‘Welcome to the centre of the country music universe,’ says Charlie Mattos as he points to a six-foot circle on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tennessee. ‘Stars could’ve had number one hits or toured the world, but stepping into that circle is where their dreams really come true.’
Mattos, a well-known DJ who is hosting the evening’s episode of the Grand Ole Opry – both a country music concert and the world’s longest-running weekly radio programme – then invites me on a quick backstage tour before the live broadcast begins. ‘Our show made country music famous, simple as that,’ he says as we pass the in-house band practising bluegrass riffs in the wings.
‘It began in 1925; back then there was no electronic interference, so the signal could travel across the entire country from just one antenna. Americans tuned in coast-to-coast to hear country songs about real lives, lives just like their own, and it became this magical shared experience.’
Mattos pauses briefly to greet one of the night’s performers: eleven-time Grammy-nominee Connie White. ‘Since then, country music has just exploded,’ he says as we head off towards the auditorium.
‘Now Nashville is full of hopefuls grinding their way along Broadway, earning only tips, dreaming of one day being spotted and playing the circle.’
I take my seat. A hush descends as Mattos opens the two-hour-long show, which is filled with songs of unrequited love and drowned sorrows.
Next to me, two elderly Southern belles with wispy hairdos that resemble crowns of candy floss are soon reaching into their handbags for tissues.
‘Connie White rightly calls country music “the cry of the heart,”’ says one. ‘It reminds us we don’t necessarily end up with the life we wanted, or with the person we truly love. That’s why it moves us to tears.’
The next day I head west, turning off the I-40 at Brownsville to join the lunchtime queue of trucker hats and cowboy boots at Helen’s Bar-B-Q. ‘I’ll bring you a meat platter,’ says the eponymous owner Helen Turner in her sing-song Tennessee accent. ‘Y’all in for a treat.’
She returns with a plate of locally hunted, slow-cooked venison that’s so tender it falls apart at the tap of my fork. ‘We start the fire at 4am and cook our meat over hickory and oak for 12 hours,’ she says. ‘There’s a great tradition of barbecue in the south, but not many people still use wood. It makes all the difference.’
After some ribs and Polish sausage comes the house speciality: pulled-pork shoulder with ‘secret sauce’. The pork is delicious – smoky, oaky and swimming in its own juices – while the sauce is sweet with a subtle, spicy kick. ‘What’s in it?’ I ask. ‘Tomato? Brown sugar? Paprika?’
‘Only I know the recipe,’ Helen replies, coyly. ‘I’ll never tell. When I die, it’ll be gone for good. Not everything has to last forever; maybe that’s what makes it so special.’
Fit to burst, I hit the road and arrive in Memphis at dusk, just as the city’s neon lights are flickering into life – outside the bars and honky-tonks of Beale Street, and up on the roof of Old Dominick’s distillery where a glowing cockerel towers over a tumbler of whiskey.
‘Memphis has always been a drinking town,’ says Alex Castle, Dominick’s master distiller, as she walks me through the yeasty fermentation rooms to sample a sundowner in the distillery lounge. ‘It gets a lot of its character from the Mississippi River nearby, not only its grit, but its hustle too.
That’s because historically the river has always been the great highway of the United States, with people passing through and settling here, bringing their different characters and cultures; people like Domenico Canale who arrived from Italy in 1859 and started selling his own whiskey that he called Old Dominick’s.’
Under his portrait, Castle pours me a glass of Memphis Toddy. ‘It’s based on Domenico’s rye-based toddy that was thought to be lost. But we found a wax-sealed bottle in an old warehouse and I went about recreating it,’ she says. I take a sip – it’s spicy and sweet with warm flavours of citrus, butterscotch and cinnamon.
‘The river definitely played a part in bringing the toddy to life,’ Castle continues. ‘It fuels my own creativity. I can feel its energy coming in waves through the soil and rock of the city.
‘For all of us who live here, whether we’re distillers or artists or musicians – especially musicians in the case of Memphis – we all feed off that power.’
