Music history in America's Deep South

40 years after Elvis died, the King is still very much alive on a musical journey through Nashville and Memphis


Neon-lit Nashville on a cold November night and the honky tonks are buzzing. Denim-clad derrieres sway and country music throbs from the pavements up…

We’re on a 650-mile road trip of America’s Deep South. There’s a lot of ground to cover, both in mileage and in content — our itinerary takes us to cotton and sugar plantations, to museums and music halls, to the studio where a dirt-poor white kid was reborn as a king and the balcony where a black man named King was murdered.

We glide through the bayous of New Orleans looking for ’gators and chug our way along the Mississippi on a paddle steamer.

And throughout we have as our soundtrack the music that is woven into the very fabric of American history along with the expert commentary of our guide, Miss Ann, who joins us from start to finish on our Insight Vacations Luxury Gold trip.

Whisked along the route on an executive coach with extra leg room, Wi-Fi and seats aplenty, there’s space to bag a window seat for day dreaming or company to chat with as we eat up the miles.

As far as the music scene goes, we couldn’t have come at a better time. 2017 marks 40 years since Elvis died, 60 years since RCA’s Studio B opened and the 125th anniversary of the Ryman Auditorium — the former home of the Grand Ole Opry, America’s longest-running live radio show.

All are on our tour, starting with Nashville’s Studio B where some of country music’s greatest songs were recorded, including Dolly Parton’s Jolene, All I have to do is dream by the Everly Brothers and Only the lonely by Roy Orbison. It was also where Elvis cut Are you lonesome tonight — in the pitch dark, at 4am: if you listen carefully to the original, you can hear him bumping his head on the mic.

While we’re there, another group steps up to record… us! After posing by Elvis’s piano, we massacre Can’t help falling in love. Good golly Miss Molly — it’s enough to make the king turn in his grave.

At the city’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, beautifully rendered panels, exhibits and film reels trace the birth of country music through the lives of the immigrants and ragged-clothed poor who created it, as well as showcasing some of the more flamboyant excesses of its biggest stars.

Among the highlights are Elvis’s 24-carat gold plated grand piano and Cadillac, jewelled costumes worn by Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette as well as honky tonk singer Webb Pierce’s 1962 Pontiac Bonneville — terrifyingly customised with pistol door handles and a rifle on the bonnet.

And for the impressive finale, an exclusive event for our tour — a private performance and Q&A with Richard Leigh, the Grammy Award-winning songwriter who wrote Don’t it make your brown eyes blue.

Leigh’s encyclopaedic commentary acts as a prelude to our evening’s entertainment, The Grand Ole Opry: it’s a bit too ‘praise the Lord’ for my liking, but then we are in the very buckle of America’s bible belt.

If Nashville is enjoying boom times, thanks to its music scene, top-class universities and emergence as a centre for healthcare and banking, Memphis, our next stop, appears to be having no such luck.

Gritty and grimy round the edges, most of everything that happens here does so on or around Beale Street, where you’ll find the Blues bars and dry-rub rib joints that are keeping the city going.

Away from that, the outstanding National Civil Rights Museum charts the history of slavery and racism in uncomfortable and ugly detail. Our excellent museum guide, a man in his 60s, talks us through three centuries of black subjugation, Jim Crow segregation laws and, sadly, the abuses that still occur, bringing his own experience to bear.

He tells us how his parents told him never to look white people in the eye in Mississippi and that there are still places he doesn’t consider safe for black Americans.

He then takes us up to the adjoining Lorraine Motel, to see the balcony where Martin Luther King lost his life, and across the road to the lodging house where his assassin, James Earl Ray stood in the bath to take aim. The room is a reconstruction but is eerily grim and depressing for all that.

Nowhere is Elvis’ presence is nowhere more apparent than in Memphis, the city where he made his first recording and where he lived and died, although we discover he is omnipresent and seemingly immortal throughout the South.

Following in his footsteps, we trace his career from Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio, where the biggest names of the 50s recorded, and then on to Graceland.

I’m an Elvis fan and my excitement levels are soaring, particularly with a private evening tour of Graceland to look forward to, given by George Klein — one of Elvis’s best friends and a member of the gang known as the Memphis mafia. We also have dinner in Presley’s car museum: on the menu? Fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches — an Elvis favourite.

Klein is old and cuts a frail but startling figure in a velour tracksuit and trainers. Yet as we go from room to room he finds his stride and a jumble of unfettered stories about life with the King come tumbling out. Some are good, some are sad and some are now downright unacceptable…

From Memphis, we head south to New Orleans for a cemetery walk and sample some fine Cajun cuisine; the city is also home to several kosher restaurants. The organised among our group bought tickets for Preservation Hall — the undisputed home of traditional jazz — weeks before, but the rest of us don’t fare too badly, either.

We enjoy a joyful jazz crawl, ducking in and out of bars, listening to one set after another, before finally settling down in The Spotted Cat to catch the final act.

So after landing in the City of Music, we depart from the City of the Dead, having filled our hearts with the music of the South, from country and folk through to the birth of rock’n’roll — and all that jazz…

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