Recently back from a road trip to Nashville, and while generally recovering from a weeklong party, I've deliberated on how to relate my experience. Some of my adventures are multi-page Kerouac style scribbles that have not yet seen the light of the computer screen. I'm still processing this trip on a whole lot of levels. So, in the meantime here are a few photos (of hundreds) and a jingle-jangle of words.
During our drive through Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky we experienced the worst torrential rain. With "windshield wipers slappin' time', it poured down on us. A sense of humour sure comes in handy navigating the Alleghenys -- when the only thing you see through the windshield in front of you are the flashing red lights of a transport truck barreling down a slick mountain curve. As a mixture of mist and fog rose up against a black sky, Jack turned to me and said,
“Looks like we’re descending into Dante’s Inferno.”
I just happened to be thinking the same thing while realizing it was Friday 13th and a week before the Rapture. A believer I'm not, nor superstitious, but as we crossed the state line in a crack of thunder, I wasn’t exactly singing “Almost heaven, West Virginia.” Then Misty Mountain Hop came on the radio. Saved once again, not by religion, but by rock n' roll.
Truth is the timing of our trip to Nashville was probably insane by most standards. With sky-high gas prices and severe weather warnings dogging us along the way, it was not the best time for the trek. Since our road trip was based on the passion of friends and music, I trusted we’d be okay.
We were off to visit my girlfriend (and former band-mate) who, over a decade ago, relocated to Nashville. As promised, we arrived in time to see her band play on Saturday night. What a great way to start a vacation. While she rocks a pretty heavy bass, she is a singer with a truckload of talent and her unique vocal style enables her to jump jive around genres. Music City U.S.A. seems the perfect place for her. (See her band Eight O'Five Jive here.)
The following week was a personalized tour of Nashville full of good music, conversation, company, food, wine and other things. I now forgive her for leaving us and moving south.
Somewhere along Honky Tonk Row, I felt the shadow of the Man in Black. In the alley behind Broadway I walked in the footsteps of ghosts riders in the sky imagining them slinking through the saloon’s back doors to play. We also slipped into some other hot spots and listened to some real Americana. Places like the legendary Brown’s Diner - a converted railroad car and a trailer - where a rich tradition of live music continues.
Among other musical specters, some personal ghosts waited in the wings: those of my late father and brother. They were great country music fans and spun many a country classic on the record player. As a teenager I recall feeling embarrassed, donning headphones to drown out (what I then believed to be), squeamishly square songs. Now I was sitting in a tavern in Tennessee reverberating with the energy of Hank, Johnny, June, Patsy, Loretta, Willie and Kris, wishing they both were there. Thanks to them, when the cowboy played Heartaches By The Number, I knew every word.
I was also grateful being in Nashville for the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders. I wasn’t fully aware of the stories surrounding those events. It was a punch to the gut as I learned the horror of those hijacked buses in May of 1961. Being there 50 years to the day I learned how instrumental the students of Nashville (an especially segregated city) were in continuing their nonviolent inter-racial freedom rides into the Deep South.
Heading back home we travelled down highway 61 (no, not that Highway 61) and visited Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace. Before jumping on the Kentucky Bluegrass Parkway, we stopped in Bardstown at Heaven’s Hill Bourbon Distillery. Yes, we bought some.
Winding through the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia, it seemed fitting to sing John Prine’s, Paradise. Along the way I saw parts of America forever etched in my mind. Especially poignant are those small cities and towns along the Interstates that time and money mostly seem to have forgotten. For endless miles there would be nothing until the ubiquitous McDonalds, Wendy’s, Arby’s, and Exxon formed a clusterfuck near the highway exit ramps. Visions of oil refineries, industrial farming and fast food abattoirs danced in my head.
On the last leg of our journey, the weather broke and sunshine illuminated the Ohio Valley as we headed to Cleveland’s Rock n’ Roll & Hall of Fame. Waiting, unbeknownst to us, was a special exhibit called Women Who Rock. The perfect swansong.
An inspired collection of instruments and clothing called Treasures from the Vault was also featured.
There in the museum I left a little piece of my heart. The sheer lifelessness, of Janis Joplin’s dress -- knowing it once burst at the seams with spirit and soul -- grabbed me. I felt the same way viewing the scarves and necklaces she wore as she belted out the blues. Not to mention those rose-coloured spectacles through which she painfully viewed the world.
Intellectually I know, in the end, the guitars of those now moved on to rock n’ roll heaven are just material things made of wood, metal and wire. Still I felt a profound presence of the artist who played them and was equally jarred by the death certificates of those whose life expired too early. Standing gazing in the plexi glass showcase at Jimi's Hendrix’s priest's robe, I wondered what it felt like to be wrapped in it. The awe some people may feel in a church or a place of worship, I find in music. It is not about idolatry; it is about reverence and respect for the travelling minstrels that came before.
And, if there’s a song in this somewhere, it is off the beaten track in the towns of the downtrodden, tumbled down and dilapidated I saw along the way.
© Scarlett Sumac. May 2011
The names of all the performers exhibited at the Hall are too numerous to mention but I must tip my hat to Robert Johnson, Jimmie Rogers, Hank Williams and Mother Maybelle Carter.
Patsy Cline's dress in the Country Music Hall of Fame
Wanda Jackson's dress. Wanda is still performing and has been a constant in both country music and rock-a-billy. She recently worked with Jack White recording Dylan's song, Thunder On The Mountain.
Bourbon building in Bardstown
No cameras were allowed in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame except in the lobby. All the special items are relegated to memory except for this: Janis’ Porsche.
All photos Scarlett Sumac & Jack Pine