Loretta Lynn and B.B. King

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.


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Vinyl City & Willie

Being avid vinyl collectors we wanted to hit Jack White’s Third Man Records to pick up some limited edition pressings and see the hipper side of Nashville. It was close to our hotel in a transitional neighborhood just a few blocks from The Gulch. It didn’t disappoint. The Third Man store is a mix of hipster and branded merchandise (books, shirts, accessories) as well as Third Man Records pressings, many recorded live to acetate at the studio next door. It is also a museum of unusual instruments, mechanical devices, and a rare Voice-o-Graph booth that lets would-be musicians record directly to vinyl and produce a record on the spot. While the store is small we probably spent an hour there perusing the wares.

We had a list of used record stores to hit in hopes of finding some blues and classic country music that is hard to come by in Seattle. Our first and only used record store stop in Nashville turned out to be Grimey’s. The selection and the prices were good. We spend another hour or more and probably bought 50 records (blues, rock, southern rock, country, alternative, etc). We had worked up an appetite. Nearby was Arnold’s Meat & 3 (a new dining concept for me). We heard about Arnold’s from Diner’s Drive-ins, and Dives. When we arrived the line was out the door and we took at as a sign to stand in it. Everybody seemed to have the fried chicken and we did the same. It didn’t disappoint. The icing on the cake was the slice of spicy chocolate pepper pie.

Our afternoon found us across the tracks in another transitional and gentrifying neighborhood of Nashville called Marathon Village. The old Marathon Motor Works building has been taken over by a concert venue, some boutique shops and restaurants, a Jack Daniels tasting room, and our destination, Antique Archaeology. While the old building and spaces where very cool, Antique Archaeology was somewhat disappointing. While they did have some interesting artifacts from the show and a few antiques for sale, it generally was little more than a crowded and touristy t-shirt shop peddling American Pickers paraphernalia.

We drove out towards the Grand Ole Opry, Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center, and Opry Mills Mall. It looked like an absolute nightmare. So we avoided it and instead headed across the street to Willie Nelson and Friends Museum and General Store. The store was just tourist trap wares, but the museum in the back proved interesting and informative. And we had the place to ourselves.

We took the afternoon to rest at the hotel and walked back into The Gulch to try and see the infamous Doyle & Debbie Show at the Station Inn. Unfortunately, we were unable to get tickets so headed nearby for a nice dinner at Adele’s. We made the most of our time in Nashville but felt like there was so much more we could see and do. We’ll just have to return to Music City another in the near future.



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Boxing Day in Music City

Boxing day found us wandering in 70-degree weather down Broadway towards Honky Tonk Row (the touristy section of Nashville). It was a spectacular day!

We had our list and were checking it twice: Johnny Cash Museum, Ryman Auditorium, Roger’s Western World, Tootsie’s World Famous Orchid Lounge, Acme Feed & Seed, and the Wildhorse Tavern. And we hit them all.

We started our tour at the Johnny Cash Museum which I half expected to be hokey. I was wrong. It was extremely well done. In chronological order, you really came to understand his life and career progression. The artifacts were complete, well presented, and overwhelming. It was great to see his connection to Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dylan (Nashville Skyline), and of course, Sun Records where we’d be visiting later in the week.

The museum moved us to tears. At one point we choked up, tears welling in our eyes while reading his letter/poem to June Carter Cash written on June’s funeral program complete with tear smears. Nearby was playing his award-winning video cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt”. The museum is a must visit for any Johnny Cash fan, but bring your tissues.

After exiting through the gift store we found ourselves in one of the many touristy boot stores along Honky Tonk Row. “Buy 1 pair of boots and get two free!”. It sounded too good to be true and it probably was, but we ended up with three pairs of boots anyway.

In our new boots, we headed towards the Ryman Auditorium but found ourselves standing outside the famous honky tonk on our list: Roger’s Western World. They had live music playing during the lunch hour. We thought we’d cool our heels with a beer and a fried bologna sandwich (with Miracle Whip). It was delicious and I was loving Nashville.


Around the corner was the Ryman Auditorium, the Grand Ole Opry during the Golden Age of country music. We opted for the “Backstage Tour” which I don’t recommend. It was overpriced and historically not that relevant as it was added in later years after renovation.  Being in the Ryman and standing on the stage after viewing the history video and some of the historical memorabilia gives you a sense of musical magic. A must visit for any classic country fan.

From the Ryman we crossed the alley to Tootsie’s World Famous Orchid Lounge. The story goes that the musicians playing the Grand Ole Opry would head out the back door and across the alley to have a drink at Tootsie’s before, sometimes during, and often after the shows.

With our shopping bags full and our feet hurting in our new boots we headed back to the hotel for an afternoon rest before headed back into The Gulch for dinner. We had our hearts set on real Tennesee BBQ. Using Yelp we found one with stellar reviews (4.5 stars with over 1K reviews) and headed to the Peg Leg Porker for dinner.

After dinner, we caught a local free shuttle bus from The Gulch back to Honky Tonk Row. We walked down the street admiring the neon lights as we headed to Acme Feed & Seed. Acme Feed & Seed is a great multi-level venue with music and food on many floors. We stepped in to watch a jam band which sounded pretty good before we realized it was Grateful Dead Mondays :(. But we stuck it out for the rest of their set.

Just up the street was a venue well known for line dancing -The Wildhorse Tavern. Somebody recommended we may want to dance or at least watch some dancing. The place was a huge flashy multi-level venue with lots of people line dancing. It was culturally eye opening for us.




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A Country Christmas

On a whim, we thought it might be interesting to travel for the Christmas holidays. I had always wanted to travel to Nashville. Why you ask? Well, I had driven past it one year in college when I drove from Annandale-on-Hudson, NY to New Orleans for Spring Break. I admired the Nashville skyline from afar. “That’s Nashville”, I thought. “Someday I gotta check that out”.

In October I pitched the idea to my family and they liked it, saying, “Let’s add Memphis to the trip”. And thus, a vacation was born.

Christmas morning we rose early and headed to the airport to fly Alaska Airlines direct flight to Nashville from Seattle. We arrived in the afternoon, picked up our rental car, and drove to the majestically over-hip Union Station train station that was recently renovated into an Autograph Collection hotel.

After checking in we took a concierge recommendation to walk to “The Gulch” and find some dinner. As it was Christmas day many businesses were either closed or packed. We stumbled upon a Southern seafood restaurant called Marsh House. They were full up for the night and as we didn’t have a reservation we were relegated to the bar. After realizing the pre fixe menu was going to be awkward to eat at the bar we bribed the hostess with a box of Almond Roca and suddenly there was an open table for us. We had a lovely Christmas dinner eating innovative and exotic dishes before finding ourselves stuffed like a Christmas stockings. We waddled out of the restaurant and into the streets of The Gulch in search of Music City.


We headed to the famous Station Inn to catch some live bluegrass. The Station Inn didn’t disappoint. It is a vintage honky tonk dive bar, complete with pimento cheese crackers served on a paper plate. There was a full-on bluegrass jam session happening when we arrived with musicians rotating in and out between songs and trips to the bar. It was gritty, grimy, and a little bit sticky, but overall an excellent way to spend Christmas night and a great introduction to Nashville and bluegrass. I could tell this was going to be a great holiday week.

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