September 7, 2010

Back to Tennessee, Day 1

So I went back to Tennessee.  The trip(s) in April/May were just too good, I'd been thinking about the place ever since, especially as I've kept in touch with some of the people I met there the first time around.  And, because my infatuation with Jack White has not only continued, it's expanded to encompass the blues music that inspires him and that I first began exploring on my earlier trip.  Memphis and the Delta area of Mississippi are the cradle of the blues and I wanted to go to the source, get a feeling for the place this music came from.  I've been reading about the blues, but words-- dates and names and anecdotes and such-- can only convey so much.  So I picked a week, talked it up to a compatriot (my buddy, Lyle, who got me into the Dead Weather performance at Third Man Records back in May), and planned an itinerary.  To allow the most time possible to see and do, I decided to fly in this time and rent a car there--  A Ford Mustang, of course.  What else would I drive on a road trip if finances allowed?  Lyle and I put together a thoroughly blues-oriented expedition that would begin in Memphis, swing down for a side-trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi, back up to Memphis, then over to Nashville. 

I got to Memphis with no problems, but Lyle was not so lucky.  The first of her two flights ended up diverted by Hurricane Hermine, leaving her first stuck on the tarmac in Austin, Texas, then finally arriving in Houston and having to scramble for a connection to Memphis.  As she was going through all of that, I had the task of wrangling our Pony.  I almost came to blows with another woman when the rental company gave it to both of us as the same time.  But I got it, a sleek black beauty with beige interior and a 6-cd changer on which I planned to rotate Jack, Son House, Blind Willie McTell, and Robert Johnson, with a little bit of Black Keys thrown in. 

Once the Pony was saddled up, I headed in to Memphis to find a way to occupy the hours until I had to head back to the airport to pick up Lyle.  I ended up on Beale Street, where I perused the aisles of A. Schwab's, once an honest-to-goodness five-and-dime, now a combination five$-and-dime$ and museum.  The bins contained everything from open leg underwear (that's what the sign said, I swear it), to cowboy hats, Memphis souvenir mugs, and voodoo candles.  They also had a pretty fantastic selection of blues cds, so I picked up a couple of compilations, adding Leadbelly, Blind Willie Johnson, Charley Patton and others to the week's musical assortment. 

A few doors up from Schwab's was Tater Red's rock'n'roll clothing/etc.  I walked in and immediately recognized the White Stripes' Effect and Cause coming over the sound system.  I grinned big and picked out a kitschy little voodoo doll to hang from the rearview mirror of the Pony as a mascot.  Landed next in Blues City Cafe for the first of what would be many sweet iced teas consumed over the course of the week.

It felt so good to be back in Memphis, even on touristified Beale Street, but I kept also getting twinges of guilt for enjoying myself while Lyle was stuck somewhere on an airplane.  After a while, I headed back to the airport and her flight finally arrived, but sans luggage.  She was promised that it would make it into town the following day and be delivered to the hotel we'd booked in Memphis for the next night, so we hit the road for Clarksdale.  Our destination was the Shack Up Inn, a place I'd read about and been intrigued by in It Still Moves.  Before getting there, though, we made a stop at the Blue & White Cafe, where Lyle had her first taste of fried catfish and I had a B.L.T. made with fried green tomatoes.  And my second sweet tea of the day.  Having been born & raised in Virginia, sweet tea is one element of Southern culture that I embrace with gusto.

Arriving in Clarksdale, we got turned around while hunting for the Shack Up Inn in the dark and instead ended up at the famed "crossroads".  I use quotations because there is some debate as to whether the intersection of routes 49 & 61 is indeed the place where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for miraculous guitar-playing skill (Lyle insists it actually occurred in Rosedale, but we didn't have time to drive that far), and because the atmosphere of the place gives anything but an impression of dark magic.  The spot is marked with a cheesy pair of crossed blue guitars and is surrounded by a Church's Fried Chicken, a donut shop, and a beer & wine store.  Though perhaps that's fitting.  The blues originated in African-American culture, which since the days of slavery has apparently been nothing if not resilient and adaptable.  Blues is based in a feeling, one that can exist regardless of the setting or atmosphere in which it's experienced.  And who knows, perhaps Robert Johnson wished that there had been a beer'n'such shop there while he waited alone in the night for the devil to appear.

We finally found the Shack Up and collected our keys from the lobby mailbox.  We had no idea what to expect and arriving in the pitch dark left us clueless until we actually walked in the door of Lyle's Tinth Shack.  The place is great.  The shacks are beautifully restored, retaining a wonderfully rustic feel while being completely clean, cozy, and convenient.  Lyle, stoic Brit that she is, settled in with a bottle of wine while I steered the Pony back around to my Cadillac Shack.   The day came to a close on the front porch, where I sat in the dark smoking and listening to a soft rain fall on the metal roof of the nearby converted cotton gin.

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