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,
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
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
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
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
There's 1352 guitar pickers in Nashville
And they can pick more notes than ants on a Tennessee
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?