Teresa Levonian Cole, The Daily Telegraph, May 22, 2013
Among a motley array of uniforms from assorted wars, a jumble of defunct household appliances, lead bullets still bearing the tooth marks of soldiers undergoing rudimentary amputations, and other contents that one might have cleared from a disorderly attic, two items caught my eye. The first, labelled “Remains of a cow’s wooden leg after Hurricane Andrew, 1992” was accompanied by a photograph of said cow, dated 1935, before it parted company from its prosthetic limb. The second exhibit, which looked like a blackened golf ball inside a bell jar, turned out to be a dehydrated orange, from December 1940. “On loan from A Fee Thomas,” read the label. The suggestion was that he might, one day, want it back.
As museums go, this one was a curious introduction to the history of the most powerful and technologically advanced nation on Earth. It is in Chickamauga, Georgia – a small town near Chattanooga. That I was there at all was because this was a Monday, and on Mondays, the Tennessee Valley Railway Museum, which we were scheduled to visit on our rail trip through the Southern states, is shut. Other distractions had to be found to appease disappointed rail buffs.
My 35 fellow travellers were united either by a love of trains or by a passion for the kind of music that is synonymous with Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans – key stops on our itinerary.
Not being a fully paid-up member of either camp, I was more taken with such discoveries as the Walker County Regional Heritage Museum, which inspired, in me at least, moments of “only in America” delight. Where else in the world would you find a fireworks shop boasting, “Best bang for your buck” – a slogan lent ominous credibility by the shop’s location above a petrol station? Where, also, is a pensioner required to produce ID to purchase a beer? Where else, for that matter, would the country’s oldest registered distillery be located in a dry county, which prohibits the sale of alcohol?
Such is the case with the Jack Daniel’s distillery in Moore County, bought for $45 by the 13-year-old, eponymous Jack in 1866. This being the land of opportunity, however, a way was found around the problem, and the distillery – which we toured and relieved of several bottles – now keeps the world in bourbon.
Our first two nights were spent in Chattanooga, of choo choo fame. The name – universalised by Glen Miller’s 1941 song – applies to the trains that plied the route from Cincinnati to Chattanooga between 1880 and 1970, when the service was stopped and Terminal Station turned into a hotel: our hotel. All that remains of its former splendour is the 85ft-high, elaborately decorated dome of the ticket hall, overlooking track 29 where a restored, wood-burning choo choo, which puffed its last in the Forties, sits in shiny green-and-red-liveried retirement, to be admired by all.
With our rail journey still in the future, we returned to the coach for the three-hour drive to Nashville, stopping at remote little towns on the way to admire Greek Revival antebellum mansions. The ghosts of the Civil War linger on south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the landscape pitted with battlefield sites and grand plantation houses once tended by stables of slaves. It was easy to imagine a bustling Missy beating the Persian rugs, washing the Limoges porcelain, polishing the Erard piano and dusting the frames of 16th-century Flemish portraits that adorn the elegant Gordon-Lee Mansion. Meanwhile, the guide – who claimed to be a descendant of Tony Blair – gave us a rundown of the family’s role in the Civil War. He was the epitome of the Southern gentleman, but had a three-syllables-for-the-price-of-one accent to match, so his speech fell, alas, on uncomprehending ears.
Besides, everyone was thinking of Dolly Parton. Nashville, her home town, is the birthplace of country- and-western music, of the Nashville Country Music Hall of Fame, and of the Grand Ole Opry, whose 4,400-seat auditorium regularly sells out. But there is no shortage of music downtown, where bars competing in decibels line both sides of Broadway, and Elvis lookalikes endeavour to lure you inside. For one-tenth of the price of an Opry ticket – the cost of a Budweiser – you can sit into the early hours listening to live bands in checked shirts and cowboy boots, strutting their amplified stuff at ear-splitting volume. The trick is to avoid Printers Alley: you wouldn’t want to end up in a nude karaoke bar.
For a trip down nostalgia lane, we visited the famous RCA Studio B. It was built in 1957 by the creator of the “Nashville sound”, Chet Atkins, and in the next 20 years every musician of note passed through its doors. Legend has it that the $35,000 cost of the building was recouped by a single recording of Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel. But the studio’s first hit is credited to Don Gibson’s marital troubles. “Don was depressed after his divorce,” explained our guide, a mine of enthusiastic anecdotes, “and poured his woes into Oh Lonesome Me, which he wrote in one afternoon, sitting in a trailer park. The song became such a hit that, on each subsequent anniversary, he would send his ex-wife a bunch of roses with the message: “Thank you for all the money you will never touch.”
It was references to Elvis, however, who recorded more than half his 500 songs here, that caused pulses (of both sexes) to race. People queued to touch the battered Steinway that Elvis had played, and listened reverently to his songs (“He recorded this one in the pitch dark, at 4am…” Cue: Are You Lonesome Tonight?). The experience set the tone for our pilgrimage to the modest little shack in Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis was born, and thence, in astonishing contrast, to the house the King made his own: Graceland.
