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A man plays a saxophone
7 May, 20205 minute read

Reliving travel: bringing the music I grew up with to life

Growing up, the music my parents and grandparents listened to greatly influenced my own musical tastes. In fact I’ve formed such a connection with the music of the 50s, 60s and 70s, that I often think I was born in the wrong decade.

As a fabulous collection of Deep South highlights, the Southern Sights and Sounds tour had long been on my ‘must-do’ list. It journeys from Atlanta (forever associated with ‘Gone with the Wind’) by way of the music capitals of Nashville and Memphis, to New Orleans - the home of Mardi Gras and jazz. Nearly every city en route is associated with at least one of my music heroes, with Graceland the home of Elvis Presley in Memphis being at the very top of my list.

I expected it would stir a range of memories and emotions and I wasn’t disappointed. I learnt more about the inspiring and influential Martin Luther King Jr. and his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. And I saw where his life was sadly cut short at a Memphis motel in 1968. In Natchez, I stepped back in time at one of the antebellum plantation houses and imagined myself in Scarlett O’Hara’s shoes. And at his distillery in Lynchburg, I heard the story of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, where just one sniff from the barrel helped to clear my cold.

A typical plantation house in the Deep South, USA

Along the way, there were few moments that weren’t accompanied by music. Our tour had a soundtrack of toe-tappin’ tunes and moving experiences, beginning in Chattanooga, where I hummed along to the iconic ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’, recorded by Glenn Miller’s orchestra.

Then it was on to Nashville, the home of country music and The Grand Ole Opry. First stop was RCA Studio B - Dolly Parton, The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, and Elvis Presley were just some of the artists to record here. Hearing Dolly’s beautiful, melodic voice in the studio where she recorded ‘Jolene’, brought tears to my eyes. But then the lights went out and we were treated to a recording of Elvis Presley singing ‘Are you Lonesome Tonight’. Sitting there in the dark studio, as it was when he recorded it, sent shivers down my spine.

The Country Music Hall of Fame was next, a collection of memorabilia and fascinating facts about hundreds of famous faces in the world of country. After exploring here for some time, a wander along Nashville’s Broadway was in order. Here, Honky Tonk bars with live music exist on every corner, meaning you can enjoy a meal or a drink listening to great, raw country music. Expect to see many cowboy hats and boots too.

Close-up of hands playing a guitar

In the evening it was time for the ultimate Nashville experience - The Grand Ole Opry. The show began as a radio broadcast in 1925 and is now the longest-running in US history. Each show here is still broadcast on radio too, but watching the performers on stage (some old, some modern-day country) was a real privilege. Imagining country greats like Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash or Garth Brooks on the same stage that I was watching, was mind-blowing.

Tupelo was next - the birthplace of Elvis Presley and where he bought his first guitar. Wandering through the tiny two-room ‘shotgun’ house in which he was born, gave a real sense of his humble beginnings and what he went on to achieve. The highlight of my visit here though, was the reconstructed church where he sang as a boy. The experience inside the church is very moving, but I can’t spoil it by telling you.

Elvis Presley's birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi

The excitement was building as we headed towards Memphis, the birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll and the home of Graceland. Elvis moved to Memphis in his teens and it was in Sun Studio that he recorded his first track and never looked back. A visit to Sun Studio was a fantastic way to step back in time to the early 1950s and learn how Elvis made his break. An evening stroll along Beale Street where he would have occasionally performed, only added to the Memphis experience.

Entrance sign to Beale Street in Memphis, USA

From his two-room birthplace, Elvis rose to fame and made a huge jump in luxury when it came to his home, buying Graceland for himself and his family. My visit here was the highlight of my trip around the Deep South. To visit the house and take in the ambience of his former home was a dream come true. The narrated tour is a moving experience, taking you through the house room by room (including one full of his lavish jumpsuits and the famed ‘jungle room’) until you conclude at his gravestone. Don’t be surprised if tears make an appearance. I could have spent hours exploring the house, the grounds, the customised planes, his collection of cars, and all the gift shops (oops).

Exterior of Graceland, Memphis

The tour concluded in New Orleans, the home of jazz and birthplace of Louis Armstrong. Riding a tram through the city, wandering past the attractive French Colonial-style buildings to Bourbon Street, listening to live jazz in a bar, and gliding up the Mississippi on a paddle steamer accompanied by a live jazz band, all contributed to a fitting end to my musical journey.

New Orleans paddle steamer in Mississippi river in New Orleans, Louisiana

In his song ‘Graceland’ another of my heroes Paul Simon, sang “the Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar”. On my tour, I had managed to visit a number of frets along that shining guitar, bringing my historical musical tastes to life. I would gladly go back and do it all again tomorrow.

Image of blog author Nicola James

Nicola considers herself very lucky to have had the opportunity to visit a number of places around the world and these experiences usually involve searching for as many kinds of wildlife as possible. Recent highlights include penguins in Antarctica, bears and whales in Canada and Alaska and sea otters in California - but there are always more animals to search for.

Nicola | About the author

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