Last week I had the opportunity to hit the road, alone, to drive to Indiana to see my son Tyler and his wife, Shana. I was by myself because Jo Ann had flown out Monday morning. I had commitments and could not leave until Wednesday afternoon. Traveling alone isn’t fun most of the time. But this time I decided to make the best of it.
To be honest, Jo Ann and I have been married for 33 years. We travel a lot together and it usually goes exceedingly well. But, to be honest, we have different perspective on long driving trips, particularly when we are going to see family. In those cases, she is one of those people who want to get there. When we get the car on the road and pointed in the right direction, she wants to go! The sooner we get there the better. Forget about stopping to eat, taking the scenic route or a short side trip. I, on the other hand, am perfectly happy to focus on the journey. I like to get off the beaten path, have a leisurely meal and maybe stop to see that 5 legged cow or the world’s biggest ball of string. So since I had a couple of solitary days on the road, I decided to make the most of it.
On Wednesday, my business took me to St. Francisville. I was packed and ready to hit the road as soon as I took care of what I had to do. By noon, I was on headed north on U.S. 61, bound for Memphis. I could have struck out cross country and hit I-55, but I had gone that way many times. I was looking for adventure, so I decided to travel “America’s Blues Highway”. Plus, I had never really experienced the Mississippi Delta, so I figured “why not”?
For those of you who don’t know, the Mississippi Delta is an alluvial plain that sits between the Mississippi and Yahoo rivers. It starts in Vicksburg and goes all the way to Memphis. It is some of the most fertile farmland anywhere and has been described for years as “the most Southern place on earth.” Farm fields stretch as far as the eye can see on both sides of the road. It is pretty cool, for the first hundred miles or so. After that, not so much. I had always wanted to see the Delta and I am glad I did. But having done so, I don’t see much reason to go back. When you’ve seen one soybean thousand acre soybean field, you’ve seen them all.
After a long uneventful drive, I made it to Memphis by supper time. I stopped for a bite to eat, gassed up and hit I-40, headed to Nashville, which was my overnight stop. I am an old school country music fan, so I’ll admit that Music City has a certain allure for me. When I was 10 or 11, I listened to my Daddy’s Hank Williams records until I had memorized the songs In high school, while all my friends were listening to Kansas, Journey or Fleetwood Mac, I was grooving to Hank , Jr., Willie and the Charlie Daniels Band. As much as I lament about the current state of what passes for country music, there is still plenty of the old stuff around Nashville and I intended to find some. So after checking into my hotel and a change of clothes, I headed down to Broadway to see the sights.
In the middle of downtown Nashville, four blocks of Broadway is the place to be. Lots of neon, food, live music and history. It is Nashville’s version of Beall Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The Ryman Auditorium is one block over. If you are an old time country music fan, you remember the Ryman as the Old Opry House. There is an alley that runs behind the Ryman, which backs up to 5 bars on the west side of Broadway. Those places hold a special place in the history of the Opry and country music. Each of them has a backdoor that opens into the Ryman Alley. Due to proximity, many an Opry performer would slip out the back door to the Ryman, step across the alley and through one of those back doors for a quick snort while waiting to go onstage. That includes such names as Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, George Jones, Ray Price and Farrin Young, just to name a few.
The first place I went to was what anywhere else would be described as a dive. But Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge is the place to be down on Broadway. The place is painted bright lavender on the outside. It has been around forever it seems. In its heyday, big names and struggling artists alike used to hang out at Tootsie’s. Tootsie was famous for loaning money to and feeding artists trying to hit it big. A couple of her most famous struggling artists who later hit it big were a singer/songwriter from Texas named Willie Nelson and his friend, a former rocker named Waylon Jennings.
Although it was late on a weeknight, Tootsie’s was packed and the band was loud. One of the cool things about Broadway is that all of the clubs have live music daily from 11:00 a.m. until 3:00 a.m., each having several different bands from opening til closing time. Tootsie’s is typical of the places on Broadway. Not much to look at, no frills, walls covered with glossy photos from decades of country music acts, a dance floor and an atmosphere that is almost electric.
On one side of Tootsie’s is a club called Legends Corner. Two doors down in the other direction is Robert’s Western World, a haven for real old time country music, complete with fiddles and steel guitars on stage.
I have to admit, I hit them all and had a great time. It was a wonderful way to spend a few hours. And when I was done, I realized that I had taken a step back to a simper time. In a day and age of dance clubs, cigar bars, cocktail bars and kareoke venues, I had experienced some certified, genuine, “sho’ nuff” honk tonks. And for what its worth, I found out what the Ryman Alley looks like at 2:00 a.m.
Next time: On to Kentucky!