace tour covers Nashville, Memphis, Natchez and New Orleans, and costs from £3,450 per person, based on a twin share. Includes return flights, eight nights’ accommodation, breakfasts and five additional signature dining experiences, plus sightseeing, luxury coach transportation, transfers and the services of a dedicated Travelling Concierge throughout.
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Published in Experiences 2017, free with the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)