Much has been written about Graceland and its excesses, not to mention the neighbouring museums that house Elvis’s outlandishly bejewelled costumes, his two private jets, and the many motorised toys that include the iconic pink Cadillac (which he gave to his mother). Video screens show Elvis having his hair cut as a young GI, his music issues from loudspeakers, his recorded voice urges traditional values, while friends and family bear witness to the King’s loyalty and essential simplicity. No wonder there are claims that Elvis lives – his presence is palpable. Meanwhile, crowds continue to file through in their droves to pay homage, leaving with sackfuls of memorabilia that must rake in more than the GDP of a small African republic.
Graceland, as everyone knows, is in Memphis, the city where Martin Luther King was shot and the home of Sun Studio, where Elvis cut his first record in 1953. But Memphis left little impression beyond its seedy, derelict air. It is not a place in which to linger. The highlight, for me, was not so much Beale Street – justly famed for its blues and rock ’n’ roll bars – as a restaurant serving excellent barbecue ribs that was also, reputedly, a favourite of Bill Clinton. The Rendezvous, as it is called, is modestly located in an alley opposite Memphis’s grandest hotel, The Peabody. This in itself is worth a visit at 11am, when a squadron of ducks is marched down from its penthouse coop, fanfared along a red carpet and into the lobby’s marble fountain, where they splash happily until the reverse ceremony takes place at 5pm.
To reach our final destination before the return to Atlanta and our flight home, a double-decker train – our first of the journey – bore us through nine hours of unremarkable countryside to the banks of the murky Mississippi, and America’s wettest city. Predictably, it was pouring with rain, and steamy as a jungle. “Don’t you just love these long rainy afternoons in New Orleans, when an hour isn’t just an hour, but a little piece of eternity?” drawls Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Well, frankly, no. Still, little could dampen the pleasure of wandering through the historic French Quarter, its colonial architecture unaffected by Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed so much of the lower-lying land (and, among many others, the home of Fats Domino). French since its foundation by Bienville in 1718 until Napoleon foolishly sold Louisiana for less than three cents an acre to Thomas Jefferson in 1803, and despite a brief stint under Spain, New Orleans retains a certain Gallic je ne sais quoi alongside its jazz heritage. We had time here to explore: ride the wooden trams and horse-drawn carriages, sample the delicious oysters and softshell crabs, visit museums and the landmark St Louis Cathedral, and sit in the cramped but authentic wooden shell of Preservation Hall, to hear jazz the way God intended. Acoustically.
Over a bowl of jambalaya in a restaurant on rue de Chartres, I learnt something curious. Apparently, the French were hatching a plot to spring Napoleon from St Helena and install him in this building, home of the former Mayor of New Orleans. It never happened, of course, which is a shame. Napoleon living in America? Who knows what course history might have run.
Teresa Levonian Cole travelled with Great Rail Journeys (01904 527180; greatrail.com). Its escorted Tracks of the Deep South tour includes return flight to Atlanta with British Airways (ba.com), rail and coach travel, 12 nights’ hotel accommodation (room only), and guided tours. From £2,415 per person .
Although the trip I took was billed as a “rail” journey, only two sections are in fact by train – most of the travel is on lengthy coach journeys. Check details before travelling. Meals are not included. Take a good guidebook or download the new app from Hg2 ( hg2.com ).
Where to eat
Meals from the Heart Café (French Market, New Orleans; 001 504 525 1953). This stall with seating in the heart of the French Market serves the best home-made crab cakes.
Brennan’s (417 Royal Street; 504 525 9711). Set in an elegant town house in the French Quarter, Brennan’s serves innovative Creole dishes and is particularly renowned for its brunches.
The Rendezvous (52 South 2nd Street, Memphis; 901 523 2746). This family-run, cavernous basement restaurant opened in 1948 and is renowned for its excellent barbecue ribs.
What to do and see
Make time to visit the wonderful aquarium (1 Broad Street; tennis.org ).
Visit the Peabody hotel (901 529 4000; peabodymemphis.com ) at 11am to see the ducks process from their rooftop residence to the foyer, where they remain until 5pm – a tradition since 1932.
The National Civil Rights Museum (901 521 9699; civilrightsmuseum.org ) is located at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 ($10/£6.50).
For the price of a beer, you can gain entry to most of the jazz clubs along Beale Street. B B King’s Blues Club (143 Beale Street; 901 524 5464) is one of the best, featuring new talent.
Take a guided tour of CNN’s HQ (404 827 2300; cnn.com/StudioTour ) to see how the news is produced ($16/£10.50).
Visit the tiny, historic Preservation Hall (726 St Peter Street; 504 522 2841; preservationhall.com ) to experience authentic jazz.
Degas House (504 821 5009; degashouse.com ) is the only museum in the world where the artist once lived, in 1872 ($25/£16).
Shop for rare books and antiques in the French Quarter.