March 2007 Trip to Tennessee

On March 2 – 4, 2007, Tut, Johnnie and I took a business/pleasure trip to Tennessee. For a musicologist, such as myself, it was a very heartwarming experience. On Friday, Tut and I left his house at 7:00 in the morning. We headed to Johnny’s house to pick him up. He lives south of Valley Springs. Our itinerary was Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee.

“Memphis, home of the blues, birthplace of Rock & Roll.” That is the city’s slogan. Our first stop in Memphis was the Gibson factory. Gibson has 3 factories. One in Memphis, Tennessee; one in Nashville, Tennessee; and one in Montana. Seeing the Gibson plant was pretty interesting, seeing how the Les Pauls and ES-335s were made. They make everything at Gibson hand made. There are no production lines at Gibson. It helps keep the idea of quality made. 4 out of every 100 guitars do end up getting “axed” though, but that’s not too bad. They destroy the ones that don’t make it to Gibson standards because Gibson doesn’t sell 2nd quality instruments.

After we left Gibson, we drove to 926 E. McLemore, off of McLemore and College. Does anyone know what stood here once in music history? A show of hands? Soulsville, USA once was here. Yes, folks. Stax Records. Stax Records was owned by Jim STewart and Estelle AXton. Have you figured out where the name STAX Records came from yet? It had to be torn down though back in the late 1990s, and when they rebuilt it, it became a museum. Within this 10 mile radius of the city lived several really well known musicians in the 1960s and they all recorded there. All of them being white and black proving that music knows no colors. Music knows no race. That really hit me hard! It really made me teary eyed. Another thing that touched me was the control room and studio part of the museum. Where the studio part of the museum is at is the same exact spot where the original studio stood. This is where Booker T. & the MGs (Memphis Group), Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Sam Cooke, among others have all recorded. Everything in the studio area was rebuilt to look exactly like the original, except for the “burn holes in the carpet.” The control room area even had the original equipment used and even the original master tapes. They were saved after rioting broke out in 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated outside his hotel room at Lorraine Motel which is also in Memphis. It is now known as the Civil Rights Museum.

It is really very sad what happens to places because of what people can do. After Martin Luther King was killed, rioting broke out in every major city in America, including Memphis and the cities never really did recover. It really made black folks hate white folks, which made Stax fall under because at Stax white and black people got along together well, and that didn’t happen anymore after King’s assassination. And when Otis Redding was killed at the young age of 26, a year shy to be in the 27 club*, around the same time, the company just folded. Isaac Hayes and a few other soul kats tried to keep it going, but because of the assassination in 1968, Stax never really returned to its old ways. After a few years of struggling, the company folded. In 1974 the building got boarded up, and over the years it started getting run down. It had stayed that way for 30 years. In the late 1990s, the city of Memphis realized how historical the building was and tried to remodel and renovate it without much success so they tore it down and rebuilt it in the original location. If King wasn’t shot, Stax would still be going strong today. All of America’s ghettos probably wouldn’t be as run down as they are now, also.

On Saturday, we went to Daniel Brom’s repair shop in Fairview, Tennessee. Fairview happens to be a suburb of music city. Nashville, Tennessee. He is supposed to be the greatest guitar luthier ever. It was really awesome to see what he does with restoring guitars to get them to the original look. After spending 2 hours at his shop, we went to downtown Nashville where Gruhn Guitars is located. Gruhn Guitars is the most famous vintage guitar shop in the country, if not the world. It now sits where a place called Buckley Records once was. George Gruhn used to have his business 2 stores up before his business boomed in the early 1990s. Tut apparently has 30 or so guitars on consignment there, 10 or so on the lower level that everyone can see and 15 or so on the 2nd level. The 2nd level is where “special clientele” gets to go shop. Vince Gill was on the 2nd floor a couple months ago filming something for New Years on PBS. He picked up one of Tut’s guitars and started playing it and said he really liked this guitar and that he was too poor so maybe Amy (his wife) can get it for him. After that film was shown on PBS, there was so much interest in that guitar that Tut thought it finally was going to sell, but it never did.

After we left Gruhn Guitars, we went to the Ryman Auditorium. That is where the Grand Ole Opry used to be back in the 1940s – 1960s before it moved to its present location at Opryland in 1974. The auditorium almost got demolished, but instead it got put on the national historic registry. I am glad for that! We got to stand on the actual stage and have our pictures taken. It was really such a tear jerker! I mean, Johnny Cash had once stood here on this very stage!

After leaving Ryman, Johnny and I were allowed to walk Broadway to see all the different clubs and stores. We passed about 7 different clubs, each one playing some kind of live music. There were even some street performers. I had Johnny tip one of them.

One of the clubs we passed was Tootsies. This club is pretty famous in its own right because during the days of the Grand Ole Opry, the players would hang out there and knock back some brewskis before heading across the alley to the stage door entrance of the Ryman. By the way, the Everly Brothers were discovered at the stage door entrance to the Ryman.

After we left Downtown Nashville, we drove to Opryland, USA. That is where the Grand Ole Opry is now. When we got there, they were obviously preparing for that night’s Grand Ole Opry show. There were people moving stuff, and trucks all over by the stage area. While driving through, we noticed about 7 or 8 satellite dishes. My guess is those are so the show can be broadcast nationwide. We saw the Gibson factory there too, which was pretty cool. It is located in the Opryland Mall. The factory is also a Gibson store where you can buy Gibson merchandise like Guitars, Mandolins, and shirts, etc.

