Our roving correspondent Harry Gebippe made the drive down the legendary Highway 61 to Clarksdale, then on to Nashville for the annual showcase event for Americana music. We’ve assembled his epistles for your perusal!
Memphis in the meantime
Written September 16, 2013 9:33pm
After an exhausting 500-mile trek through MN, Iowa and Missouri, we pulled into Troy, MO, for the night for the evening. Troy is about 50 miles north of St. Louis & that seemed like a logical place to rest, rather push on through the St. Louis metropolitan traffic. After a forgettable meal from the local Mexican restaurant – where everything from the salsa, enchilada sauce, and burrito topping tasted exactly the same – we called it a night.
We rose fairly early, taking advantage of the complimentary breakfast bar (such as it was) and got on the road. There seemed to be a traffic delays between here and Memphis, but we managed to make good time and arrived at the hotel before 3:00. The hotel had arranged for an “accessible” room for us, for which we we were grateful. The gray clouds that had shadowed us most of the day parted, and we were greeted with warm, late afternoon sunshine.
After a nap, Jinx assembled the wheelchair that we brought along for the trip. This was a “dry run,” as Jinx gamely pushed me the half-dozen or so blocks from the hotel to the Beale Street tourist trap. We stopped and ate at the Rum Boogie Cafe (pictured top), which was pretty much the most sedate I’ve ever seen the scene in several trips to the town. But, what could you expect on a Monday night?
For now, we’re relaxing and enjoying the ambiance of the River Town for another full day, before pushing onto Nashville on Wed. More from Memphis tomorrow.
Written September 17, 2013 6:41pm
One of the more storied highways ever written or sung about is the famous Highway 61. Dylan’s epic “Highway 61 Revisited” and the legendary “Crossroads” of the junction of Highways 61 and 49, where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, are just two examples of how this epic thoroughfare has capture the minds and hearts of dreamers and visionaries throughout the ages’
Stretching from the Canadian border all the way through the Blues Highway to the Gulf of Mexico, Highway 61 is monumental in its scope and rich in its history. Jinx and I have made it a point to travel the length and breadth of Highway 61, albeit in several forays, in a number of separate adventures, over a period of days, often separated by a period of many months before undertaking the next road trip. But, somehow, we missed out on the 72 miles between Memphis and Clarksdale, MS, to make the whole transcontinental journey complete. That was one of our goals for this trip: to fill in the missing gap.
Once you get beyond the trash-strewn ditches and depressing boarded-up shops of South Memphis, the countryside around Northern Alabama opens up in warm and beckoning manner. Fields of ripe cotton and corn grow right up to the edge of the highway. A huge Harrah’s casino takes up several miles of development along Highway 61, all of which is kept neat and trim for the “guests” who will soon be separated from their hard-earned cash.
The trip to Clarksdale is only about an hour long. We opted for lunch at the Ground Zero Blues Club, which has to be the most graffiti bedecked bar I’ve ever seen. Even the inside of the lamp shades are chock full of mementoes of when so-and-so where there. I confess that when Jinx and I were there a year or so ago, we left our “calling card” there (before we veered off East across Northern Alabama; hence the missing 72 miles from Memphis to Clarksdale).
Clarksdale is a depressing town, in a lot of ways, but we did discover that it has the cheapest gas ($3.09/gal) and what appears to be the cheapest cigs ($3.24/pack) of any of the Southern. We pumped the tank full, but passed on the cigs. I’ve got my own troubles to deal with without adding nicotine to the mix, thank you!
Tomorrow, we’re leaving Memphis for Nashville and what promises to be a ratcheting up of the activity level. Let’s hope my stamina holds up for it! In the meantime, here’s the only photo we took today, outside the Stax Museum where we picked a couple trinkets. Enjoy!
