It's been another great week on the road, this one spent in wonderful West Tennessee. It's been a hot week, as summer is moving in fast here in the south, but with it come the festivals and fun of the season. My week has been full of barbecue and music and really good people. West Tennessee is very distinct from the eastern part of the state, more resembling the Mississippi Delta which it is intimately connected to, than the rest of Tennessee. This region is flatter and poorer than the east of the state, but it is still full of wonderful stops and cool things to see.
When I finally left Nashville, I headed down the Natchez Trace Parkway. The parkway roughly follows the old Natchez Trace, an ancient trail which leads from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville. In the days before the great paddle wheelers plied the Mississippi River, boats carrying cotton, hides and other goods made a one-way trip down to the major port of Natchez. The boatmen would then sell their boats, whole or for scrap and walk back up the Natchez Trace 400 miles or so back to Nashville and start all over again. It was interesting to duck off the Parkway and walk some of the historic trail and imagine myself back in those days doing the same. I also stopped at the Meriwether Lewis Memorial at the old Grinder's Stand Tavern. It was there, in 1809, that the intrepid cross-country traveler passed away. His death may have been suicide or he may have been murdered, but either is tragic as he was only 35 years old. There is a nice memorial to him in the old pioneer cemetery where he was buried.
Coming off of the Trace, I traveled through Waynesboro and Savannah and made my way down to Shiloh National Military Park. The Battle of Shiloh was one of the bloodiest of the American Civil War, with almost 3500 soldiers killed, and 16,000 more wounded. Over 100,000 soldiers took part in the Battle of Shiloh. Two future U.S. Presidents were there: Ulysses S. Grant and James Garfield, as were famed western explorer John Wesley Powell and Henry Morton Stanley, finder of Dr. Livingston in Africa. It is a fascinating and terrible place, reminiscent of other truly horrific battlefields like Gettysburg and Antietam. As always, hats off to the National Park Service for their excellent interpretation.
From there I made my way up to Selmer where I picked up the Rockabilly Highway, Route 45, north to Jackson. This area of the state is also big on catfish farming, so I stopped in at the Catfish Cabin on my way into Jackson to get my fix. The catfish there was excellent, although they definitely have a very different interpretation of a Louisiana creole sauce than I do. To me, it would be a spicy tomato based sauce with onions and peppers, but here it was just like a spicy ranch dressing. Like a hillbilly Olive Garden though, they did offer unlimited coleslaw and hush puppies!
Thursday was a wonderful day in Jackson. After hitting the gym and getting a little bit of work done in the morning, I headed downtown to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. The Rockabilly Hall of Fame is run by a wonderful octogenarian named Henry Harrison. When I arrived, he was in the middle of giving a tour, so I just hopped on with them. While Harrison had spent his working life in the automotive industry, he had been friends with many of the early rockabilly artists in the area. He had known Johnny Cash as a kid, had been sent to repossess a car from Jerry Lee Lewis, hung out with Elvis at Graceland and gotten Jackson native Carl Perkins to advertise his car dealership. I didn't spend much time looking around at the bric-a-brac, but spent over two hours listening to Harrison's stories. Other people came and went during the time I was there, but I just sat and listened. I really just enjoyed hearing Henry reminisce and tell stories of the real people these celebrities were. At some point he even pulled out Carl Perkins' guitar and let me play Blue Suede Shoes on it. That was pretty cool. Before I left, he invited me back the following night to see an induction into the Hall.
When I finally pulled myself away, I went a few miles up the road to the Casey Jones museum. I was really interested in finding out more about this story, and this museum was really good in its interpretation. For those of you not familiar with Casey, he was a railroad engineer who, on April 30th, 1900, came around a bend in Vaughn, Mississippi and spotted another train stalled on the tracks. He jammed on the brakes as hard as he could, keeping his post when he could have jumped and saved himself. He slowed the train from 75 mph to 35 mph and when the collision came, he was the only one killed in the wreck. His was a heroic tale, but it became legend when a friend of his named Wallace Saunders made up a song about Casey. This song spread and has been remade, rewritten and recorded dozens of times by musicians from Bing Crosby to Johnny Cash. The museum told this story through a great video and lots of artifacts and articles. The home where Casey and his wife and kids lived in Jackson has been transported across town and now sits behind the museum. There is even a reproduction of Engine 384, the engine he was driving that fateful night. I really enjoyed this museum and learning more about Casey Jones.
