South for a Song

Mike Safe heads to Texas, Tennessee and beyond in search of the roots of blues and country music.
January 17, 2009

Fort Worth neon shinin' bright
Pretty lights red and blue
They shut down all the honky tonks tonight
Say a prayer or two if they only knew
- Fort Worth Blues by Steve Earle

Leaving Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, you can turn left for the glitz and glamour of Dallas or right for the stockyards and cowboy boots of Fort Worth. We turn right. The "city of cowboys and culture", as the lesser-known of these twin towns promotes itself, is more in keeping with our Texas state of mind.

With my son, Nathan, I am embarking on a musical odyssey to the places that have filled my head with lyrics and images for years. Yes, it's un-Australian, to use an over-used term, but the music that resonates with me comes from this part of the world.

Blues and country, in their many offshoots and amalgams, remain the basis of popular music in Western culture. They gained their resonance here even though their ancestries trace back to the indigenous musics of Europe and Africa.

Fort Worth happens to be celebrating its annual Main Street Arts Festival with hundreds of booths showing every form of visual art imaginable, from painting, sculpture, ceramics and installations to photography, graphics and craftwork. Thousands stroll in the early evening; there are families with prams, urban cowboys in hats and boots and neo-hippies in sandals and in need of a barber.

Acts of various musical persuasions play along the way. We catch Terri Hendrix, a virtuoso Texan singer-songwriter whose guitarist is Lloyd Maines, father of Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, who had the nerve to diss fellow Texan George W.Bush, thereby having the Chicks effectively banished from country radio.

It's entirely right that Maines's dad is resident godfather of what's known as Texas alt country, a looser version of what they play up north in country music HQ, Nashville, Tennessee.

When you died at 29
You heard the voice of angels
Could you hear the lonesome cry
Of the ones you left behind
- 29 by Slaid Cleaves

Next morning we're on Interstate 35 heading south for Austin, the Texas capital. Its three lanes each way are jammed with pick-up trucks, recreational vehicles and semis, none of which travels at less than the 120km/h limit outside city areas.

Bumpers on every second pick-up carry US or Lone Star state flags or decals proclaiming support for the troops, fine young Texans fighting in a faraway war. Many also carry stickers of yellow twined ribbons, representing mothers and wives waiting the return of sons and husbands. The highway offers weird real estate placements. Next to an evangelical church, one of many topped by an obligatory white spire, is a clinic offering vasectomy reversals.

We have only a basic map so our strategy for finding somewhere to stay is rudimentary: drive to the destination in question, find a downtown exit, take it and wander about until we find something that looks like, well, downtown. In Austin, population 1 million, this works and we even end up on Sixth Street, the epicentre of the city's vaunted musical heritage.

Austin is a university town that labels itself "the live musical capital of the world". It hosts South by Southwest, an annual jamfest that gathers musicians from all over the planet. There's a statue of electric blues great and legendary drug imbiber, Stevie Ray Vaughan, who spent his formative years in Sixth Street's clubs. The favourite local T-shirt carries the slogan "Keep Austin Weird". We visit the Broken Spoke, a Texas honky-tonk institution. Old-fashioned dance halls remain big deals down here and those who frequent them can really dance: proper Texan two-stepping, not that stupid line-dancing stuff. The dance floor is rickety from tens of thousands of cowboy boots that have clomped across it for more than 50 years and the ceiling so low slung it appears about to collapse.

We sense the ghosts of legends past: Bob Wills and Roy Acuff while, in their humbler days, the still-kicking Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton trod its tiny stage.

The atmosphere is friendly, courteous even, very much a Texan characteristic where folks call you "sir" or "m'am" and tip their hats. There's even a quaint museum packed with everything from a hat Nelson wore on stage here to a cigar butt supposedly chomped on by the legendary Hank Williams who, in country's finest tradition, died in the back seat of his Cadillac while being driven to a performance on New Year's Day, 1953. He was 29. Someone should write a song about that except, of course, it's been written.

I went to the crossroad
Fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above "Have mercy now
Save poor Bob, if you please."
- Crossroad Blues by Robert Johnson

Now we are in Clarksdale, Mississippi, at the intersection of State Highways 61 and 49. It's where Robert Johnson, the mystical blues virtuoso, is said to have sold his soul to the devil some time in the 1920s, thereby being rewarded with his incendiary guitar-playing skills. Well, this is where the legend says it happened, if it happened at all, of course. But no one is quite sure if this is the exact spot because the highways, which were originally national roads, have been rerouted numerous times since.

