Sun, BBQ, Gibson, & Hot Fried Chicken

Sun Records is considered by many as the birthplace of rock-n-roll. For us, an opportunity to stand in the studio where  Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and so many others were discovered and recorded some of their most seminal works.

Located just outside of downtown Memphis, Sun Studios is a modest and unassuming building much smaller (and more crowded) than I had imagined.

We lined up and bought our tickets and jockeyed for position as we pursued the t-shirts and souvenirs in the main lobby which also serves as a cafe.

The tour begins upstairs in a crowded and makeshift museum of sorts with interesting memorabilia. We are joined by our tour guide Lahna who gave us an animated history of Sun and talks us through the legends one at a time. Later we learned that Lahna was from Port Townsend, WA and her guitarist/bandmate was from Anacortes, WA (my home town). Together they are Deering and Down. Small world.

Lahna leads us down to the original lobby and recording studio. It is here the gravity of Rock-n-Roll history hits us. X mark spots on the ground where sessions such as the Million Dollar Quartet (a chance meeting of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins) took place. At one point she told the guy standing next to me he was standing in the exact spot Johnny Cash sang and recorded Ring of Fire. A chill ran through my spine. She then handed me a mic, the very mic Elvis used to record some of his earlier songs. It was transcendent.

A good history lesson in Rock-n-Roll is best followed by some epic BBQ. Many people, hearing we were headed to Memphis, recommended we hit Charles Vergo’s Rendevous. We had also seen it featured on Man vs. Food. We found our way down an alley and then walked stairs into an underground restaurant through wafts of greasy smoke. OMG! These dry rubbed slow cooked charcoal ribs (and the side of bbq sauce for them) were absolutely amazing!

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We had arranged for a 3 pm tour of the Gibson guitar factory just off Beale street a few blocks away. We waddled our way to Gibson. This is where Gibson’s hollow body and semi-hollow body guitars are hand built. It was a fascinating process (which takes about 5 weeks for each guitar). Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take pictures inside the factory during the tour. But I got a few shots from an outside window later and Clara got an opportunity to play a few of the bass guitars.

Post tour, we walked Beale Street looking for some live music. We found a good band at Club Handy and they bent the rules a bit so Clara could sit in the bar and watch the music.

After a set of music, we headed out to find Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken which we had also seen on an episode of Man vs. Food featuring their hot and spicy Memphis-style fried chicken. The city seemed deserted as we walked to Gus’s. However, once we opened the doors it was wall-to-wall people and a 30-minute wait. Well worth the wait for the chicken, the friend okra, and the friend green tomatoes.

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Lorraine Motel – Room 306

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While musical pilgrimage may have been our trip’s key goal, we had another: visiting the Lorraine Motel, home of the National Civil Rights Museum, and the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. It was a powerful and transformative experience.

Given our next president has proven himself to be an ableist, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, racist, misogynistic, sexist, homophobic, authoritarian demagogue; we thought we should see first hand the struggle for civil rights to which Dr. King sacrificed his life before we head to Washington D.C. ourselves to join hundreds of thousands of others in the Women’s March on Washington on January 21st.

This museum is a national international treasure. We spent over three and a half hours here and felt rushed through the exhibits. You could have taken an entire day. It spans the entire legacy of African American history and goes deep into the civil rights movement Dr. King led; the sit-ins, the freedom rides, the protests, the marches. It examines the deep-seated hate and racial divisions in this country, many of which we are starting to see slither forth again from whatever rock they’ve been hiding under in the wake of Trump’s election and a Republican majority in Congress. It was powerful, moving, and inspiring, reinforcing our commitment to civil rights, our Constitution, and the social progress this Nation has made.

One of the last exhibits is a solemn viewing of Dr. King’s room as it was left April 4, 1968. There are no words, only silence, and reflection.

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Dr. King’s room, as he left it.

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Balcony where Dr. King was shot

Music and social consciousness often go hand-in-hand. In fact, there’s a whole section of the museum dedicated to the music of the movement. It lent my ear a new listening perspective on our record collection and showed us how intertwined in our lives our with song and sound. It also revealed a connection to the music of Memphis which we’d experience more in-depth in our visits to Sun Records, Stax, and Graceland.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Whales & A Sandy Sunset

After a full day of sand in our shorts, sun on our backs, and a simple dinner we returned to the beach like nesting turtles to watch the sunset. As we stepped out onto the and we saw the unmistakable spray of a whale’s spout on the horizon not far from the shore.

We believed them to be either grey or humpback whales very close to the shore. Whales are common in this area but not usually at this time of the year. Many locals were noting how unusually close to shore they were. Some saying they could actually hear the whales song.

While the whales were spouting in the evening light we decided to hike once again up the Giant Sand Dune of Pacific City and watch the sun set from that impressive vantage.

While I retraced my steps from earlier in the day Clara and Morgayne decided to take on the steep sand-walled ascent. The views on the way were similar to those earlier in the day, but bathed in magic-hour light. As I walked through a small wooded area towards the top of the dune I encountered a deer making its way home for the evening.

