Thursday, 5 March 2009

The deep South - A musical odyssey

‘I’m going to Jackson, I’m going to mess around. I’m going to Jackson, look out Jackson town.’

- Johnny Cash and June Carter

“Are we going to Jackson just because of Johnny Cash?”, Lara asked?

No, I replied. But I had to admit that he was at least a partial motivation for it.

The state capital of Mississippi lay on our route, the second stop on our musical odyssey through the Deep South.

Leaving behind the jazz of New Orleans we headed for the blues of the Mississippi delta. And not without some trepidation.

Back in The Big Easy Fox News had screamed at us about a recent jailbreak in South East Mississippi: ‘Lookout folks - it’s lockdown in the county!’, a worried-looking chap with a large microphone reported excitedly, ‘these guys are bad and dangerous!’

Prisoners on the run in Mississippi; I was sure I’d heard that somewhere before.

Back on the road the string of Mardi Gras beads led all the way up through Louisiana and across the border, seeping into Mississippi gas stations, cars and the roadside diner where we pulled up for dinner.

Sat amongst red-eyed revellers I looked up from my BBQ pork po-boy to catch the new President’s address to Congress. Somewhat boy-like himself, Barack Obama gave a confident address, commanding the attention of the house and even a few of my fellow diners.

Again I sensed the renewed wave of optimism, one which has appeared since our brief visit in December, and to which people are drawn, desperate for a candle in the gathering economic darkness.

It‘s particularly interesting to witness the first few days of the first black President’s administration unfold here in the south, a region forever associated with the horrors of racial discrimination and still struggling, many believe, to fully shake off its hangover.

Entering the state capital of Jackson we look out for the visible effects of the unofficial segregation we've heard about, where the racial divide often seems to replicated economically.

Tied intimately to this are crime patterns and our host, the delightful Lizzie, stakes her town’s claim to the apparently much-vaunted crown of ‘crime capital of the US’ (Americans seem as obsessed with this as the British are with house prices), but it doesn’t wash with us.

If our part of town is anything to go by it seemed a pleasant enough place - letterboxes at the end of drives, basketball hoops in driveways, BBQs on lawns - and populated with perhaps the friendliest locals we have encountered all trip.

Once again our accents went down a treat, provoking gentle curiosity and kindness at every turn.

As an aspiring young musician Lizzie soon introduces us to the local music scene - it’s not the delta blues but we do catch a blistering performance of zydeco music,a Louisiana speciality.

Every Jacksonian under the age of 30 seems to be busily engaged in making their own albums and we soon find ourselves in Lizzie’s own recording studio, contributing suitably plummy English accents to an her self-penned anthem ‘Happy Minutes’.

With the infuriatingly-catchy lyrics still whizzing around my head I remember Johnny Cash and - now being in Jackson - I ask around about the 'Jackson' song.

No-one seems sure - it's more likely to be Jackson, Tennessee, Cash's home for many years.

More curious American words enter my homemade and burgeoning American English dictionary. Round these parts everything seems to be described either ‘awesome’ or ‘big ass’.

I’m not the first to notice that for many Americans, in Basil Fawlty’s words “It’s all about bottoms, isn’t it?”

Leaving Lizzie to another jamming session we headed north and soon I found my feelings for this land turning once more from admiration and love to irritation and loathing.

Without our own set of wheels we were prisoners of the pitiful public transport system. In these parts, this meant there was only one option - the Greyhound and its regular helping of stony-faced staff and ‘no soliciting’ signs, the unwashed and the unwanted.

It pained me even more to stick to the interstate, speeding right past the towns of the delta, the breeding ground of the blues and a place I’d been eagerly anticipating for many months. Better luck in Memphis.

I glared out the grimy window, the flat unrelenting landscape only broken up by bulbous water towers and roadside hoardings advertising for medical centres (most of them baptist), the latest Willie Nelson concert and one naming and shaming two grim-faced fellows for ‘convicted sex crimes against children’.

Public lynching may be a thing of the past but here the stocks still seem to remain.

The blue skies were gone by now, their place taken by dark swollen clouds which turned to cold drizzle as we stopped in another anonymous town for a short break.

Our amply-proportioned fellow passengers piled out and waddled over to a nearby restaurant out to restock with fried crawfish and fries.

Friday night Fish and chips, Southern style.

