May 10-17, 2022
On the day we left Nashville, the temperature was due to reach 28ºC. So, we unpacked our shorts and packed away our jeans and fleeces. The temperature continue rising as we headed south to New Orleans and stayed warm until mid-September when we were half way across Canada.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile scenic drive which passes through Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. We started at mile 444 and worked our way down to mile zero at Natchez. It roughly follows the “Old Natchez Trace” a historic travel corridor and major trade route between the eastern states and the southern trading ports along the Mississippi River in the states of Mississippi and Louisiana. Along the green tree-lined route there are historic sites, beautiful viewpoints, waterfalls and swamps.
We intended to drive the whole of the Natchez Trace Parkway from just south of Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi. We were also going to hop off the parkway in order to explore other areas on and around the Mississippi Blues Trail such as Memphis and Clarksdale and then rejoin the parkway at the same point so we could experience it in its entirety.
Before joining the parkway, we stopped off at Franklin, a town 20 miles south of Nashville with a quaint main street of restored Victorian buildings; cafes, antique shops, galleries and a lovely old theatre. The town was, and still is, very wealthy. Our interest was that it was a key site in the American Civil War (1861-1865) so, after a wander around downtown, we visited The Carter House. The American Civil War was fought between the Union (the North) and the Confederacy (the South). It was not simply the morality of slavery that the war was fought for but a combination of factors to do with the economics of slavery and state autonomy with the South wanting to expand slavery to the western territories whilst the North wanted it to be white labour only.
The Carter House was central to the Second Battle of Franklin in 1864. The house was the headquarters of the Union army before and during the battle and the Carter family took refuge in the basement. It was a significant battle and over 1,000 bullet holes are still visible around the house and the other buildings. The Confederate troops experienced a devastating defeat when they charged Franklin with the loss of thousands of Confederate (and also significant numbers of Union) soldiers. The Carter family also experienced loss directly as one of the family’s sons, a Confederate solider, was mortally wounded in the battle. As well as learning about the battle, we also learnt about how the family and slaves there lived and how the war affected them.
On day one we completed 107 miles of the Parkway and took in a number of sights; the Jackson Falls which was very pretty but slightly marred by a group of lads that were throwing rocks off the top of the falls where they smashed on the rocks below. Then we visited the Meriwether Lewis memorial (he of the Lewis and Clark expedition fame that we had encountered in the Crossings Exhibition in Chicago) and whose death near the memorial site was considered suspicious.
Muscle Shoals and Florence, Alabama
We then left the trace to spend the night in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The next day we took in a bit of music history and architecture. First up was a visit to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Started in 1969 by four session musicians (who became known as ‘The Swampers’) from the nearby FAME Studios. It quickly gained a reputation and many artists recorded numerous fantastic tracks and albums there (Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Joe Cocker, Bob Seger, Paul Simon, Lynyrd Skynyrd (who referenced The Swampers on Sweet Home Alabama) and many more before it’s relocation in 1979). The stories behind the music are stuff of legend; perhaps none more so than that the Rolling Stones dropped in unexpectedly during their US tour to record a few songs including Brown Sugar and Wild Horses (the latter which Keith Richard’s purportedly composed from the loo (now keep almost as a shrine – see photo!)).
Next up was a tour of a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian House, the Rosenbaum House. Unlike some of his grander architectural creations these were supposed to be a bit more financially attainable and to be lived in, though by no means was that possible by the working or even middle class. The Rosenbaum family lived there from the 1940’s until 1999 when ‘Mimi’ Rosenbaum gifted it to the city of Florence. She knew the importance of keeping it intact and left the original furniture and their belongings in situ as can be seen in the living room.
The lines of the house (horizontal) and materials used permeate inside and out and Lloyd Wright’s control of his projects meant that he also designed all of the furniture. This control meant it was not easy to live in with, for example, a very low dining table and chairs as they had to align with one of the horizontal lines! And he never did fix the leaks in the flat roof.
We then drove the couple of hundred miles from Alabama, through a bit of Mississippi, before returning to the state of Tennessee because… ‘I’m going to Graceland, Graceland – Memphis Tennessee…’ (Graceland, Paul Simon).
Our base in Memphis was a spooky Victorian Airbnb in a very quiet part of town.
During our two nights in Memphis, we explored Beale Street which is lined with blues bars and clubs, went to the National Civil Rights Museum and Sun Studio.
