The South is a different place. It is greasy, barren, and hollow, but is also bursting with energy, rich with music and pregnant with possibility. The American states that make up the Bible Belt are filled with contradictions which renew my faith in human nature with every visit. Poverty runs rampant, but there are beautiful buildings in various states of disrepair that harken back to a better era. Music is a business in the South, but it is also a way of life; a voice that rises above the Mississippi to soothe the poor and forgotten. Food ranges from comfort foods like grits and white gravy to quintessential flavour of the Creole-influenced Oyster and Absinthe Dome featured at Commander’s Palace. For our eight day trek we drove from Nashville to Memphis and back again, and then onto New Orleans through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Total time in the car was about twenty four hours of driving spread over the week, and while it was reasonable, I would have preferred to take stopover breaks in a place like Birmingham in hindsight.
The purpose of this particular journey was founded in seeing Old Crow Medicine Show play their sold-out show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Through our love of bands like Mumford and Sons, Whitehorse and Johnny Cash, we found our way to the song “Wagon Wheel” and felt that it would be worth it to spend time and money tracing American music through the blues, jazz, rockabilly and country genres. Memphis was our first stop. Even I have to admit that it was pretty cool to walk along Beale Street, up Union Avenue and hear Marc Cohn’s lyrics from “Walking in Memphis” ring true. Perhaps following the ghost of Elvis out to Graceland was misguided (between the lines for the parking to take a bus to get a ticket to get on a bus to cross the street it would have taken us hours to follow believers through Elvis’ house – the best I could do was hit a gift shop to pick up a small gift for our dog-sitter and friend, Jennie); still, it was important to at least see the house from the road as we drove by twice to exit what is generally a poor, seen-better-days area. The King left that building many years ago.
Sadly, The King and The Killer also left the tourist-traps of Beale Street and Sun Studio. Do not get me wrong, it was a privilege and fascinating experience to see the buildings where so much of American culture seeped into the walls. My father would have loved to see the place where Elvis recorded “That’s Alright Mama” and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded “Great Balls of Fire”, but today Sun Studios is a tour bus depot. U2 may have recorded a few tracks there for Rattle and Hum, but really it is now a cafe that sells t-shirts and tacky gifts for your enemies or Bingo partner.
Beale Street was a different story. I doubt that it was ever more than what it is today: a strip of bars that provide booze for visitors and venues to play for people to make a basic wage. Our first night had us listening to an older couple singing random songs at Rum Boogie Cafe for a largely transient tourist group who would go from bar to bar until they had “hear it all”. Cover songs for those who need to hear the familiar and feel that it is new. The second night was much different: by 3pm The Plantation All-Stars had hit the stage of the Blues Hall (also owned by Rum Boogie and with whom a bathroom is shared). This was the blues incarnate. It was greasy, funky, smoke-infused and fun. There were no $3000 Gibson guitars or even a single instrument that was not rubber-banded together, but these boys could play set after set of blues standards inflected with their personality. I should also mention that they were a fully black quintet playing for a mixed audience. People who were black stayed for the first few sets until the white tourists moved in to take over for the white band that played the main set. We left with the Plantation All-Stars, but not before talking with a bass player who was transplanted from Chicago in his search for paying gigs. He was playing a Squire five string bass with four strings borrowed from a friend while his was “in the shop”. It was blues at its best, and we felt blessed to find it among the tourist traps. B.B. King’s was best left for a t-shirt purchase and a walk-by.
Our dive back to Nashville had us stopping into Duck Bottom Reserve for a beautiful view of the river and a passing doe running from the path. Nashville was a sharp contrast to Memphis: there was money, there were vintage guitars, and it was all about the music business. From our walk along Music Row to our night listening to bands at Whisky Bent and Robert’s, it was clear who were the Nashville players and who were just filler bands that bars hire to support the whims of tourists seeking the “real” country music. If you are looking for songs by Brad Paisley, Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift, then you might be in luck. If you seek George Jones, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard, then the digging will be difficult. Still, we found killer players at Robert’s. From Chris Costello and The B Squad to The Don Kelly Band’s set, we heard some of the finest picking and showmanship imaginable. I learned a Bible’s worth of tips on how to play music for an audience who is filled with rhinos only in town for “the football/basketball” game. As we stood in Ryman, the Mother Church of Country Music, to hear OCMS play hits and a few classics with their opener, Dale Watson and his Lone Stars, we knew that we had found the best traditional Country music we were going to find in this town these days.
The end of the journey was New Orleans. NOLA is a city where it all comes together and nothing is ever as simple as it seems. It is the birthplace of jazz, the melting pot of music and food. It is a city where slavery began and ended, but also where the mix became a gumbo and forced America to become something new. For me, New Orleans is also where my loves come together: jazz, food, vampires and voodoo all meet in this city, and no matter what tourism masks it remains a magical town. We made a pilgrimage to Anne Rice’s former First Street Mansion, to Preservation Jazz Hall, the French Quarter, the Garden District, Bourbon Street, Magazine Street, and even walked along St. Charles all the way out to Audobon Park and Loyola University. The trees grew deep and sprawled into the sidewalks, and the magic still continues to seep from the air of what should be an destination for any traveller wanting to feel alive in a way unavailable any other place in the planet.
Our journey took us from one place to another, but each stop in The South was part of a bigger picture. On the trek I carried my Hasselblad SWC camera with a CFV 16 digital back. Not a simple camera to drag through dodgy areas, but sticking it into a bag that I paid little attention to seemed to protect the $10, 000 worth of gear inside from being swiped. Using a camera like this for travel photography is challenging, but after the West Coast Trail where I shot fully with film, I decided to try out the SWC with a digital back for this trip. Given the super wide angle of the camera lens (38mm in medium format), this is not a snapshot camera. The idea was to shoot scenes that represented the journey in a manner that would always remind me of the best moments even if they were not the ones featured in the shot. The resolution is astounding on the digital back, and surpasses what I can scan with my Epson scanner. The challenges remain: expensive to break or lose, the mechanical shutter and the trigger cabe do not always signal the back to expose the sensor, the lcd screen is good for nothing other than basic exposure, the sensor is cropped compared to film, and with the SWC focus is tough as it has no mirror. Worth the hassle? I believe so, but I would never take this combination outside of a city or controlled atmosphere. It would require a completely different H5D or Phase One camera to even consider such work. Still…an amazing series of photographic moments from a perfect adventure through the deep south.
More photos will follow, as will more thoughts on specific restaurants and experiences we had along the way.