I leave town the next morning, driving past a group of fans lining up to pay their respects at the grave of Elvis Presley. Crossing the Tennessee state line in the southern suburbs, I enter the Mississippi Delta region, the vast sprawl of alluvial floodplain that stretches over 180 miles south to Vicksburg.
My first stop is Clarksdale, no bigger than a flyspeck on the map – a scruffy, scrappy kind of town where barbershops offer jail bonds and mom-and-pop restaurants serve nothing but deep-fried everything.
I head for the New World neighbourhood, once renowned for its juke joints and brothels, and park up outside Messenger’s Pool Hall, the first place to get a liquor licence in the early 1900s. Inside, the clientele are still making the most of it – misfiring cue balls or sliding off their chairs in an ever-thickening haze of beer and bourbon.
‘Back then, this area was really wild,’ says Sherman Robinson, the manager. ‘Folk would party on Saturday night then pray for forgiveness on Sunday morning with only a freshen up in between.
‘We’ve still got Red’s juke joint, and live blues every night of the year, but Clarksdale’s seen better days for sure. The Delta is full o’ places like this, rundown but friendly, with more characters than you find on Sesame Street.’
Robinson kindly introduces me to one of them: James ‘Supa Chikan’ Johnson, who flashes a jewel-encrusted smile when I turn up at his door. ‘I make my own grills,’ he says. ‘This one I did outta a gold-look bracelet. Being a showman, I can’t go on stage with snaggle teeth and holes in my mouth.’
We chat on his sofa, surrounded by a vast collection of guitars, including one converted from a rifle. ‘Music is in my blood,’ he says. ‘My granddaddy was Ellis Johnson, first cousin to Robert Johnson, the legendary bluesman who they say sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of highways 49 and 61 in return for being a guitar maestro. They played together and had a pact: if one died the other would play on.
‘Well, Robert got popular, the women loved him, so much so that one jealous husband gave him a drink laced with strychnine. The way he died – foamin’ at the mouth, cryin’ in pain – scared the hell out of my granddaddy. So he stopped playing altogether. Then my grandma shot him ’cause he’d beat her. His dying words were: “do for me what I should’ve done for Robert.” I was only six at the time. I’m now 70, still playing the blues, still touring the world.’
Johnson picks up a diddley bow and strums; his cigarette-cracked voice sings of heartache, moonshine and life on the cotton plantations.
‘Sure, white people can play the hell out of the blues but they don’t understand the music like black folks do,’ he says.
‘My family comes from slavery, from hardship. Blues is an expression of our pain. The blues is also our salvation.’
A distant train whistle wakes me the next morning and I set off just as the sunrise erupts like a burning flame, gilding the cypress swamps and fields of cotton, their plump bolls freshly burst open in the heat of late summer. Here, church steeples rise up to the heavens at almost every road junction, their billboards crying ‘Heaven Or Hell? You Decide!’ and ‘Damnation Awaits The Sinner!’
‘You’re in the heart of the Bible Belt now,’ says Reese Pillow, a fifth-generation cotton farmer who owns 4,000 acres of land outside Greenwood, 60 miles south of Clarksdale. ‘Lots of heartfelt prayers get said ’round here, especially by farmers. We face the whims of the weather and the markets, and ask for God’s help with both. Being out in nature, you definitely feel the presence of a higher power. It’s a spiritual thing, watching a simple seed transformed by the elements into something miraculous: a plant yielding pure, white gold.’
After Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 made large-scale cultivation possible, the USA became the world’s largest cotton producer. Great fortunes were made in the Delta, notably around Natchez, some 175 miles to the south, which by the early 1800s was home to more millionaires than anywhere else in the country.
Historically, Natchez was a town of two halves: high above the river were the streets filled with cotton barons’ mansions, each one as ornate as a wedding cake; below was the rough-and-tumble port. ‘Natchez Under-The-Hill was once considered America’s version of Sodom, the most dangerous spot on the whole Mississippi,’ says John Dicks, a local mechanic and carpenter. ‘Mark Twain passed through here in the mid 1800s and described it as full of “fisticuffing and killing among the riff-raff”.’