Right across the parking lot from the museum was the wonderful Old Country Store Restaurant. The Old Country Store has a wonderful country buffet at an incredible price. At $10 for breakfast and lunch and $12 for dinner, they put out a great spread of food. They had delicious smoked and fried chicken when I was there, plus catfish, meatloaf and chicken and dumplings, but it was the veggies and sides that really made it great. And of course you have to save room for banana pudding and a bit of peach cobbler for dessert. It's right off the highway and definitely worth the stop, no matter what time of day you are passing by. After dinner, I went for a beer at Cody's Saloon and another at The Office before calling it a day.
On Friday I headed down the road a half an hour to Brownsville and the wonderful West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center. The Delta Heritage Center serves as an information center for the area, but also houses several wonderful museums. The museums cover everything from cotton (the major crop in the region) to music to history. There are also several aquariums set up with fish from the region and a great video on Mindfield (more on this in a minute). Behind the main building sits the onetime home of local blues legend Sleepy John Estes and the Flagg Grove School which was transported to the museum from the tiny town of Nutbush. The Flagg Grove School was where Nutbush native Tina Turner went and now houses an authorized museum to her music. The whole complex is completely free and you can get free coffee and clean bathrooms while you are there. The people working at the center were remarkably friendly and helpful and were a real pleasure to chew the fat with for a while.
After spending several hours at the center, I headed through the town of Brownsville and stopped in on Helen's Bar B Q for some ribs. Helen's is a tiny place with the meat cooked in an attached smokehouse out back. The inside is smoky too, but the good kind that lets you know your meat was smoked right there. Helen is one of the few female pitmasters in the state, and she is a nice lady and a great cook. I got a half rack of wet ribs, and they were amazing. Add in homemade potato salad and coleslaw and some of the best baked beans I've ever had and I walked away pretty happy.
After seeing the video at the Heritage Center on Mindfield, I had to go check it out for myself. Mindfield is the creation of a man named Billy Tripp who started building it after his parents passed away. He moved a water tower onto his property and then started adding more and more to the structure. Over the last 30 years, it has grown and expanded many times. Mindfield is fascinating and strange and definitely something to see. It makes you think. It reminded me in many ways of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. I really enjoyed my time there, but it was hot and I had to get back to Jackson.
I headed back down the highway and made it back to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame before they had their induction. They had a band playing, and there were probably about 25 people there. I was the youngest person there by at least 15 years, but I'm always okay with that. I was welcomed in and Henry was happy to see I had made it back. I danced with the nice older ladies and had a good old time of it. When the band took a break, Henry came out and inducted Eric and Ellie Layton into the Hall of Fame. Eric and Ellie are from the UK, but they love playing rockabilly music and they love coming to Tennessee. It was fun to be a part of. When the induction and music and dancing were over, I headed a block over to the Downtown Tavern for a couple of PBR Tall Boys and some great live acoustic music. I really liked this place and the music was good too.
Saturday brought me back to Brownsville and the Delta Heritage Center. This was the weekend of their big Exit 56 Blues Festival, and I was ready for a relaxed day and some good music. The festival didn't disappoint. I found a nice spot in the shade of a big tree and sat there all day long. There was great music from both local bands and bands from as far away as Oklahoma. I met some nice people and we all just took it easy in the shade on a hot Saturday afternoon, laughing, drinking beer and listening to the blues. It's hard for me to think of a better way to spend a Saturday.
I slept in a little bit on Sunday and then cleaned up and went to the Brownsville Baptist Church for their morning service. It was a nice, medium sized church right in the heart of downtown with some beautiful stained glass windows. The choir sang some wonderful hymns, but they all seemed to be about the cross. The pastor came out to deliver the sermon and must have cited a dozen different passages from scripture bouncing all through the Bible. His central theme was that God made man in his own image, one of my least favorite themes in the Bible. Of course we would think that because we are people, but I'm sure ants would think of God as an ant and dolphins as a dolphin. In my mind none of those are true and they all are. It seems remarkably arrogant to think we are that which most closely resembles God, especially as our understanding of the universe continues to expand. Anyways, I enjoyed being there and as always, the people were welcoming and friendly to a stranger.