On Beale Street, we saw Cam Cole busking on the street but most of the bars and restaurants had cover charges and long queues so we tried quieter places but were a bit disappointed with the standard of the music. We did see a good band at the Rum Boogie Bar (Eric Hughes band) one night and also quite enjoyed the Duelling Pianos at an Irish bar.
The National Civil Rights Museum is one of those museums that is so well done that you learn so much and we spent a full three hours there. The museum is built around the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated so after walking through the museum you walk past rooms 306 and 307 before crossing to a building across the road which was a boarding house where the shot was fired from (or was it?) with details of the investigation and the man they charged. The museum is not just about Martin Luther King Jr or Rosa Parks or the stories we all know. There were lots of threads and parts of civil rights history described on a very well curated path through the museum and we began to understand how he different stories and events knitted together. Whilst the museum is an incredible educational opportunity for people from around the world, it is not without controversy itself. There was a protest outside the museum led by Jacqueline Smith (known as the ‘Smith Protest’) since 1988 when she, a long term resident of the motel, was evicted in order for the museum to be built. The protest is centred on the fact that the motel has been turned into a tourist attraction which has led to the gentrification of the area with local communities being uprooted and alienated instead of refurbishing and uplifting them.
Sun Studio is perhaps most famous as the studio where Elvis was ‘discovered’ and started his career. However, it has a first class rock and roll pedigree and was also reputedly where the first rock and roll single ‘Rocket 88’ was recorded in 1951 and many blues, rock & roll, R&B and country artists recorded there in the 1950’s and 1960’s including Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis (to name a few). But, back to Elvis. The story goes that in 1953, the 18 year old Elvis walked into Sun Studio and paid to record a couple of songs reportedly as a gift for his mother. The receptionist Marion Keisker thought he had a good voice. She said, “Over and over I remember Sam saying, ‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.’ Subsequently the founder of Sun Studio, Sam Phillips, asked Elvis to sing a few songs but they didn’t seem to hit the mark. Elvis then started messing around singing an old blues number called ‘That’s All Right’ (Arthur Crudup) and Sam knew he had found the sound he had been looking for. A local DJ played the song on his radio show again and again for two hours and shortly after that the single was pressed and released and was an immediate success. The Studio expanded massively due to Elvis’ success and in 1955 Phillips sold Elvis’ contract to Colonel Tom Parker so that Elvis could gain a national audience.
It’s getting hot – over 30ºC now!
Continuing with the Elvis theme, on the day we left Memphis we visited Graceland taking the inevitable corporate package tour. It was actually a very efficient production line and there was so much to see. The Graceland mansion was just a small part of the tour and the most stilted really as you shuffled road in a long queue with the audio guide iPad but it was interesting to see the sheer decadence and luxury though the house and rooms all seemed small by today’s standards. The rest of the exhibitions: cars, in the army, outfits, films etc. were self guided and gave a glimpse into various aspects of and times in Elvis’ life, though it had all been curated so that it glossed over or missed out completely anything that was less than wholesome or that was controversial.
Next stop Clarksdale to explore the blues history of the area. The infamous crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent are purportedly located here at the intersection of highways 49 and 61. We loved our 24 hours in Clarksdale packing as much of the time as possible with live music and learning about the Delta blues. We wished we could have stayed another night or two to continue to take in the atmosphere and because we were staying in an amazing hotel (Plantation style Clark House Inn) but all the accommodation was booked up. Given it is a such a small place the number of incredible musicians that were born there is pretty impressive: Sam Cooke, W C Handy, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Ike Turner to name a few.
We started at the ‘Bad Apple Blues Club’ where Sean ‘Bad’ Apple was doing his daily history of the Delta blues lecture/performance. Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram credits Sean as being one of the bluesmen he learnt from when he was starting out and he was the drummer in his band back in the day. Sean was joined at times by Artemis Laseuer who we found out played drums with Cedric Burnside. We had seen Burnside playing a few years earlier at Dingwalls in London when the incomparable Jimmy Regal and the Royals were support. We visited a couple of the blues clubs – Ground Zero (Lightnin’ Malcolm and friends) and MS juke joint Reds (Frank ‘Guitar’ Rimmer) The next day we started with a visit to the excellent Delta Blues Museum which gave a great overview of the history of Delta blues as well as lots of information on individual performers. We then went to the Women In Blues festival where we saw some great women musicians though there wasn’t much of a crowd (perhaps because it was outdoors and very hot with no shade). We saw Queen Iretta & Johnie B. Sanders, then Lady Trucker and then Ghalia Volt. It was a shame we couldn’t stay for the evening. During a break we went to seek out air-conditioning and a cold drink. We wandered into the ‘Hambone Art & Music’ shop? bar? stage? Art gallery? All of the above. The proprietor, Stan Street, does a bit of everything and a lot of art. It was fascinating to chat with him over a couple of cold drinks and we bought one of his paintings as a souvenir before heading out into the heat for a last look at the festival stage before leaving town. CD purchased (Ghalia Volt – highly recommended) – it was time to hit the road.