A lone Mexican alighted amongst them, his cream plastic cowboy hat shining out like a beacon and bringing a smile to our faces, a reminder of the millinery delights south of the border.

Down in Mexico he wouldn’t stand out from the crowd but here he looked lost and alone, adrift from his homeland in search of a better income.

An hour up the interstate the Tennessee flag fluttered in the strengthening breeze and Memphis hove into view.

Home of the Blues, Soul and Rock ‘N’ Roll, surely here we would find our much-sought after live music here.

After a vain attempt to catch the blues in the raw form, unadulterated, deep down and dirty, at a small venue out in the suburbs we slid through the snowy roads back into town, driven to the juke joints of Beale St.

Once hallowed haunt of blues artists they now seem a hollowed-out core, commercial operations catering for the Hard Rock café crowd and offering watered-down fare.

The picture was the same the next day at the legendary Sun studios, where Jerry, Johnny and Elvis cut their first records - and at Graceland, the gloriously over-the-top home of the latter.

With their music still ringing in our ears we headed on once more to another great music city lying to the west - Nashville.

Another Greyhound. Another stony-faced, round woman on the desk. More pungent passengers and hopeless hobos.

Their spirit crushed, our fellow passengers sat morosely in the waiting room, drawing back into the hoods of their loose-fitting leisurewear some kind of proxy amniotic fluid.

Gordon Brown’s weary face stared out from CNN, his drawn features a stark contrast to those of the sprightly new US President. The coverage showed them talking earnestly over coffee and tilting their heads behind large dais at a press conference.

The rolling newsbar brought the latest economic woes: Northern Rock loses billions in the UK since being nationalised; Ford sales have plummet 48% in the US. Barrack and Gordon stood shoulder to shoulder: these problems are ‘global’.

An hour later we were heading west and, if the large roadside hoardings we passed were anything to go by the lands we were entering are even more redneck: gun and knife shows, fishing appliances and baptist pastors staring out from their lofty perches.

We stopped briefly at an old bus station in a town called Jackson. Is this the town Johnny sang about? There was no time to find out, as our fellow passengers hastily stubbed out their cigarettes on the tarmac and we continued.

The snow remained on the ground as we headed east and we found ourselves amongst low hills, the first since Mexico.

The generously-built lady next to me tucked into a meal of fried chicken and corn bread and we passed a large tour truck painted in the Stars and Stripes, ‘Freedom and Family Tour’ emblazoned boldly across it.

Country music. We had to be nearing Nashville, ’the music city’ .

I couldn’t help listening to Bob Dylan‘s ‘Nashville Skyline’ in anticipation.

Half an hour later the aforementioned skyline itself gleamed at us, the smart towers of downtown glinting orange in the sunset.

The streets looked smarter, the atmosphere more austere in comparison to Memphis. Everywhere I looked I saw a church - we were, as our couchsurfing host, Jason, put it ’in the buckle of the bible belt’.

Together with his wife, Tamee, he has counted 17 churches between his house and the café where we dined: baptist, evangelical, church of god, seventh day adventist to name a few.

Such is their popularity that the police have to come out to direct traffic on Sundays.

To the backdrop of live music (cajun, once again) our conversation turned to the musical delights of this city.

Not only the home of country, there’s hillybilly here, and rockabilly, and in the engrossing Country Music Hall of Fame we read all about them.

Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Merle Haggard, they all crooned at out us from video screens, replete in their cowboy hats and rhinestone jackets.

The streets outside rang to the sound of the fiddle and the southern drawl, drifting out from venues on Broadway and even loudspeakers at road junctions.

Yet to me one voice stood out from them all: the deep, sonorous sound which sends an earthquake through me every time I hear it.

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”

And so it was that we found ourselves in a cemetery, after dark, in the small town of Hendersonville.

With the help of Jason’s whizzy iPhone (every American seems to have one - cricked necks and arthritic fingers must be a big problem here) we located the grave of the Man in Black.

He lay next to his wife, the love of his life, both graves etched with passages from the bible. It was a modest plot on a small grassy slope, overlooking people’s backyards, a couple of gas stations and a hotel.

I stood and looked at the final resting place of my musical hero. Jackson to Hendersonville.
Mission complete.

But the musical odyssey continues. We‘re making for the mountains. There‘s a man waiting for us there, and he‘s brandishing a banjo…

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