As the girls reached the top we all spotted the deer again, running across the steep west facing slope off-limits as far too dangerous for us.

In the warm bath of sun-set light the girls finally let me take some pictures of them before running off to film their own set of Instagrams, and Snapchat stories to share with their friends.

As the last rays dwindled across the sky we made our way down the great dune and in for the evening. Campfires were set along the beach with families cooking late dinners, playing games, and listening to music. It was a near perfect day. But we could just make out the encroaching cloud of a front on the horizon. There was a storm coming as we lay heads down securely in our trailer for the night.

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Hiking Pacific City’s Giant Sand Dune

Wednesday brought us spectacular weather which we spent at the beach. Before the day warmed we decided to make the trek up Pacific City’s Giant Sand Dune which is part of Cape Kiwanda State Park.

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We hiked the saddle to the left of the dune which was a little less steep, but possibly no less work slogging through deep hot sand.

We were told to stay to the right of the fence, which didn’t seem to deter many people. But several park rangers were on site managing a prison work crew repairing the fence so we didn’t deviate from the beaten path as we made our ascent, each step punctuated by a stunning view of the Pacific.

Front the top you could see 360 degrees across Cape Kiwanda and Pacific City with Chief Kiwanda Rock (Haystack Rock/Haystack Arch) dominating the view.

The girls seemed in Heaven, loving the views and loving the sand. It has long been a dream of Clara’s to look across rolling dunes and have the experience to roll or run down a large sand dune. Here was her chance.

We ran down the dune, hot scalding sand on our bare feet. At the bottom of the dune we found ourselves in the tide pools at the base of the cliffs of Cape Kiwanda where we cooled our heels before heading back to our car parked on the beach and a day of relaxation watching the surfers and boogie boarders in the Oregon sun.

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The Dory Boats of Pacific Beach

We had been told to watch out for the returning dory boats of Pacific Beach. “Stay clear of the boats when they are landing on the beach, listen for the horns and move out of the way. Dory’s don’t have breaks”. The boats are known to rush the beach at high speed, catch a wave and land well onto the beach so awaiting vehicles with trailers can winch them back home. The 100 year old traditional fleet of uniquely flat bottomed boats heads out most mornings from the reserved stretch of beach between Haystack Rock and the Giant Sand Dune of Pacific City and returns on the midday tide.

Unfortunately we were here a week before the 57th Annual Dory Days Festival July 15-17 sponsored by the Pacific City Doormen’s Association. While sponsored by the Doormen’s association we did notice a few boats being “manned” by Dorywomen as well.

We were lucky enough to catch the dory boats landing with their catch limit of what appeared to be black rockfish. We tasted their previous days catch later that day in the form of fish tacos ordered at Ben & Jeff’s Tacos shack in town.

 

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Tillamook & Haystack Rock

A scenic Highway 6 took us out of Portland and landed us in Tillamook, Oregon land of cheese, dairy cows, rivers, and rugged green hills along the Pacific coast.

We intended to hit the Tillamook Cheese Company and pick up some curds or a block of cheddar before heading south to Cape Kiwanda for a few days.Before we arrived at the Tillamook Cheese Company we drove past Blue Heron French Cheese Company and decided to stop there first. They had a petting zoo (which I wasn’t about to go near) but Clara and Morgayne picked up the first chicken they found and subjected it to various torturous photos shoots before heading inside for cheese samples. Inside, Morgayne found a piano and sat down to entertain the tourists with a song.

From there we tried to go to the Tillamook Cheese Company but it was a zoo. Hoards of cheese loving tourists crowded outside, the parking lot was gridlock, and the RV parking was full. We decided against it and instead headed another 20 minutes or so south to Pacific City and our destination Cape Kiwanda. We checked in at Cape Kiwanda RV located directly across from the main beach at Cape Kiwanda State Park and Recreation Area. The sun was coming out so we set up camp amidst an abundance of bunnies that freely roamed the campground. This one is apparently named Basil and lives in the bush next to our spot.

After we shared part of our lunch w/Basil we took advantage of the sunny weather by heading to the beach. As soon as we walked onto the beach, saw Haystack Rock and the Pacific City Giant Sand Dune we decided we should book more time here. Rain was in the forecast and we all thought it better to avoid going on to Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park and the dunes there where we’d be sitting in the forest in the rain a mile inland from the ocean. Pacific City offered a few more restaurants, and indoor pool at our current spot, and a 2.5-3 hour shorter drive back to Seattle on Saturday. We cancelled reservations at Honeyman leaving that for another time, and were lucky enough to be able to extend our stay at Cape Kiwanda. With the remaining vacation booked we relaxed and took in the spectacular views and some vitamin D.

After the beach headed to the Pelican Brewery to have dinner on the deck and watch the sun set over Cape Kiwanda and Haystack Rock. Pelican Brewery has some fine beer (and they make their own root beer as well). But the wait was long, and the food overpriced and mediocre. But the views and the sunset didn’t disappoint.

 

 

 

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