We had some great food in Clarksdale; fantastic southern fare at Levon and 2nd breakfast at Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes – highly recommended for fast, cheap and amazing hot pancakes (blueberry pancake for Jo and 3x plain pancakes with bacon (well, the US version) and maple syrup for Richard – yum, yum, yum).
We couldn’t leave Clarksdale without driving through the famous Crossroads, then onto Tupelo to visit Elvis’ birthplace the next morning (and so conclude our Elvis triple of Sun Studio, Graceland and his Tupelo birthplace) and where we would then hop back onto the Natchez Trace Parkway to drive from mile 293 to around 100. Time passes peacefully driving down the Natchez Trace. It’s so quiet without any commercial traffic and feels almost like driving through an extremely empty part of the UK with the green trees and fields to either side of the road.
On one of the stops a family of ‘plainly dressed’ people struck up a conversation with us. Plain dress is a practice among some religious groups in which people dress in clothes which are plain coloured, traditional and modest. We asked questions about each other’s countries and politics. They were supporting some people from the Ukraine and had recently visited and were very well versed on the situation in Ukraine and we had some areas of common views in that respect. There were also areas of difference – they believed Trump had been robbed and was still their President and there were other areas where our views were significantly different from theirs though in order to maintain an amiable conversation we didn’t think it worth sharing them!
We stopped for the night in a suburb of the Mississippi state capital Jackson. As a treat, following a night in a terrible Econo Lodge in Tupelo, we used some hotel loyalty points to stay in a lovely Marriott hotel which had a pool which was a welcome respite from the heat and availed ourselves of the hotel laundry.
The next day we did a self guided and interesting walking tour of Jackson though it was so hot we did struggle. At one point we bought some cold drinks in a cafe and after an interesting conversation with the manager about our trip and the fact he had been in the UK 30 years previously he came up to us before we left to give us some free bottles of water and to wish us well – a lovely gesture!
We then completed the last 100 miles of the trace which was uneventful until suddenly there was a violent thunderstorm and we found ourselves bombarded with massive hailstones. Not being able to see in front of us but also there not being anyway safe to pull over Richard drove as slowly as possible. When it stopped and we got out of the car we were sure there would be pock marks all over the car from the hail but we were lucky and it was undamaged.
Natchez – the end/beginning of the Natchez Trace Parkway
In Natchez we stayed at the Natchez Grand, an old hotel that was probably grand in its day but was past its prime., but it was in a good location. We walked the path on top of the hill overlooking the Mississippi river and bridge and walked down the road. It was lovely to have a bottle of cider outside of the ‘Under the Hill Saloon’ and to watch the sunset as we waited for our dinner table to be ready at CampHouse.
After dinner we went back to the Saloon where we wiled away a couple of lovely hours watching local musicians Brint Anderson and Matt Willis. We also bumped into a group of six Brits on tour and had a good chat with them about our respective adventures.
The next day we drove around Natchez which is a very small quaint city (approx. 15,000 pop). Set on the Mississippi River, it’s known for antebellum mansions. We toured the Melrose Estate House (National Parks Service). The focus of the tour was on the story of the enslaved people there rather than the grand families that had owned the houses. It was very good and the tour guide was especially good at calling out racism and civil rights abuses both historical and current at every opportunity. Very interesting house, grounds and history.
On the way to New Orleans we made a slight detour for a very quick visit to Baton Rouge to see if we could pick up some information about Louisiana from the visitor center. The visitor center was located in the Louisiana State Capitol Building and it was a bit of a maze inside the building. This mean that we got to see a bit of this lovely Art Deco building. We also got a tip to go up to the observation deck on the 24th floor. Wow! A fantastic view of the city!