In May, my wife Jody and I drove across the America, coast to coast, from Los Angeles to Savannah, Georgia–a bucket list dream of mine. And much to my wife’s delight, I ended up driving the whole 3000+ miles. We spent about 19 days, stopping in 10 cities, seeing the sights, visiting friends and for once, not looking for records. We had a fantastic time and saw some great music related sights, which I thought I’d write about for those who may be thinking about a little music tourism. For this post, we’ll focus on Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee.
If you’ve never been to Memphis I highly recommend it. Soulful people, great food and much to see. We visited the National Civil Rights Museum, which is at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated–an incredible and moving museum that I can’t recommend enough. And for music fans, there are a number of essential stops. On this trip, I was luck to visit Sun Studio and the Stax Museum.
Sun Studio is of course where Elvis Presley first recorded, where he was discovered by Sam Phillips, and where Phillips also cut Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf and so many more greats. Incredibly, though the building had housed other businesses over the years, the actual studio baffling and control room had just been covered up–so when it was turned into a museum, it was easily restored to its original state. It’s a working studio today, and they’ve got a great display of memorabilia including some of Phillips’ original equipment, memorabilia belonging to Elvis, vintage Sun acetates, and a re-creation of Memphis DJ Dewey Philips’s broadcast studio. The tour guide’s patter was a little cheesy for me, but there is much to see and the vibe is definitely there. It was well worth visiting.
Also in Memphis is the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax music academy. The original Stax building was torn down, but the museum is an exact recreation on the same site, built from the original blueprints. There is a tremendous amount of great memorabilia here, including Otis Redding’s draft card and suede jacket, Isaac Hayes’ custom Cadillac and stage outfits, Booker T & The MG’s instruments and an exact recreation of Stax’s original movie theatre studio. Lots of memorabilia from artists who recorded at Stax and Memphis artists too, including Al Green, the Staple Singers, Ike and Tina Turner, Carla and Rufus Thomas–even James Carr. Next door there’s a music academy where young people learn to play music. Well worth a visit.
Other essential Memphis music pilgrimage sites include Graceland and Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, where Reverend Green preaches most Sundays. But I’d visited both a number of times (and worked closely with Al Green while at A&M Records) so this trip I visited places I hadn’t been. But both are highly recommended.
From Memphis we drove to Nashville, where we visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Jack White’s Third Man Records. The Hall of Fame was a bit of a disappointment, as the main draw for me was their Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats exhibit. The exhibition’s premise was that Bob Dylan’s decision to record in Nashville brought many other non-country artists, including the Byrds, Neil Young, the Beau Brummels, Joan Baez etc. to record in Nashville, with the cities’ exceptional session musicians. While it’s an interesting story, I found the exhibit largely centered on the session musicians– the “Nashville Cats”, with a scattering of Dylan and Cash artifacts. There was a lot to see, but I thought the layout was difficult to follow, and exhibit overall a missed opportunity. I wasn’t much interested in the museum’s other mainstream country offerings, but was thrilled to spot Gram Parsons’ Flying Burrito Brothers Nudie Suit while walking to the Nashville Cats exhibit. As iconic a piece of stage wear as you’ll ever see, covered in marijuana plants and pills.
Jack White’s Third Man Records was much more to my taste. It’s clear White and his cohorts love records and music, and Third Man has refined and reinvented the form in an extraordinary way. Our tour guide was the great Ben Blackwell, who helps run Third Man and is a true vinyl visionary. Parked outside the Third Man retail store is their “Rolling Record Store”, which travels to gigs, festivals, and other places fans congregate. The retail store carries all of Third Man’s releases, and an incredible number of Third Man branded artifacts, including everything from Dead Weather playing cards to a high end yellow & black custom turntable. Located in the store is their Voice-o-Graph recording booth–the actual booth in which Neil Young recorded his 2014 album A Letter Home–and where you too can record a song and take it home on a custom 6″ record, for $15. The Third Man complex also includes a live concert venue, just behind that a recording studio (which has the lathe from King Records, and is the only place in the world you can record live, direct to disc), a video studio and editing suite, photo studio, art department, warehouse, direct mail operation, and much more. We were blown away by their reinvention of the music business. Don’t miss it when in Nashville.
From Nashville, we drove to Athens, Ga., home of R.E.M., who I had the good fortune to work with at both A&M and Warner Bros. Records. We visited with some of our friends from those long ago days, and briefly stopped by Wuxtry Records, where clerk Peter Buck met customer Michael Stipe — and the rest is history. They’ve got some great early R.E.M. posters on the wall. Then on to Savannah, a photo standing on the rental car at the end of the road, and on the last day, my karmic reward for not looking for records along the way. In a bin of LP’s at an antique store, voila–a near mint UK first pressing of The Who’s debut album, My Generation, on Brunswick, for $25!
So, as Van Dyke Parks recommended with the title of his second album, Discover America!