19.06.2009 - 23.06.2009 35 °C
It took a couple of days to make the journey from Knoxville to Memphis, mainly uneventful ones. Knoxville is a funny wee place, once famous as the underwear capital of the world and before that as a way station for those heading west, which was pretty much the only function it served for me. After the horrible drive through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Ford, I was keen to just find somewhere to stay and then eat. That proved a little problematic: heading back into town, I somehow overshot and found myself on the wrong side of the river and half way to the south coast. I finally found a street with a couple of bars and a coffee shop and had to ask "where's town"? Turns out most of the action is centred on Market Square, which turns its back on the rest of the world so unless you know what you're doing, you don't know its there. Makes for quite a pleasant space once you find it - there were several musicians of various types busking, and a number of restaurants. There is a highly rated pizza place called Tomatohead, which I wanted to visit in honour of someone who comments here, but the line snaked all the way out of the building. I had to be content with a pineapple and prawn curry.
I've only just learned that Knoxville is where Cormac McCarthy spent a lot of time when he was young: walking around, there was no sign at all. Funnily enough, given my fruitless quest for John Barth's Cambridge book, I actually had McCarthy's Knoxville book, Suttree, in my bag.
I dithered in the morning, eating a very fine chocolate mousse thing pushed on me by a coffee man who might pass as a drug dealer, so seductively did he point out the charms of his mousse, and then it was off to Nashville. Only I didn't quite make it - evidently I missed a sign somewhere, because I was quite confident I was on the right road. Eventually I thought to check, and found I was just outside Chattanooga - which is south of Knoxville, right on the border with Georgia, not west at all. D'oh! A quick change of plans was called for. Dinner at the Blue Plate restaurant that night was curious: possibly the best fried chicken I have ever had and definitely the worst beans ever (green beans cooked in a gluggy white supposed sauce).
Of course, I checked out both the bookshops I found, looking for John Barth to no avail. One was a complete shambles, run by this funny old lady. The radio was evidently playing some Christian station, as a fellow was preaching. The funny old lady took one look at me and up went the volume on the radio! I'd also read of a fantastic homely place that did great pork dishes for lunch, but it wasn't open so I had to hit the road in anticipation of finding more chain food outlets.
Its a long drive from Chattanooga to Memphis - 6.5 hours according to Google maps on the route I took, which took me into Georgia briefly and then snuck along the top of the State of Mississippi - so I was on the road quite early for once. Luckily, in some random town in Mississippi I found, in amongst the chain food, a very busy looking Mexican restaurant, so went in and had an enormous, impossible to complete, meal of fajitas.
I'd actually booked a motel in Memphis, a classic looking Super 8, but it proved the most elusive to find of all the places I have got lost looking for. I even had a wee map with the motel marked on it. Ultimately, I followed their directions to the letter - found the right Interstate, the right exit, and there it was, pretty much the only thing at that particular exit. Leaving to go into town, I took the wrong turn and was suddenly in a different State, Louisiana.
I did drive out to Graceland but, no, I didn't go in. I was far more interested in Beale Street and the Stax Museum of Soul Music. I spent my first night at the former, which had a nice buzz although the action is confined to just a couple of blocks, starting with the BB King Blues Club, where he appears regularly (but not the night I was there). There were several bars with live music, but only one seemed to be offering proper blues, so I went in and had a couple of Yuenglings. Back in Cambridge, Katie had worked on me to try pulled pork, and I finally found the exactly right place to have it: a place called Pig on Beale Street. This was absolutely delicious - slow cooked pork pulled apart, incredibly tender, with a wonderful smoky flavour. Nice with corn on the cob, green beans and Yuengling.
The Stax museum was a good way to spend a couple of hours. I hadn't actually heard of many of the artists on the Stax Records roster - just Otis Redding, Booker T and Isaac Hayes - but it didn't stop me having a good time, as there was lots of music playing and exhibits devoted to each artist, such as Isaac Hayes' gold Cadillac (and a video of him performing Shaft at the Stax Records gig in LA in 1972, when Hayes seemed to be wearing just a few gold chains and nothing else). The story of Stax Records is an interesting one: it formed because lots of locals were congregating at the record store, Satellite Records, and they wanted to make some music of their own, to respond to the Motown sound. They became vastly popular, which attracted the interest of the big record companies: three times Stax did deals with one, and three times they were done over (they even signed over all their original music to one). But they attribute their failure to the shooting of Martin Luther King at the Lorrain Hotel, a hangout for all the Stax people. Until then, race hadn't been an issue but suddenly it created divisions, and Stax couldn't function.