After church I made my way down Route 70 to Memphis. I liked this back-way as I got to see some really cool small towns along the way. Arriving in the Memphis area, I ended up at the library in Bartlett where I got some work done. From there I stopped for Vietnamese food at the tiny Lotus Cafe. The Lotus is an old building and is easy to miss if you aren't looking for it. Once you find it though, it is a wonderful place. I would guess by the age of Joe, the proprietor, that he came here during the war. His food was excellent and brought me back to my time in Vietnam many years ago. He is a really friendly guy as well, and came out to take a look inside my van when I was done with my dinner. I will definitely be back to the Lotus. When I finished, I headed to mid-town to see a show at Lafayette's Music Room. The band was Jennifer Westwood and the Handsome Devils out of Detroit. Jennifer has a great voice, and this is definitely one of the better venues to see a show in Memphis. Afterwards I popped into The Cove, a hilariously pirate-themed dive bar for a quick beer on my way out of town.
Monday morning was Memorial Day, so in the morning I went to a wreath laying ceremony at Veterans Park in Bartlett. It was a nice ceremony, but it was hot out so I'm also glad it was a short one. From there, I stopped by Top's for a quick pulled pork sandwich. A Memphis institution, they make the best pulled pork sandwiches and have done for 70 years. Afterwards I stopped for an Oreo Humdinger at Dixie Queen and then headed downtown to the incredible Bass Pro Shop in the Memphis Pyramid. I like Bass Pro Shop in general, and have bought some great gear from them over the years, and this is a good store. It was also cool inside the a/c and had a nice sitting area near the front door where I could get some writing done for my next podcast. When I was done, I went to see Solo, the new Star Wars movie at the Palace Cinema east of town. The theater is in pretty bad shape, but they had an afternoon matinee for $5 and a small popcorn and soda combo for $2. Seeing a new release movie with snacks for $7 is pretty amazing, and helped me overlook some of the maintenance issues of the place. I enjoyed the movie too, and recommend it. After the show I went over to the nearby Elwood's Shack for some ribs. Memphis is known for its ribs, and I definitely have a few favorite spots around town, but I decided to give this place a go. It was incredible. The dry-rub ribs were pretty close to perfect, and they had a blue cheese slaw which was off the chain. It definitely is a shack, and it's hiding in a back parking lot by a Lowes, but it is worth seeking out. Elwood's is now in my top-tier for Memphis-style ribs.
After my ribs I went down to Alex's Tavern to watch my Washington Capitals in Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Caps lost, but Alex's is always a winner for a solid dive bar near downtown. From there I headed over to Hi-Tone, a legendary Memphis music venue to see a legendary Memphis band: Terry Wall and the Wallbangers. These guys have been playing for over 30 years, and you can tell. The way Terry plays his guitar is so natural, you know he's been playing every day for a long time. They just released a new album, so they were there to try out some of the songs live. When they were done, we got a bonus show from Joyann Parker from Minnesota who was also promoting a new album. I felt sorry for both bands because there were only a half-dozen of us in the back room to listen, but they didn't hold back and gave us a great show. It was very cool to hear such great music in such an intimate setting.
And that brings me to today. I am back in Bartlett at the library writing this. From here, I am off out of Memphis and heading north. The week ahead will bring me to the northwest corner of Tennessee to Reelfoot Lake. Then I plan to head across to Fort Donelson and do some hiking in the Land Between the Lakes. From there it's on to Clarksville and then it's time to get ready for a week at Bonnaroo. I hope everyone got out and had a great holiday weekend and is enjoying a short 4 day workweek. Time to start making those summer plans! I'll be heading home myself in the near future to try and get some things for my summer figured out. More on that soon. Have a great week out there y'all and we'll see you this time next week.