This was the plan …
Fly cheapish to the USA; drive in a circle, using motels at around $70 for two; tune the radio to outlaw country; tour some shrines of Americana; and stop along the way for milkshakes in the soda parlours of one-horse High Streets, country stews at Mom and Pop diners and cold beer and pool in bars full of baseball caps; before marvelling at the late-night telly.
Once, in Chicago, we discovered Trailer Park Princess, which was women boasting about how rough they were while chickens skittered round the set.
This time, no such luck. We sometimes wished we had the gizmos for transmitting British telly to the bedroom set. The radio was disappointing too and we ended up buying our own CDs.
As for the motels, some were fine; but most were broken in some way; and it was easy to get marooned in a desert of ribbon development, with a six-lane road between you and any bar or restaurant you might walk to. Cabs were hard to track down and deal with unless you had a smartphone. Waiters were surprised to be asked for a taxi number. Eventually we paid a bit more to get closer to where we wanted to be.
We got a reasonable deal through Dialaflight, which initially included a Ford Mustang convertible for the price of a Fiesta. But we read Paul Theroux’s new book Deep South and thought maybe two fat pink pensioners, roaring into town with the soft top down, would not be a wise introductory card everywhere.
Orlando was efficient. Tallahassee failed to grab us and we moved on quickly. At Montgomery, we stopped a critical few miles short of the city centre and needed a few cab rides over two days. The white country boys ran the cheapest cabs but the black lads had smarter cars, we noticed.
The Hank Williams Museum had a good collection of exhibits, headed by the baby-blue Cadillac Hank died in, still immaculate. We liked a cutting explaining the success of Hadacol, the patent medicine which paid most of Hank’s wages to start with …
“just enough alcohol to make you happy and just enough laxative you were frightened to cough”.
Montgomery is also famous, of course, as one of the showdown towns of the civil rights movement, thanks to a local preacher called Martin Luther King. In the course of reconstructing itself as an office town, the council has been tight with liquor licences and the centre was empty and gloomy at night. But we met a man who was on the Freedom March and another who had been happy for 30 years with a look modelled on Viv in The Young Ones. And some very beautiful black barmaids who were not impressed by a dollar for the tip jar.
We thought maybe we should try smaller places. But trying for that was another lesson in real America. Small town centres have largely moved out along the highways. Finding them is like looking for the end of the rainbow – they evaporate when you get there.
Same goes for little local diners. If you are on big tarmac, everything is a chain franchise. Nearest of them to the diners we were looking for was Waffle House, surprisingly, which we had assumed was all about puddings.
At a Popeye’s on a vast godforesaken mall near Mobile, we finally ran up against total incomprehension and lunched on two pints of water and two strawberry pop tarts, while the Highway Patrol tucked into fried meat all around us.
Best food we had overall was at filling stations where somebody did a bit of home cooking for truckers. Alabama garages served up a great stew with flat dumpling and some portions of fried chicken which told you what Colonel Sanders had in mind.
In fact, looking back, Alabama was generally good for old America coming close to the road. On the road to Montgomery, we bought clothes at Ronnie’s workwear store at Cowarts – see http://www.ronniesmenswear.com/
And near Troy, we bought presents for home in the Village Shoppes of the Pioneer Village – one man’s lifetime collection of log cabins, wiggly tin outhouses and other native and settler structures, lovingly rebuilt on his land over his lifetime. It makes a bit of a living as a charming arts and crafts outlet village, although not everyone is always open.
The manager recommended the barbecue at a bar up the road. We loved the barbecue, the bar and the landlady, and moved on thinking we would soon find its like again. But we never really did and certainly not in Nashville, which was the next stop.
We wanted a concert at the Ryman, just for the experience of the theatre, and ended up pleased to have caught Boz Scaggs, who finished with a storming version of perhaps his greatest hit – Loan Me A Dime. But outside, didn’t like it much.
The tv series Nashville, celebrating the city’s latest line in X-Factor-style wannabes, went down a bomb with American kids and completed the ruin of the city. For one thing, it oversold the famous songwriters’ nights at the Bluebird Cafe, a tiny venue, to the point where you now have to queue for days, online or off, to get a ticket.
Nashville still has places you have to go, and you can quickly climb to its elegant side, where churches and expensive Italian restaurants start to outnumber the bars. But downtown is a theme park for hen and stag parties. Most of the music has as much to do with Hank Williams as Beyonce does to Howling Wolf and the old western outfitters are mainly selling pink stetsons.
We feared we were heading for the same scene if we went to Memphis, asking the way to Beale Street.
We did Graceland and found it less grandiose than the legend and rather touching, then headed down the Delta.
By this time we had learned you had to dive off on impulse sometimes and we followed old signs inviting visitors to “Historic Helena”, on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi.
Helena had a very nice High Street but there was nobody in it. One window after another held only dust.
We found an open bar and had good pizza and beers for a couple of dollars each.
The bar manager showed us pictures of his ex girlfriend, firing a gun, and of the High Street 20 years ago, full of cars and people. Cotton was first to go; now even catfish, the cod of the south, is imported.
