As I start my climb up into the Appalachia mountains the weather looks hauntingly grim….
But half-way along the winding route the Appalachians open out ahead of me and the weather transformed, the sun started to shine and the colours of fall in the borders of North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia opened up.
My mood lightened and even my rental Chevy Cruzer began behaving itself… for the first time I could connect the iPod to the sound system so out came Blind Boy Fuller, the foremost of the Piedmont style pickers, and I cranked his two big songs ‘Boa Constrictor’ and ‘Rattlesnakin’ Daddy’ up to top volume. I love a double-entendre first thing in the morning!
I was heading for Bristol, the town that is generally accepted as the place where country music had its Big Bang moment… it is also uniquely in both Virginia and Tennessee, the state line runs straight along State Street. People are so keen to make cell-phone calls to relatives saying that they are in two States at once that I wonder why the town slogan isn’t “A good place to live – a great place to die” and also why it doesn’t have a higher death rate from road deaths.
A local State Trooper, leaning over the handle-bars of his Harley-Davidson told me, after I’d enquired as to the incidence of pedestrian deaths, that “the locals are even more stupid than the tourists so they tend to miss each other” – he said he was born in Oregon and moved here because he preferred the climate. I didn’t sense he was a people person.
Just off of State Street is the old hat factory where Ralph Peer, a music scout for Victor Records, set up his studio in 1929. Peer saw that there was an appetite for rural mountain music and instead of inviting known talent to New York he went to find no-doubt cheaper ‘unknown talent’ and record them on the spot. In one week in 1929 The Carter Family (Sara, AP and Maybelle – June Carter’s mother and ultimately wife of Johnny Cash) came to Bristol to record – as did Jimmie Rodgers. Their records sold like wildfire and is thought to be the ‘big bang’ moment of what became Country and Western music. Ralph Peer also invented the royalty system that we have today – rather than paying the artist $5 per song he paid them $2 and a percentage of the sales. Good for the artist if it went well and great for Peer.
The town is now a rather strange mix of tourist trap and worn out Appalachia – I thought I was in a vintage clothes store when in fact it was just a clothes store with a never shifting stock rotation. Lots of tired locals dragging their feet along the streets giving sour looks to tourists like me looking for the ghost of Jimmie Rodgers.
I didn’t find Rodger’s ghost but I did find a 30 foot high mural…
The drive up to Bristol took me away from the direction of Nashville so I then had a straight 350 mile/5 hour drive to Nashville and my Air BnB – Ivan’s Loft. When I arrived it was getting dark… and the approach up to it was not promising…
But when I got inside it was great…
It was great for the relatively little money I’d paid because it was in the crappy side of Nashville… basically Nashville has cleverly put all the minority groups into one area, where they are conveniently located for tyre repairs, thrift stores, second hand furniture, dark alleys and cigarette and liquor stores. There was a row of restaurant/take-away places ranging from Ethiopian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Indian, Greek and Turkish. Rather cleverly the Greek Gyro place was next to a Turkish restaurant called the Hookah Baklava – I imagine it all kicks off on Greek National Day when the Turks remind the Greeks that they invented both Baklava and Hummus. I found the restaurants as I was looking for the local Aldi, the only grocery store I recognised from my Google search. I have studiously avoided Aldi (and the fact that it sells discount Prosciutto and Burgundy in Britain has not lured me into a UK branch) since a visit to a Hamburg location a few years ago, the scars still glow on rainy nights. In this depressed part of town it was the discount version of a discount brand. I bought a bag of spinach, a piece of steak in a plastic pack and some mushrooms. I enquired about Marsala to make a jus reduction into which I could sauté the mushrooms but they were all out. The did not sell wine, neither did the Turkish run cigarette and liquor store next door. SatNav told me that Wholefoods was just 15 minutes drive away so off I went… as porn shops gave way to pawn stores and then to Mc Donald’s I sensed I was hitting the wealthier side of Nashville. My first Rolex poster told me that Wholefoods was close… and soon I was in familiar middle class territory. I bought nicer steak, a papaya, yellow banana’s and a Yukon potato.
But my real purpose was red wine… I wanted to cook, drink wine and stumble in a stupor 4 yards to my bed. I then discovered that like many states in the US, grocery stores cannot sell anything stronger than beer. There was a wine store on the mall but when I found it I discovered that only a licensed ‘cigarette and liquor store’, which means wire cages and a smell of stale sweat, operate on Sunday’s.
I bought two bottles of Sam Adam’s Lager in Wholefoods for the price of a decent bottle of Chianti anywhere else and embarked on the 30 minute drive home.
As I turned into the rather unassuming and spooky parking space at the back of the house my caring landlord Ivan was outside the house looking for me – I’d been gone for well over an hour and he thought I’d got lost or perhaps worse. He came up to my ‘loft apartment’ to chat and he drank my second bottle of beer. I eventually sat down to eat with a glass of water and listened to The Archer’s Omnibus. Who’d have thought Ambridge would beat Darrington! We may of lost the Rugby World Cup but we still know how to pull out the stops for the big sporting events!
Tomorrow I’m off to see George Gruhn. If Paul Heumiller is ‘the guru’ then George is the ‘Big Daddy’ of vintage guitars. He started in 1969 when they were just old guitars. He is the authority having written the two bibles on fretted instruments and dominates guitars in Music Town, USA. He studied Zoology at university and I now realise from an old interview in Vintage Guitar Magazine that he collects snakes – of which I have a morbid fear. In his first office he kept his collection of venomous Cotton Mouth snakes alongside his favourite vintage guitars… Bea Jay of Mandolin Brothers Guitars had told me that when she visited him a decade earlier with her husband Stan he’d said to her “I’m surrounded by the two things in life I love the most”. I guess Mrs Gruhn comes a close third.
I’ll let you know how I get on.
(This article first appeared in a series of e-mailed blogs when I made this trip in late 2015)