What do Loretta Lynn and B.B. King have in common? Probably more than we think. At the very least they are connected by I-40, the 3-hour drone of pavement between Nashville and Memphis known as the Music Highway.
We left Nashville and headed towards Memphis for the b-side of our musical pilgrimage. I-40 is a rather flat and boring drive of no particular interest. Along the way (what seems nearly every mile) you’d come across billboards for Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen. I recognized the signs and remembered having been to Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen one spring break in college when I drove from Annandale-on-Hudson, NY to New Orleans and back in my late 80’s Subaru GL station wagon. I remember the all-you-can-eat buffet and my first taste of grits. “We should stop there for lunch,” I said. “It has a large buffalo statue with glowing red eyes out front which would be good for some kitsch.” We exited I-40 at exit 143 and drove up the hill towards the buffalo. A friend had warned us that things move a bit slower in the South and she was right. Our quick detour turned into over an hour as we waited for our food and explored the slightly-offensive-to-our-sensibilities gift shop. It didn’t meet the muster of my memories as my grits were served so cold they couldn’t melt the margarine placed upon them. But all-in-all it was a useful distraction from the monotony of I-40. We even ended up buying her new album, Full Circle, while we were there (an album I highly recommend).
As we drove on we flipped from radio station to radio station trying to find something other than country music to listen to. How do these radio stations differentiate themselves and win loyal listeners when they all play the same thing? We hoped we’d be able to find some blues, soul, or oldies rock-n-roll stations as we approached Memphis but had mixed results. However, it was a good thing we had the radio on because about 30 minutes outside of Memphis we heard the emergency alert system kick in. “I hope that is just a test,” said Tawny. No such luck. We just heard a severe storm warning alert. Here’s the report.
We were located just outside of Germantown and headed towards downtown Memphis – right into the storm! Driving a rental car from Hertz and having my last run in with them in Portugal I didn’t want to receive car damage from quarter sized hail. We saw a sign for a visitor’s center and pulled off to ask their advice. We walked in and asked them if they knew about the coming storm. They didn’t, but one of the employees looked it up on the computer. Looking at the radar screen he commented, “We are in the box!” Tawny was alarmed, “The box? What’s the box? That doesn’t sound good, does it? I don’t want to be in the box. How do we get out of the box?”
They advised that we make our way to the nearby Exxon station and park under the covered fueling area until the storm passed. We could see the sky growing darker and so we left and drove immediately to the service station. No sooner had we left the visitor center than it began to rain. Seconds after pulling under the covered area the hail began to fall.
The storm was over as quick as it had begun, so we headed back out onto I-40 and saw accidents all up and down the interstate. Sirens and aid vehicles were just starting to arrive and help motorists who had spun out or crashed in the flash storm. We felt lucky to have the advanced warning.
As we pulled into Memphis we were greeted by a bizarre giant pyramid adjacent to the Mississippi. A Bass Pro Shop in the shape of a pyramid? Huh? We made a mental note to return here later.
We wanted to check into our hotel. It was a busy weekend in Memphis because of the Liberty Bowl happening on Friday. As such, hotels were hard to find. Yet, somehow we were not only able to get a great room downtown but when we checked in they give us the penthouse suite! It was like the entire top floor and rooftop deck of the Marriot Memphis Residence Inn with a view of downtown and the Mighty Mississippi.
We quickly unpacked our stuff and then headed to The Peabody to see the famous Peabody Ducks. We arrived a little late to get a prime spot but were able to secure an unobstructed view from the lobby balcony to watch the evening show.
Afterward, we headed towards Beale Street to get a sense of Memphis. While it was touristy and filling up with college football fans coming into town for the bowl game it was still Memphis and it had a completely different vibe than Nashville. The gentrification and pretense of Nashville gave way to the bar-b-que and juke joints of Beale Street. We felt right at home. We walked up and down Beale Street to get our barrings and then went into B.B. Kings Blues Club prominently placed on the corner of 2nd and Beale. While primarily catering to tourists they served very credible bbq and featured a great blues artist (Memphis Jones) who gave historical lectures about Memphis blues history between songs. It was a great introduction to what would prove to be another great music city for us.