We left our campsite in Virginia behind early doors to start the journey into Tennessee and our first stop, the capital of Country Music: Nashville.
I was feeling pretty excited: the musical leg of our road trip was about to begin. Now I can’t claim to be a huge fan of country music (not that I dislike it, I just wouldn’t say it’s a genre of music I’m especially familiar with) but knowing that it’s the place where so many household names made their careers (Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift, to name but a few) was a thrill in itself. We arrived around lunchtime and were greeted with the fantastic news that we wouldn’t be pitching our tents that day; the campsite had allowed us use of their events hall to sleep in (yay, air conditioning!) which also meant a nice quick set up of camp for us. We unrolled our sleeping mats and bags, shotgunned a section of floor each, changed clothes (we had all decided to wear our best “americana” outfits) and were ready to head out again.
After talking us through some of his suggestions for activities in Nashville, Ben dropped us all off in the center of the city, right outside the Country Music Hall of Fame which was my first port of call. We had just over 3 hours to explore before we’d be meeting up again for dinner and line dancing! I thought the CMHF would be a good place for me to start my country music education; it was really interesting to see how it all began with influences of the arriving immigrants from Europe who brought fiddles and traditional folk songs with them. The slaves from Africa and the Caribbean also hugely influenced the style with their blues style songs and instruments like the banjo. It was amazing to think how the style started from traditional songs like “Turkey in the Straw” and developed into the country music people recognise today.
There were so many exhibits and I didn’t have a lot of time, so I blasted through the upstairs museum section and headed downstairs to the “recording studio”. This was where you could essentially create your own country album! I was able to design an album cover, name my album and even record vocals for a cover song (I chose Taylor Swift with We Are Never Getting Back Together, mainly because I didn’t know any of the other songs on offer!) This was definitely the most fun exhibit in the whole Hall of Fame; I mean it was probably aimed more at younger kids but it was a great change of pace to have some interactivity to break up all the reading. Once my album was completed, I realised that time had gotten away from me and there was only 45 mins left before I had to be back, so I rushed to the end of the museum to check out the actual Hall of Fame. It was a large, round room with the member plaques displayed in a random order. The roundness of the room apparently signifies that everyone inducted into the Hall of Fame is equal – nobody is more important an artist than anybody else. I was surprised at how many artists I recognised but also completely blown away by how many plaques were on the wall here. It was a really impressive sight – definitely go and check it out if you’re ever in Nashville!
I headed up to Broadway street hoping to catch some country music before catching up with the rest of the group, but I also wanted to check out some of the boot stores Nashville is famous for. Let me tell you, there were some beautiful cowboy boots in these stores. All handcrafted; the smell of leather hits you hard when you walk in, and the boots are really works of art in themselves. Sadly this means they come with a hefty price tags that were definitely out of my price range – however I was consoled a tiny bit by the fact that I couldn’t find any that could fit my tree trunk calves anyway. I ran into one of my group friends in one of the stores too – Ed! He’d lost the rest of the group and I was the only one who’d been to the CMHF so it was a bit of a relief to find each other.
After visiting a few more shops and buying some Nashville souvenirs (including a cowboy hat and Nashville Tshirt), we had a little bit of time left so we headed up to another place that had been recommended to us – the Goo Goo factory.
The Goo Goo Cluster is a Nashville candy institution – it’s a glorious combination of real milk chocolate, caramel, peanuts and marshmallow nougat. The factory is like a 1950s candy store taken straight from a Roald Dahl story; everything was brightly coloured and the whole place seemed unreal in a child-like way. They were giving out free Goo-Goo samples so I gave them a try (it would be rude not to, especially as we Brits love our free stuff!) They were as delicious as they sounded – so good I had to buy one for the road too. On our way back we couldn’t resist stopping into one of the many bars on the Broadway strip to catch a bit of live music. I also wanted to change into my new outfit ready for line dancing! We caught a country duo for 10 minutes or so – I wish we could have stayed longer as they were really good! A man and a woman and 2 guitars, simple but beautiful in that classic country style.
