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Tuning in to the musical state of Tennessee
8:52am Monday 23rd January 2012 in Features
We were about an hour out of Nashville when a new sound made itself heard on the Tennessee Music Highway – the dull thud of a blown-out tyre.
Ninety minutes later and encamped behind the safety barrier on Interstate 40, I was waiting nervously for the repair man.
As the sun set, all sorts of things began to run through my mind. Surely something scary was going to happen, we’ve all seen those movies.
Reality turned out to be somewhat less exciting. A friendly traffic officer did check we were OK, our tyre was fixed and we lived happily ever after.
But the incident did highlight one thing – how surprisingly familiar Tennessee can be for a state that is far from the top of many tourists’ destination lists. Going around it triggers memories of an America you recognise from the movies.
It’s the state that became home to dozens of household name – from Elvis and Dolly Parton to Taylor Swift. Not only does their music reflect the history and people of Tennessee, but their songs form a natural soundtrack to any visit.
Battles of both the Civil War and the later Civil Rights Movement were won and lost here, and one cannot fail to be moved by sacrifices made by those such as Martin Luther King.
Our trip began at Atlanta airport in neighbouring Georgia, where we rented a car and headed north to the majesty of the Smoky Mountains National Park.
Hikes and wildlife are in plentiful supply – we were lucky enough to see two black bears – but there’s also a lot of history here, as the park was once home to both native American groups and white settlers.
Just a short drive away is Dolly Parton’s ever-fabulous theme park Dollywood. Though don’t be fooled by the constant playback of Dolly tunes and traditional costume, the rides are not for the faint-hearted.
Next stop was Nashville. The Music City is home to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry, venues which hosted the likes of Johnny Cash, June Carter and Hank Williams.
The history of country music is inseparable from the history of the South itself. Elvis’s gold piano, Carl Perkins’s famous blue suede shoes and Johnny Cash’s guitar are just some of the memorabilia on show at the Music Hall Of Fame.
Today, music is as much a part of Nashville as ever, and Broadway is the place to go to catch some live tunes. We settled on Robert’s Western World, a classic honky tonk where Brazil Billy and his band played relentlessly to a delighted audience.
And so to Memphis, heading south-west on the Music Highway – Interstate 40 – where our tyre blew.
Nashville may be the home to country music but in Memphis they sing the blues. Perched on the banks of the Mississippi River, it’s a cultural and musical melting pot.
It’s a soulful and almost melancholic city, and nowhere is this more visible than at the Lorraine Motel, where civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968.
Left as it was on that fateful day, the motel is now the National Civil Rights Museum, which charts the African-American struggle for human rights.
A short walk away is Beale Street, once the heart of Memphis’s black community and now known as the home of the blues. Do the Beale Street Walking Tour by day and, by night, catch some live music in legend BB King’s Blues Bar.
Of course, no trip to Memphis would be complete without a visit to Elvis’s former abode, Graceland. The sheer number of mementos and tributes from around the world at his graveside are a testament to the love so many people felt for him.
The Sun Studio is another music highlight. This little building was where Elvis cut his first record and the famous Million Dollar Quartet photo, which pictured him playing the piano with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, was taken.
Memphis is pretty much Tennessee's western-most point, so our road trip continued back east on Highway 64.
The towns it passes through all have their own stories to tell.
Of particular note is the small town of Pulaski, where the Ku Klux Klan was established – albeit as a very different association from the one it is now.
The state’s southern heartlands are farming country and home to the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg.
You can tour the distillery for free, but don’t expect a sample. Lynchburg is a dry county thanks to laws introduced during the Prohibition era, so the best you get is a whiff of the distillery barrels. Although even that is enough to leave you light-headed.
I had a similar feeling at the top of Lookout Mountain, near Chattanooga, where we ended our trip with outstanding views of a small part of America that proved so familiar, yet so full of surprises.