On Sunday, we woke up at 7:30 and had breakfast because we wanted to get on the road and head back home at a decent hour. We did have a long way home ahead of us.

We got on the road at 9:00, and were back in Memphis at noon. We saw Graceland first. For $30 you get the mansion tour, Elvis’ car museum, costume museum, his airplanes, and a museum that showed how he had fun. To see it all really takes 4 or more hours, and it’s very exhausting. They even have numerous gift shops to browse, an arcade and a couple of dining spots.

To the side of the mansion is where Elvis is buried. For years I thought he was buried behind the house, but it’s actually on the right side of the house. His mother, grandmother and dad are buried right next to him. There is an eternal flame burning for him at his gravesite. It is such a real tear jerker. Makes you really shiver and really puts a lump in your throat. On the mansion tour they don’t allow you to go on the 2nd floor of the house because that was his most sacred place, so when he passed away in 1977 and it became a museum, Lisa Marie made sure no one would go up in respect for her father.

On the walls outside of the gates to the house people have left their marking. The other museums at Graceland are short ones, but are still very interesting. The car museum shows every single car Elvis had owned. It included even his famous pink Cadillac that was his mother’s favorite car. He even had a cool looking 1973 Ferrari Dino and a 1966 Rolls Royce.

After that we saw his planes. He owned 2; the Lisa Marie is his most famous one. It was originally a plane for the Delta Airlines but when he bought it in the early 1970s; he had it remodeled to suit his standards. There is a bed, dining table, etc. in it. Lisa Marie even celebrated her birthday one year on it with her dad. Since it was his favorite jet out of the 2, he named it after his only child “Lisa Marie.” When the pilot would radio in to the control towers, he would say that “Hound Dog 1” was about to land. That was the Lisa Marie’s code name.

The costume museum houses all his different costumes he wore on his shows. The after dark museum showed us how he basically liked to have fun. Apparently, Elvis was an insomniac only getting about 4-5 hours of sleep. This would explain his addiction to sleeping pills.

The whole Graceland experience really takes the energy out of you. Makes you really not want to do anything more. It makes you feel really “Elvis’d Out.”

After we left Graceland, we drove to 706 Union Avenue. This is where Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis had the famous Million Dollar Quartet jam session and where the most famous picture in Rock & Roll history was taken, which was during the famous jam session. The very first rock song, Rocket 88, was recorded here in the late 1940s. After Sam Phillips quit running his studio there in the late 1950s, it closed down. It became a scuba shop for a few years. When it was a scuba shop, they had plywood on the walls, which was easy to take off so you can see the original tile. Everything at the studio is original down to the neon sign in the window that says “Memphis Recording Studio.” The only thing not original is the “Sun” sign at the top of the building. And will stay that way for the rest of time because it is now on the national historic registry. It is the only recording studio still used today that is on the national historic registry. The entrance to the museum isn’t through the original entrance to the studio though. It is the entrance to the place next door which was a diner in the days that Sun Records made history. When it was turned into a museum, you enter through the door where the diner was located. They even had the original recording equipment. They wanted everything to remain as it was 50 years ago! They even had the original microphone Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and Carl Perkins, etc. had to lay down their vocals thru. The piano that Jerry Lee played on “Great Balls of Fire” is also there. A real tear jerker!! Very historical!

After leaving there, we drove by the famous WDIA building where WDIA had its radio station. This is the radio station that played Elvis’ cut of “That’s All Right” for 3 hours. After he cut it, Sam Phillips took the record to his friend DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation). Giving Elvis his first 1, making him a star. It is still in operation today. It’s a news/talk station on the AM dial. AM was all you can get back in those days. There was no FM or XM. After getting a couple pictures, and dealing with some idiot in a wheelchair fussing that a cop had to stop, we got onto I40, to head back home.

You know, this area of the country really is the perfect place for music history to happen, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time. You got the Mississippi Delta in the south, which includes Clarksdale, Mississippi. There was a lot of culture down here where a lot of black folks, who were back in the late 1800s finally freed from slavery, were playing their music, and inventing the blues and even jazz in New Orleans. And than you got the people in the backwoods of Tennessee and Kentucky who invented their hillbilly music, better known as Bluegrass or country. People headed north for a better life. Ending up in Memphis or Nashville, or even as far as Chicago, where the famous Chess label once stood. All this happening right after the radio was invented. And with all the music, and culture happening in this 300 or so mile radius, people wanted to be heard and people wanted to get them heard. Radio and the recording industry were still in its infancy. There was no mistake or coincidence that music history happened here in this location of America. And because of what people done in the first half of the 1900s in this part of the country musically, people travel from all over to come to Nashville and Memphis for music history of all sorts and to hear music of all sorts.

It was really neat. We had an amazing trip, and it was very exciting. I wish I would’ve had more time because there is just so much to see. You really have to plan a week vacation to visit Memphis and Nashville. I also realized on this trip that I really need to start getting involved in keeping music history alive, and the music itself alive. Either by donating money to help renovate the historical buildings that were involved, or something of that sort. I have even thought about starting my own foundation that raises money to save and renovate such buildings, or pays money to save instruments that the numerous well known players have played, etc. This trip was very heartfelt, and it really touched my heart and soul, and now it’s time to sit down and listen to some Elvis, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, BB King, Otis Redding, Booker T, and go to sleep.


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