Anyone for Moon Pie?

John & Susan Simpson
Wed 27 Jul 2022 08:48
Our final leg of the US music tour took us to Memphis and Nashville where many aspiring blues musicians of the Mississippi Delta gravitated when they hoped to earn a living playing music.  Memphis was also the home of Elvis Presley and we’d booked tickets to visit his home - Graceland.  Visiting the Graceland mansion which Elvis called home was surprising in a number of ways.  Firstly, visiting the site for the ‘Elvis experience’ had all the hallmarks of a Disney theme park, complete with box office queues, Elvis merchandise and a plethora of exhibitions and eating establishments tenuously linked to Elvis’ life.  Secondly, the mansion itself was much smaller than we’d imagined.  
Elvis’ Graceland home

The greek portico entrance gives an air of grandeur as you approach but inside the rooms are no bigger than those you’d find in many a family home in the UK.  The decor is lavish, colourful and a little quirky but otherwise it’s very homely.  Only the downstairs is open to visitors as the upstairs was always a private space, even when Elvis was alive.   

We were surprised to find that Elvis had lived with his parents for much of his life; even when stationed in Germany as a member of the US armed forces he had lived with his parents in a hotel near to the US Army base. We came away with a feeling of sadness as it seemed that Elvis was never able to live a ’normal’ life.  Even at Graceland, where you would think he could have relaxed, it was said that he never came downstairs unless he was dressed and ready to be the Elvis people expected him to be, and he was rarely alone.  After his death he was buried in a Memphis cemetery but later moved to Graceland for security.  He is buried with his Mother, Father, and Grandmother in the Meditation Garden that Elvis commissioned for Graceland.  

On a happier note, Elvis clearly loved his vehicles and they’re all on show in the Disney-inspired exhibition halls across the road from Graceland mansion.  Everything from motorbikes to Rolls Royces to snowmobiles is there.  We also enjoyed seeing his signature one-piece stage costumes, complete with stand-up collars, flared trousers, capes and wide belts.  The amount of ‘bling’ he wore was impressive: rings, sunglasses, watches, pendants, all with massive stones and chunky gold.
Just a fraction of the number of costumes on display.  He needed a lot of costume changes because they were so hot to wear.

Beale Street in Memphis is as famous in jazz/blues circles as Bourbon Street is in New Orleans and is similarly lined with bars and restaurants where every night you can hear a different band in each one.  There the similarity stopped because the Beale Street we experienced was quiet, empty and with distinctly underwhelming live music.  Perhaps it was the post-Covid effect or because we were there on a Tuesday night but we found it disappointing after the exciting times we had had in New Orleans.  Time to move on to Nashville….

The thing to do if you’re a country music fan in Nashville is to go to the Grand Ole Opry.  This is a weekly radio show that has been running since 1925 to showcase past, present and future country music stars and it is broadcast live in front of a live audience.  The name was coined in 1927 when the show was broadcast immediately after a classical music programme playing selections from Grand Opera.  The announcer that night said: “ we have been listening to music from Grand Opera, but from now on we will present ’The Grand Ole Opry’”.   I’m not sure I follow that, but still…. We booked tickets on our first night in Nashville and went along not knowing at all what to expect.  Clearly we hadn’t been in Nashville long enough to know that the dress code for ladies is cowboy boots, a flared mini-skirt, flouncy top and a stetson hat!  Needless to say, my wardrobe was sadly lacking!

Elvis Presley played at the Opry in 1954 but was told that his revolutionary brand of ‘rockabilly’ didn’t suit the programme and he wasn’t booked again.  It’s easy to see why that would be.  The programme for the evening we attended was a light-hearted, family-orientated mix of bluegrass, country music and mildly suggestive humour.  It reminded us of the variety TV shows we used to watch in the 1970’s.  Front centre stage there was a circle of wooden floor boards and much was made of being invited to play 'in the circle’.  The story was that this circle of boards had been cut from the original Opry stage and inserted into the stages of subsequent buildings as each move was made to accommodate larger and larger audiences.  The current venue seats around 4,500 people.  Those making their Opry debuts step into the circle with much emotion and pay tribute to the stars who have done the same before them.  It’s a rite of passage for rising country and western performers.

We spent our last day in the US on a walking tour of central Nashville utilising an App which took us to 12 important historical buildings and played a short narrative about each site when we got there.  At £1.79 for the App it was much cheaper than some of the guided tours we’d taken in other cities, and we concluded you get what you pay for!  Nevertheless, we were able to get a sense of Nashville’s history before we adjourned to Broadway for more live music and a bite to eat. The most shocking thing for me was discovering that segregation between whites and blacks was still in place in the US as late as 1960.  We visited the site of the Nashville sit-ins where African American students peacefully sat at the ‘White Only’ lunch counter in Woolworths.  Following the huge outcry this caused, on 10 May 1960 Nashville became the first major city in the South to begin desegregating its public facilities.  It was very noticeable, even 60 years later, that the faces we saw in Nashville were predominantly white.  All of the musicians playing at the Grand Ole Opry and in the Broadway bars were white, as were the people in the audiences. This was in stark contrast to New Orleans and Memphis where it seemed totally integrated.  It felt like we had crossed an invisible line between Black and White America somewhere between Memphis and Nashville.

Our favourite dining experience in Nashville was a visit to 'Robert’s Western World’ which had great reviews for food and live music.  The band we heard was great fun - a  Bluegrass/Country trio playing with great verve and energy.  When the Double Bass player hoists his Bass onto his shoulders and plays it behind his head you know you’re listening to something a bit different!  Google had recommended that we try the ‘Recession Special’ which we duly did.

Fried Bologna Sandwich was a slice of warm sausage tasting like Spam served with lettuce between two slices of buttered toast; a moon pie was (surprisingly) a marshmallow topped biscuit coated in chocolate(for the UK readers - rather like a Wagonwheel!); and a PBR was a small can of beer.  

The only predictable part of the meal was the chips element, which we knew in the USA means crisps.  I’m not sure I’d go for the Recession Special again but it was good to try it!

For those of you who’ve followed our US music tour to its conclusion I’ll finish with a taster of Nashville music and John’s favourite lyric heard whilst we were there:     ‘All my exes live in Texas’

We’re now having a break with family in the friends in the UK for a few weeks and resume our travels with a trip to Holland and a cycling tour of the Netherlands in August.

See y’all soon!