A musical pilgrimage. That’s what I called my trip to Luchenbach, Texas nine years ago.
Today I still pine for seeing Sun Studios in Memphis, Abbey Road, LaGrange and for standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona. I’ve a road-tripped to see U2, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Jimmy Buffet, Bob Dylan, Robert Earl Keen, Willie Nelson and The Rolling Stones. I’ve stood in the presence of Merle Haggard and a host of country stars because I was country when country wasn’t cool. One evening I walked around downtown Athens and heard the haunting melodies of REM float over the town from a concert at Legion Field. Once upon a time I even took my mama with me to see Hank Williams Junior. And I’ve listened to Americana under the stars at Luchenbach.
This latest adventure—to check The Rolling Stones off Nolan’s bucket list—started in the Upstate of South Carolina and led us all the way to The Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But a journey isn’t just a beginning and an end. The in-between is crucial.
This epic road trip to see The Stones was also a musical pilgrimage, with the principal detour being a visit to Nashville, two nights spent under Todd Snider’s East Nashville skyline, nameless musicians in honky tonk bars and a visit to The Country Music Hall of Fame. Add a quick trip to Bass Pro Shops and it’s staggering what you can cram into two days.
The essence of Nashville is to be found downtown on Broadway. Honky tonks with bad bar food and good cover musicians who don’t stand a chance of making it are interspersed with boot and hat stores and retro clothing boutiques. Every fifty yards or so there is a street musician busking for bucks, everything from one-man bands to traveler kids to Johnny Cash lookalikes to drum acts.
Up the street The Country Music Hall of Fame was packed on a Thursday morning. Curiously we arrived at the same time as a large group of excited but well-behaved black children. I happened to stand before Dwight Yoakum’s nudie suit with them and listened to their teacher point out details of the costume.
“See these pockets?” She said, gesturing to upper chest pockets. “They are called smile pockets because they turn up at the corner.”
Darn. Learn something new every day, I thought.
The children sat on the floor and filled out worksheets.
“This is, well, I’ll let you read it. Can you write down his name?”
* * *
Greasy and Nolan blew through it and I felt like I did as well. There is simply too much too see in one quick visit. Season passes and frequent trips are what it would take to absorb this museum.
Besides Dwight Yoakum, I worshiped at a few displays: Hank Williams’ guitar, Mother Maybelle’s guitar, one of many man-in-black Johnny Cash suits, Gram Parsons’ pills-and-cannabis nudie suit, Elvis Pressley’s Cadillac, Earl Scruggs’ banjo, the cornfield set of the television show Hee Haw. A wall of portraits of country music’s power couples: Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash and June Carter, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Web Pierce’s nudie Cadillac, obscene with tooled saddle leather and steer horns on the front. Little Jimmy Dickens’ display of tiny boots and lime green nudie suit. George Strait’s everyday Western shirt and Wranglers. Actual blue suede shoes.
The current exhibit of note is Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats. I’d known that Johnny and Bob were friends. This huge exhibit was a testament to their sense of awe at each other and to the behind-the-scenes individuals that make Nashville tick. Session musicians and sound engineers.
It’s also an affirmation of the fact that music is plastic and fluid. Rock and country, they flow back and forth between each other. To me this is a huge paradox: I grew up thinking that you either liked country or rock. Not both. And this couldn’t be further from the truth. To hearken back to my biologist’s training, country and rock are mutualists, locked in a symbiotic relationship.
Right before the museum’s inevitable exit-into-the- gift-shop is the Rotunda. My glimmer twins walked right past it and sat down in the lobby to wait for me.
Whispering, a docent gestured, her voice reverent, “This is the actual hall of fame.”
A small fountain and wishing well were just inside the entryway, full of coins. The rotunda was magic. Holy. Quiet. I circled clockwise, reading the brass plate of each member. I was reminded of my emotional overload experiences at The Alamo and The Astronaut Memorial at Cape Canaveral. There were souls there with me. Souls.
* * *
We walked from the Hall of Fame to Broadway, where we stood on the corner and
Nolan eenie-meenie-minee-moed over where to eat. He selected a three-tiered honky tonk that boasted a different band on each level. We ascended to the third floor and the view was amazing. A trio of musicians played cover songs that reiterated the flux between country and rock ‘n roll.
“This is incredibly sad,” I said, still feeling all those souls, though this time I was thinking of the non-famous ones.
“What?” said Nolan.
“This city is slam full of broken dreams.”
One only had to look to the stage before us: three men holding guitars and two girlfriends making up the audience.
I put a twenty in their tip bucket as we left, leaned over and whispered conspiratorially to them, “We’re on our way to Indianapolis to see The Rolling Stones.”
“Aw, man, you’ll love ‘em. I saw them a couple of weeks ago when they were here and they were awesome.”
Thank you, sir, I thought. In case nobody ever tells you, you are, too.