“Mind you,” he tells us, “there are farmers around here who are richer than God, because all they were really farming was subsidies and all they had to do was keep expanding.”
We were sorry to move on but we felt guilty being there. Best we can do is mention the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival, which still fills the place in mid-August – see sunflowerfest.org/
At Muscle Shoals, we paid homage at Fame Studios, which was built on the success of Arthur Alexander’s superb song You Better Move On. The Stones made it a hit but Alexander wrote it and maverick producer Rick Hall turned it into an original sound – black soul singer with white country players. That was the beginning of one of the great studio stories of the 60s and onwards, told in the 2013 film Muscle Shoals and turned into a worldwide hit by Netflix – catch it when you can. Liz’s Muscle Shoals T-shirt was a good conversation starter for the rest of the trip. And we made one of those connections which seem like a blessing when you are travelling aimlessly. Muscle Shoals was where, in 1969, Boz Scaggs recorded the career-making song we heard him perform live in Nashville. First time round he had Duane Allman on guitar.
Wherever the musicians go for a beer after a day at Fame, we couldn’t find it.
We went to a chain restaurant and asked where we might get one later. Town next door, probably, said the waitress. But her friend came out later and said “I hear y’all want to get drunk” and recommended a place her parents liked to go when the mood was upon them. Sounded perfect, but once again it was too far to walk without a sidewalk.
In Clarksdale, we were once again aware of the devastating decline of the river trade and the prairie lands which supplied it. The town gets enough blues-trail trade to be friendly to visitors, however, and we had an enjoyable night out at one of the few juke joints which is still always open – Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero, where a burly guitarist called Bill Abel (check him out below) looked and played like Seasick Steve. The diner we went for breakfast, Yazoo Pass, was nice, too, thanks to the advantage of having had no big makeover in the past two decades.
In Clarksdale, we learnt the theory behind a bit of American motoring heritage, the 4-way Stop sign. Who moves first? Close as we could get it, it’s the motor to the right of you. Unless you got there first.
We blinked at The Hooker Hotel but it turned out to be named after John Lee. By the time we got that straight, we were in the Uptown Motor Inn, along with other British, some Canadians and some Dutch. It was as central as you would want to be, put it that way. But we checked out feeling new respect for Premier Inns at home. A note here to Brit tradesmen – far as we could see, there is not a motel or hotel room in the USA that could not do with a good bathroom finisher, who does not end up with a blob of sealant, mortar and paint, in at least one corner.
We stopped at white-collar Oxford Town, everybody’s favourite, with book stores on every corner and young people who looked like Prince Harry and his girlfriends. Too pretty for its own good, we felt, and we were still voting Trump, on behalf of Helena. We pressed on to Tupelo, a successful small manufacturing town, and loved it more. The Tupelo Hardware Store sold Elvis his first guitar but it is also one of the great hardware stores of the world and it is part of an original High Street including a high-class department store, Read’s; a good ol’ American barber, Mike McBunch, who tells a couple of good tales about “that boy”, as his mum called Elvis; and bars ranging from alley dive to pleasantly pretentious. The birthplace museum was nice, too, especially the rebuilt Assembly Of God chapel where you were surrounded on three sides by a recreation of the kind of services the Presleys attended.
We needed more river and chose Natchez, which still has elegance on the riverfront and ramshackle charm behind and was easy to walk into and around from the Holiday Inn Express. Its famously sleazy port area now holds a couple of tourist bars and some severed hawsers, running down to the empty water. But we got some good pub grub at Fat Mama’s Kitchen and did an interesting tour of a house built by the gentry when they were making fortunes out of cotton and timber before the Civil War. Also in Natchez, we started meeting people from New Orleans, who said if we had got that far, we surely had to drop in on the Big Easy.
Somebody called it “the most beautiful dirty filthy place you’ll ever go”. And that was about right. All your cravings for picturesque America could be satisfied there, as long as you can stay out of trouble. Fifty yards from the hotel, we were surrounded by strippers, hustlers, stoners, Creole queens and queens of all colours, brass bands, beggars, dandies and wrecks. That was just Bourbon Street. You could walk through it to quieter corners but the general air was interesting but dodgy.
We took a swamp tour, half an hour out of town, and can reveal that a Louisiana alligator will do anything for a white marshmallow. And we heard a street band which will one day make a good record, led by Matt Rivers, who has already made a rough-edged solo one called The St Bernard Tape.
On the way back to Orlando, we touched the Florida coast twice.
First, at our budget price, we got the most broken motel of them all, although with the most charming manager – an ex-serviceman (like them all, down this way) who talked as if he was running a four-star hotel and wanted to hear about Dartmoor, because he was a Conan Doyle fan. Next, for about twice as much, we got the best of the bunch – La Fiesta at St Augustine Beach, which ran an immaculate pool and delivered breakfast to the room.
Petrol was a nice surprise, at around $25 a tank. We covered 2,700 miles in three weeks, which was enough driving. And in the end, yes, we’d do it again – just a bit differently.
Boz Scaggs and Duane Allman