Music City, USA
Written September 20, 2013 1:00pm
A couple of apologies, to start with. First, apologies to my friends from below the Mason-Dixon line, to referring to the territory just South of Tennessee as “Northern Alabama.” Of course, we meant to wax rhapsodic about the beautiful Northern Mississippi countryside. And I apologize for the lateness of this post. The damn Sheraton wants to charge us $14.95 PER DAY for daily internet access – can you imagine?? So, instead, we have, to ferret out the lone free internet access outpost, in the lounge, to send out our posts (short of packing up and looking for a free internet cafe in the vicinity). We’ll try to better!
We had a great time at the Americana Honors and Awards program on Wednesday night at the historic Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. Rodney Crowell stopped by for a photo ( above!) prior to the show and before winning two awards, Album of the Year, and Duo/Group of the year (both of which were for his collaboration with Emmylou Harris).
The awards presenters were as eclectic as the nominees – including award winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, and actor/bluegrass fan Ed Helms. The house band provided stellar accompaniment all evening long (Don Was on bass; Buddy Miller, guitar; Larry Campbell on multiple instruments; the McCrary Sisters on backup vocals; and rounding the house band were Marco Giovino (drums), John Deaderick (guitars), and Jim Hoke (keys).
Highlights of the evening’s individual performances were too numerous to mention but included “North Side Gal” by JD McPherson, “Jericho” by John Fullbright, “Birmingham” by Shovels and Rope, and a reunion of sorts between Stephen Stills and Richie Furay performing their 1967 Buffalo Springfield hit “For What It’s Worth”. And how about Old Crow Medicine Show name checking local legend Spider John Koerner? Cool.
Speaking of legends, there were tributes to Hank Williams, and living legends twang-meister Duane Eddy, and longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Hunter even performed “Ripple” for the first time publicly in ten years.
All in all, a series of memorable performances by a group of dedicated artists, both veteran and newcomer. We left The Ryman too tired to continue on with the evening’s showcase events at the various locations for the remainder of the evening. We’ll save the next post for a special review of one such showcase from Friday’s highlights – that is, as soon as we get to a free internet coffee bar!
Old Friends; Musicshowcase Sept. 19, 2013
Written September 26, 2013 4:55pm
Forget the internet connectivity issues of last week. Forget even the unique problems when Apple rolled out its new IOS 7.0 (or whatthehellever it’s called) at the same time as we were experiencing internet-from-hell week. We’re going to roll back the clock a week to make up for some lost time and missed opportunities, starting with the Thursday night Showcase, September 19th.
Oh, sure, there were plenty of acts to see all around town, at the 6 venues hosting the official Americana Showcase events, but really there was only ONE place to be on this warm Thursday night; the accurately-named-but-hardly-descriptive music bar known as “3rd and Lindsley.” Clearly, the marketing folks didn’t work up a sweat dreaming the bar’s moniker. No matter; by a hour before show time, practically every seat in the house was taken. Jinx lamented to a sympathetic security guard that it looked like we’d by forced to take a cab back to our hotel, when the security guard promptly escorted us to the front of the stage, where we were directed to seating tucked stage left. The guard even found a chair for Jinx! Sometimes, it pays to be wheel-chairbound.
And what the big attraction for this night? Well, it was the whole evening line-up, starting with Rosanne Cash, then Billy Bragg, followed by Richard Thompson, next The Wood Brothers, culminating with the show-closing set by the The Steep Canyon Rangers (who just completed a sold-out tour with Steve Martin and Edie Brickell). Whew! Our stamina (OK, MY stamina!) would only allow us to review the first three acts, but that was more than enough for an evening’s worth of entertainment.
Rosanne Cash’s was a treat, debuting her forthcoming 2014 album in its entirety (save the set-closer, “Seven Year Ache”). Led by Cash’s husband, John Levanthal on guitar and vocals, and featuring some fine accompaniment by David Mansfield on mandolin and fiddle, the new songs were engaging and enthusiastically received by the crowd. We can’t wait for the January release date!
