Archive for December, 2010

Road Trip: In Search of Freddy Fender

Friday, December 31st, 2010

 Hey there folks; I’m back from my autumnal sabbatical and I hope you all had a very merry Christmas. I had a great time enjoying a White Christmas in Atlanta for the first time in 118 years; so much for global warming and my longevity.

Anyway, a few weeks ago my son, Shaun, flew over from England for his annual visit, and to make a change from Atlanta, we decided to embark on a road trip for a few days.

The first leg of the trip would take us to the country music capital of the world: Nashville. It’s approximately a four hour ride from Atlanta give or take one or two pit stops along the way, and neither of us had visited the city before which increased the sense of anticipation. The route up I75 was uneventful apart from the appalling weather. It rained constantly for the whole leg of the journey and I blamed Shaun for bringing the damn English weather over with him. We stopped for lunch at a Cracker Barrel which gave Shaun a generous flavor of Americana and country cooking.

I used my Garmin 265 GPS system to navigate our way to our hotel which was in walking distance of Main Street and Broadway which houses most of the live music venues. The main attraction in Nashville is arguably the Grand Ole Opry. It is a radio show with a large live audience and is country music’s most prestigious showcase. Music Row is another main attraction for country music fans which comprises a tight collection of streets affectionately known locally as the music industry ghetto. Typically we didn’t make it to either because we are not country music fans, so why the hell did we decide to go to Nashville? Good question and thank you for asking it.

Well, we share an interest in visiting new bars particularly those with live music and Broadway provided a wide variety from which to choose a suitable watering hole or two. It was the middle of the afternoon but Legends Corner and The Stage were quite lively before we finished up a little more sedately in Baileys which boasted over 250 beers on tap from all over the world. Needless to say I was a little disappointed they didn’t have Felinfoel’s Red Dragon or Brain’s SA. One of the reasons for our visit was to track down a possible relative; Freddy Fender. My mum’s maiden name was Fender and I believe a few of her cousins emigrated to America which raised the possibility that Freddy was related to us.

Alas we were informed that the three-time Grammy winning country musician died in 2006 aged 69. His real name was Baldemar Huerta and hailed from South Texas. We were reeling from this devastating revelation that Freddy was not a member of the Fender dynasty but merely borrowed the name from the creator of the Fender guitar. Gathering our composure we paused for a couple of moments at Baldemar’s portrait hanging outside the men’s restroom in The Stage and took our leave. We walked to the end of Broadway to visit the Tennessee Titans’ football stadium which stood like a monolith in contrast to the cozy little bars and restaurants funneled along Nashville’s main street.

Our last destination in Nashville was to catch up with a band, The Time Jumpers who play at The Station Inn on a Monday night. The venue reminded me of the Cwmfelin Social Club in Swansea with its low hung ceiling and barmaids, Formica tabletops fighting for space between tubular steel chairs, providing a seating capacity for approximately 145 people. The food was limited; hot or cold pizza and two draft beers; Miller or Miller lite. Luckily the music made amends for the lack of décor and comfort. Eleven musicians crammed onto a tiny stage and made incredible sounds together. An added bonus was the appearance of “Country Hall of Famer” Vince Gill who joined the band in February 2010 and plays with them every Monday night if he’s not on tour. It proved to be a great night of country swing music for a cover charge of $15.

The next morning, we waved Nashville good bye and headed for Memphis. Ignoring the inclement weather and heavy trucks cutting a swell through the spray created by the constant rain, we settled down for the 200 mile trip. We quickly checked in to our modest motel and headed for Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous Charcoal Ribs for a late lunch. Their dry ribs are the very essence of Memphis barbecue and we weren’t disappointed. Sadly, we discovered Charles Vergo passed away in March, and we were unable to complement him personally on his world famous ribs. Apparently The Rolling Stones dropped by once upon a time and got sticky fingers!

If you visit Memphis, there are three mandatory locations on the itinerary to visit: Graceland, The Peabody Hotel and B.B. King’s Blues Club in Beale Street. We left Rendezvous and quickly made the short walk to the lobby of the Peabody Hotel which is the city’s finest hotel. The Peabody is famously known for the ducks which live in its fountain. Every day at 11.00am the ducks are brought down from their penthouse apartment and encouraged to waddle along a red carpet to the fountain where they splash around until 5.00pm at which point they are returned to their palatial enclosure. A “duckmaster” oversees the procession which attracts a crowd of tourists who have to be quackers.

It was late afternoon and we needed to get to Graceland fairly quickly to catch the last tour. Home to Elvis Presley for 20 years, Graceland sits 10 miles south of downtown. Elvis bought the place in 1957 for $100,000, and following his death in 1977 Graceland was frozen in the seventies. Surprisingly Graceland is not as big as you would imagine, and the striking feature of the house is the ostentatious interior design highlighted by Elvis’s most bizarre creation, the Jungle Room.

 I was curious to witness my son’s reaction to the tour and he concluded that it was “cool.” He didn’t realize Elvis sold so many records that made gold or platinum which are displayed in the Hall of Gold and reputed to be the largest private collection in the world. My favorite piece of the tour is the collection of classic cars housed in the Auto Museum while Elvis’s private jet Lisa Marie highlights the maxim that money can buy most things but it’s no substitute for taste. This was my second visit to Graceland and I left with the impression that the “Elvis Mecca” was beginning to fray around the edges and is in need of a serious makeover.

We quickly returned to downtown and took a walk along Beale Street which is the main drag for live music in Memphis. It was early evening and we elected to have a drink in BB King’s Blues Club which in my opinion has seen better days. We had deliberated on whether to take in the NBA game at the FedEx Arena later in the evening and the purchase of $5 nosebleed seats was a decisive factor in our plans. Meanwhile an early evening meal was the next objective and Silky O’Sullivan’s, an Irish theme pub, provided reasonable pub grub and dueling pianos of questionable quality.

We left for the Arena and climbed (oxygen masks, ice picks and ropes were provided at the concession stand) tentatively to our seats, and settled down to watch the Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trailblazers. Neither team has a household name among its line up but apart from Kobe Bryant and Lebron James who does? Shaun had achieved his goal by attending America’s four professional sports: NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB.

We left the game at half time in search of liquid refreshment on Beale Street, and we stumbled on a bar which had a band playing live blues and held our attention for the rest of the night. Happy and contented we took our leave of our salubrious surroundings and embarked on the short walk back to our motel. We settled down for a good night’s sleep in readiness for the long ride back to Atlanta the following day.

 All was well with the world until we were awoken in the early hours by a noise resembling an explosion which made the walls of our room vibrate. I could hear shouts and screams coming from the parking lot which was directly below us followed by gunshots. I tentatively drew back the curtain and looked out the window to witness a car making doughnuts in the parking lot and then it raced off into the night sky. Discretion was the better part of valor and I crawled back into bed hoping it was all a dream.

We awoke next morning with sunshine streaming through our window and none the worse for our unscripted late night wake-up call. We showered, dressed, packed our bags, checked the walls for bullet holes and went down to reception to check out. I was about to ask the Indian gentleman masquerading as a receptionist if the late night drama was a motel ritual, but he looked as confused as we did, and it was time to make an exit.

Our last port of call before settling down for the serious ride back to Atlanta was to pay a visit to Elvis’s birthplace, Tupelo, Mississippi. The house in which he was born is a modest shack not big enough to swing a cat around, and definitely not worth paying an admission fee to view.  The weather was vastly improved and we made good time returning to Atlanta under a blue and cloudless sky. Nearing Atlanta on I20, the skyscrapers and twinkling lights downtown slowly come into view. We were home.