A nearby town, Rosedale, also lays claim to the legend, but Clarksdale has gone so far as to emblazon its crossing with daggy-looking blue metal guitars hanging from a pole next to a couple of straggly trees. On one corner is Abe's Bar-B-Q joint and, on another, a furniture store. Scores of cars blast through here everyminute.

We've followed the Mississippi and Highway 61, known as the Blues Highway, north through the delta (cotton fields and hamlets with names such as Bobo and Alligator) but now the Crossroads proves to be, well, a bit of a dead end.

We adjourn to the nearby Delta Blues Museum, which celebrates local luminaries such as Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. A guy behind the counter, wearing a Vietnam Vets airborne division cap, rolls his wild-looking eyes at mention of the Crossroads and dismisses it all as myth. I think he's been asked about it once, twice or a thousand times before.

We beat it north up Highway 61 to the Tennessee border and Memphis, home of the King. Using our downtown method, we're soon taking evening drinks in the Rum Boogie Cafe on Beale Street, the legendary entertainment strip and, naturally, the place is alive with Elvis imitators who range from the spectacular to the spectacularly awful. Beale Street is tightly controlled by the local authorities, unlike in the 1920s when one club was known as the Castle of Missing Men because of the number of gambling defaulters who were disposed of through its back door.

But they still know how to get you. An old character dancing the boogaloo to some local blues in a CD shop convinces me to buy a heap of discs by guys I've never heard of. It turns out they're all pretty good in a raw, rocking sort of way. That night, as an electrical storm erupts across the skyline, I don't feel cheated one bit.

Forget the mousse and hairspray, sugar
We don't need none of that
Just a little dab'll do ya, girl
Underneath a pork pie hat
Let's go to Memphis in the meantime
- Memphis in the Meantime by John Hiatt

We do the tourist stuff, including Sun Studios, where Elvis made his first recordings, and Graceland, where he lived and, of course, died. Sun Studios is funky, fun and highly informative while Graceland is a massive money-making enterprise. It's Saturday and thousands are being shuttled non-stop through the house and surrounds. I had the impression Graceland was some sort of quasi southern mansion but it's more like a super-sized project home you might find in an outer Australian suburb and, strangely, the ceilings are reallylow.

There's 1352 guitar pickers in Nashville
And they can pick more notes than ants on a Tennessee ant hill
And anyone that unpacks his guitar can play twice as better than I ever will
- Nashville Cats by John Sebastian

We head 300km up Interstate 40 to Nashville. Along its famous Lower Broadway, we hear the distinctive twang of Fender Telecaster guitars, the instrument of choice in this part of the world. It issues from institutions such as Tootsie's Orchid Lounge where the walls are lined with photos of every nobody who carried a guitar through its doors to become somebody over nearly 50 years.

Then there's the Ernest Tubb Record Store where you can find thousands of CDs by long-dead country heroes, including Tubb himself, the Texas Troubadour as he was known, who opened the shop in 1947. But you won't find one by whoever is this week's rap star on the rise. Tradition reigns; if it don't twang, it ain't the Ernest Tubb thang.

Around the corner is the venerable Ryman Auditorium from where the Grand Ole Opry, the longest-running radio program in the US, was broadcast for more than 30 years. These days, the Opry, which upholds country's traditions and not the new-fangled crossover country pop favoured by modern Nashville, has relocated to a purpose-built auditorium and holiday resort on the nearby Cumberland River.

Later, we visit the Wildhorse Saloon, a three-level mega venue that represents this new Nashville. There are massive fried steaks and live music; they'll even teach you dumb line dancing. Tonight on stage are TelluRide, five young guys from the faraway Pacific Northwest who have come here to live the dream in what's probably the most competitive music scene on the planet. More than a quarter of the albums on the Billboard Top 100 chart at any time can come out of this small city, population 600,000.

TelluRide play a tight, concise brand of country pop, tailor-made for what now constitutes country radio. All they have to do is claw their way over thousands of other equally talented hopefuls.

We ease on down to Atlanta, Georgia, from where we catch a flight to New York and then home. We've driven more than 2000km, eaten 21 steaks, 37 hamburgers, 23kg of potato (fried, mashed and boiled) and no fruit or greens while guzzling 63 litres of beer, never while driving, of course. When can we go again?

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