I have seen Billy Bragg (pictured at top in a duet with Rosanne Cash) several times, but I can’t recall seeing him with a band before. Frankly, the band added nothing beyond fleshing out the sound of the players on the stage, and there no jaw-dropping solos from any of the band members that would cause one to sit up and take notice. Competent ensemble playing, but nothing special. Perhaps that’s due, in part, to Billy’s choice of songs on his latest CD, “Tooth & Nail,” featured prominently in his set list. The low-key, subdued arrangements on that album focused primarily on guitar and vocals, less on other instrumentation. Perhaps Billy could benefited from a wider ranging set list, including old favorites like “Sexuality” and “A New England.”
On the other hand, I HAVE seen Richard Thompson, both solo and with various bands, and he has never failed to impress. Fresh from his Americanarama tour with Dylan, Wilco and My Morning Jacket, Thompson was solo for his set, with Slobhan Maher Kennedy on background vocals on 3-4 selections from Thompson’s 2013 release, “Electric.” Unlike Billy Bragg, however, Thompson spiced it up with selections from his deep catalogue of old favorites, including “Valerie” and the ever-popular “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” Throughout it all, Thompson dazzled with his fretwork on his acoustic 12-string Gibson. Even with two more acts to follow, we were too exhausted to stay up any later. Fortunately, there were still more showcase events to catch up on in the coming days. Stay tuned!
Lone Star Music Magazine Party, September 20
September 29, 2013 6:52pm
One of the best finds of the day was stumbling into a great little eatery called Taqueria del Sol, in a nondescript neighborhood of southwest Nashville. While we perused the menu, the owner of the establishment greeted us with his Google glasses (how trendy can one BE?) and made some recommendations for first-time diners, like us. We went with the corn and shrimp chowder, the brisket taco, and “one of the 100 dishes you must try before you die,” (according to Garden and Gun magazine – I SWEAR that’s the magazine’s title!), spicy turnip greens! Maybe it was just the fact that we’d had such shitty food ever since leaving the Twin Cities – or maybe my taste buds have been so ravaged by chemo – but this was the best meal we’d ever had before or since. Jinx had guacamole & chips to complete the meal. Great food, cheap eats – and take my word for it: the zesty turnip greens spiced with onions, chopped peppers and onions were TO DIE FOR!
Why mess with success? We went back for lunch the next day, only substituting chips and salsa for the chips and guac. Wish we’d had a series of Taqueria del Sols that we could have followed all the way home!
Today’s entertainment option of choice was the “No Borders Twang Banging’ Happy Hour,” sponsored by Lone Star Music Magazine and hosted by a local record store, Groove Records. Although the highlights of the Americana Musical Festival are the evening showcases held at the established 6 or 7 venues through Nashville, there scads of other special events hosted by various music publications, record labels, etc., from which to choose. Free beer, free entertainment – sign me up!
We stayed for a couple sets, one by the up and coming Amanda Shires, and one by one of our all time favorites, the Bottle Rockets (pictured with yours truly, after the end of their set). The comely Ms. Shires plays fiddle and 4-string guitar (?) and sing. Her new album was just released recently, and, in fact, she had her Twin Cities’ debut less than a month ago. Her sound is an eclectic mix of bluegrass, country and gentle rock.
Her career has gotten an unexpected boost lately, due to her recent marriage to rising alt-country star Jason Isbell. Together, they form one of the newest Nashville power couples. Shires’ set was pleasant, but not compelling.
The Bottle Rockets, by contrast, played a self-assured 45-minute all-request set, plus a couple of unreleased tunes. Drawing from their 20-year history, the Bottle Rockets treated long time fans to a rousing, crowd-pleasing set of old faves. Chalk that up to the difference between Amanda Shires’ need to promote her new release, versus the Bottle Rockets deep catalog from which to draw on.
We closed out the evening’s entertainment by stopping the Cannery Ballroom for an evening billed as the New West Records 15th Anniversary Party. Alas, by weaning off the steroids (which I’ve SINCE gone back on, in part), I was too pooped to pay much attention to any of the bands, and we headed back to the hotel early. Seems strange to apologize for “only” checking out 5 bands on one day, but that’s the way it is during the Americana Music Festival, where the party’s never over and the music never stops!