It was time for us to get back to the group – luckily we were just around the corner from the Wild Horse Saloon where we were meeting. Our hands were stamped on entry and we headed over to a table. The line dancing lesson started, in true Emily style, just as soon as I’d bought my first cocktail so I had a quick swig and got onto the dance floor with everyone else. I’m definitely not what you’d call a good dancer, but by the end I was shuffling away to Dolly Parton’s 9-5 like a pro. It was just the beginner level dance though. Food and more drinks were ordered and the group compared notes on how their afternoons had been. After a while a group of us decided to explore a bit of Nashville’s night life – we headed to a few bars including a really fun karaoke bar called Wanna B’s (none of us got up to sing sadly!) and a place called Nudie’s Honky Tonk which is apparently a Nashville institution (and not a strip club like the name implies). The night was cut short by the weather so Ben suggested we got an Uber back to the camp site. We’d need our sleep for another long drive down to Memphis the next day…
Graceland and Memphis
After a good, air-conditioned nights sleep, we packed down our makeshift indoor camp and got back on the road. Memphis was on the cards today, as well as a visit to the home of the King of Rock n Roll – the one and only Elvis Presley. I wasn’t sure how to feel about this visit; it cost $45 for the ticket and I was having a hard time justifying if it was worth it or not. I like Elvis, I knew a fair few of his songs but I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a big fan. But since everyone else was going and I didn’t want to be left at the campsite by myself, I thought I should probably give the place a chance.
Once we’d arrived at our campsite (which was situated right across the parking lot from Graceland and was Elvis themed itself – Elvis radio was playing from speakers around the camp and all the roads were inspired by his songs, eg. Hound Dog Lane) and set up our tents, we received our Graceland tickets and walked across. It was a swelteringly hot day so it was a relief to get into the lobby of the museum and the AC. We were shown into a theatre for a welcome movie, then quickly ended up back outside in the heat again to wait for a shuttle that would take us to Elvis’s house across the road. Everybody was given an individual iPad and some headphones which would act as the guided tour for the house. A short time later we pulled up at the house – it was beautiful and grand, with a clean white porch flanked with columns. All the windows had wooden shutters, the whole house looked very traditional and classic but still had opulance about it. It surprised me in all honesty – considering how successful Elvis was I had imagined it would be far bigger.
We were led inside and guided through the house with the iPad. Actor John Stamos narrated as we walked from room to room, learning interesting tidbits about each part of the house. I loved the peacock stained glass windows in his music room, and the incredible fabric covered walls in his game room in the basement. I also thought it was really sweet that his parents had a room in the house – it turns out that Elvis had promised his parents that when he made it big as a musician he would provide for them into their golden years, as the family was so poor when Elvis was growing up. We saw the famous jungle room – very quirky and eccentric just like the rest of the house!
Towards the end of the house tour we were led outside to the Memorial Garden. Elvis’s whole family are buried here and it was very moving to see the graves, as well as the hundreds of bouquets of flowers that fans still come to Graceland to place. It’s amazing to think that even though he died over 40 years ago people are still inspired by him and his music.
Once the house tour was over we went back over to the museum. We spent over 2 hours exploring exhibits of his cars, his iconic wardrobe, his time in the military and of course, his music. We even stopped into Minnie Mae’s Sweet café for an old fashioned ice cream float – it felt like stepping back in time to the 50s! The whole thing was such an experience, I feel like I’m actually an Elvis convert now. His life and music was such an inspiration, I definitely want to get into him more. I was glad I didn’t feel like the money spent on the ticket was a waste; it’s also really good value for money as the museum is HUGE! We didn’t even make it around every exhibit before our time ran out and we had to get back to camp for dinner (a real Memphis BBQ courtesy of Ben!).
Our evening activity was a total flip reverse – an evening on Memphis’s most iconic street, Beale Street. I remember when I was in a clarinet quartet growing up we played a jazz piece called Beale Street Breeze, based on this place. It was a hub of live music and the self-described home of the blues. Unfortunately we only had a short amount of time here to explore and catch some of the jazz, so after walking the length of the street up and down, a group of us found an outdoor bar with a live blues combo playing so we could experience Beale Street properly. I wish we’d have had longer as the band were AMAZING; their sax player especially was fantastic and I could have stayed listening for hours longer. But after an hour we had to head back to the van and return to the campsite. Definitely will be returning here again in the future to explore more of Memphis! That’s the downside with tours such as this one – it’s truly a whistle stop and sometimes you move on too quickly so you can reach the next destination on schedule. At least I now have had a taste and know what to expect for next time!
The first leg of our journey was almost over – after another night in a tent we would begin the long drive down to New Orleans!