I buy us a round of beers at the Under-The-Hill Saloon, a place once frequented by gamblers and cut-throats. ‘It was a thriving port back then,’ says Dicks as we stare out at the river, its waters running as dark as molasses and boiling with fierce undercurrents. ‘Cotton was loaded onto paddleboats here before being shipped to England for their textile industry. Cotton was king, but it came at a price. Natchez had the biggest slave market in the state. But that’s the South for you, the two sides of the coin. The folks are real friendly. We’ll fatten you up with good food, and get you drunk while we chew your ears off. But there’s no escaping our history.’
Some three hours later I reach journey’s end in New Orleans, and head straight for the Vieux Carre or French Quarter, the city’s oldest neighbourhood, joining the throng along Bourbon Street where a Second Line brass band is weaving its way through crowds of raucous revellers dressed in the full plumage of the bachelor and bachelorette party: Stetsons, feather boas and Mardi Gras beads.
I walk the street’s full length of 13 blocks – a boozy, woozy mix of jazz joints, voodoo stores and all-day hangovers, before peeling away to explore the quarter’s quieter side streets, where intricate wrought-iron balconies drip with tropical greenery, and horses’ heads top the street posts.
Elegant carriages were once tethered here by their affluent owners, who indulged in sophisticated escapes from the heat and humidity of the plantations with rich food, fine arts and much drinking.
‘New Orleans was once the absinthe capital of the US,’ says bartender Matt Ray, reaching for a bottle of the Green Fairy. ‘We were a French colony so if something was popular back in Paris, it was here too.’
He starts to mix me a Sazerac cocktail. ‘In many ways it sums up the city, especially the confluence of cultures,’ he says, giving the glass a rinse of absinthe first.
‘You’ve got rye whiskey, the first spirit invented in America by Scottish and Irish settlers, sugar syrup from the Caribbean, Sicilian citrus and Peychaud’s bitters, created by a Haitian apothecary, with exotic flavours like star anis and cinnamon.’
He passes me the amber-coloured concoction and continues, ‘The cocktail also captures the spirit of New Orleans, which has always been an oasis of hedonism. The French brought a culture of drinking here. They were Catholics so could go to confession and easily wipe their moral slates clean.
‘You had all kinds of music from Africa and the Caribbean creating a lively atmosphere too; it’s also the last port on the Mississippi before you hit the ocean, so you’ve always had sailors looking to let off steam.
Add it all together and it’s no surprise that Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler is the city’s motto. “Let The Good Times Roll’ is what this place is all about.”’
NEED TO KNOW
Getting there There are international airports at both Nashville and New Orleans.
Best time to go Year-round, though it’s best to avoid the high heat and humidity of July & August. Keep an eye on the calendar for the wealth of music festivals.
Where to stay Central Station Hotel (Memphis); Travelers Hotel (Clarksdale); One11 Hotel (New Orleans).
Food Barbecue is a highlight here: Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous restaurant in Memphis is justifiably famous for its dry-rub barbecue meats, Ramon’s diner in Clarksdale is a local institution. In New Orleans, try turtle soup at Brennan’s, beignets at Café du Monde and Creole classics at Dooky Chase’s.
Must-pack item A smart phone is better for navigating than paying for a GPS with your car rental, so check out a foreign roaming plan before you travel.
How to do it Trailfinders offer a wide range of fly-drive and small group adventure tours of the Deep South; the road trip can also be easily arranged independently and the route can be driven in either direction.
Why go Some of the finest live music destinations in the world; authentic and atmospheric Americana – especially in the Mississippi Delta; an important, but often uncomfortable, history lesson, notably about slavery and the Civil Rights movement; and, finally, ‘Southern Hospitality’ may be an oft-used brochure cliché but here, the welcome is genuinely as warm as an embrace between old friends.