Hello, I’m Johnny Cash…

… is the title of Johnny’s 33rd album release and how he used to introduce each episode of The Johnny Cash Show on ABC. It’s also the title of a tribute song by Alabama 3. We had set aside Saturday morning for a visit to the Johnny Cash Museum in Downtown Nashville. It’s really well set up, and it needs to be because it gets a huge number of visitors on Saturdays. We enjoyed the visit a lot, and took a few snaps of some of the exhibits.


We spent a while here and went up to take another look at the Ryman. We’d enjoyed the Opry backstage tour so much we thought we might check out Ryman’s version. It was also very busy and we decided that the combination of wait time and the $30 per head cost put us off so we just had a coffee in their cafe and moved on.

I was due to pick up my mandolin from Carter’s with, hopefully, a new tailpiece in place. There’s a free bus that runs a circuit around Nashville and we decided to take one of these buses over to the Gulch area, close to Carter’s shop. It’s strange that all of the attractions were so busy, but we were the only two people on the bus.


The mandolin was ready, and was looking and sounding great so we paid the very reasonable cost and headed back towards our hotel. The day had flown by and we had to get changed for dinner. We had booked dinner at a steakhouse called Deacon’s New South, which turned out to be delicious. After dinner, we strolled down onto Broadway and, having enjoyed some lovely wine with dinner, I took my Dutch courage in hand and signed up for karaoke in a very lively bar. It took a while for my name to come round on the list and there had been some great singers in the interim, despite which my rendition of House of Pain’s Jump Around was astonishingly well received by what was, admittedly, a liberally lubricated audience. We called it a night after that and headed back to the hotel.

Sunday started at a more leisurely pace. We had noticed a place near Carter’s called Rudy’s Jazz Room and had discovered it offered a jazz brunch on Sundays, so we decided that would be a pleasant alternative to the very basic hotel breakfast we had been having this week. And we were right. Sunday was the 5th of May, and they were hosting a special Cinco de Mayo brunch, presenting Latin-infused jazz. It was a very pleasant change of pace, musically.

After brunch, we headed back to the hotel for a while before our next musical stop. The Station Inn is a legendary bluegrass venue in the Gulch area. Sunday night is the open bluegrass jam night, and we decided we’d enjoy just going along and watching rather than taking instruments and trying to join in.


According to the website, doors would open at 7:00pm and music would start at 8:00pm. We got there at 7:30 and were lucky to get a seat. And the music had already started with a half dozen musicians playing. Within the next half hour the ensemble had grown to over twenty, and there were some great musicians among them. My heart, however, went out to the young banjo player who played rhythm all night and steadfastly refused any and all invitations to take a break (solo) on any of the tunes. I know how he feels.

Monday was our last full day in Nashville, and it was scorchingly hot. We decided to take a walk in the Two Rivers Park to get some fresh air and see some wildlife, hopefully.


We did see some very uncooperative birds who wouldn’t sit still long enough for a photo, and also encountered some difficulty with Ishbel’s camera sometimes not recognising that the long lens was attached. Either the body or the lens probably needs a service. We enjoyed our stroll, but need to shower and change when we got back to the hotel.

Tonight we were bound for the Bluebird Cafe, another landmark Nashville venue, particularly among songwriters. On Monday evenings, they have an early show where budding songwriters can sign up to perform one or two songs to a discerning audience, and hope to be discovered. That wasn’t for us. We were going to the late show where Mike Henderson would play some old-school twelve-bar blues.


We queued for over an hour to make sure we got in and chatted with a couple of lovely Canadian ladies while we waited. Their husbands had gone to see Judas Priest, supported by Uriah Heep. I don’t know how that gig went, but Mike Henderson and his band were brilliant. He had a young man guesting on keyboards that night who usually plays guitar and sings in a bluegrass band, but his honky-tonk blues piano was wondrous.

This was a great way to end the Nashville portion of the tour. Back on the road on Tuesday.


Sit down in that chair right there and let me show you how it’s done

Friday was again overcast in Nashville. For some reason, I was expecting Tennessee to be bathed in sunshine by early May but we hadn’t yet seen much evidence of that being the case. I had a task I wanted to complete this morning. I had lost the tailpiece cover to my mandolin in Peru. It had fallen off in the hotel room while I was practising and I had neglected to retrieve it before our departure. It makes no difference to the sound but I find it aesthetically displeasing so I wanted to acquire a replacement. I reckoned Nashville was the ideal place to readily find such a thing.

I’ve been aware for quite some time that two of the world’s best instrument shops are located here: Gruhn Guitars and Carter Vintage Guitars. Although both specify guitars in their names, I happen to know that they also have a quite amazing range of mandolins. At the time of writing in May 2019, their combined mandolin inventory is valued in excess of a million dollars. I decided that even if I couldn’t acquire a replacement tailpiece cover, I could enjoy simply ogling mandolins. And that’s exactly what happened at our first stop, Gruhn’s.


Gruhn couldn’t offer me any solution, either by way of parts or repairs. They did recommend a place called Glaser’s which is a specialist instrument repair shop, so we made our way to their address in E. Iris Drive. This looked like a residential neighbourhood but a lot of the houses were actually music studios music publishers. Glaser’s was at No. 434 which looked like an unremarkable detached house with very little sign that there was a business contained therein. We entered cautiously, but there was a counter right in front of us and they asked what we were after. When I said a mandolin tailpiece, the guy behind the counter went off and brought out his box of mandolin parts. The only cover they had was too small to fit so they suggested we try Carter.

Once again, we were back in the car and using Google maps to direct us to 8th Avenue and Carter’s premises.


On arrival there, we were directed to the repair counter all the way in the back. There we encountered a very helpful gentleman called Seth who also tried to fit a cover on the tailpiece but, again, it was too small. He did have a replacement tailpiece which would fit my Taggart mandolin, so I asked when he would be able to put it on. I had no intention of trying to do it myself. He said I could have the mandolin back the next day, so I left it in his care and we headed back out.

The hunt had taken longer than expected and we had an appointment to keep at 2:30pm. I had booked tickets for the Friday night show at the Grand Ole Opry and also included tickets for a backstage tour this afternoon.

DSC_0764 The tours are very popular and our group had to be split in two to make it a manageable size to get round the backstage areas. We got to go through the artists’ entrance and see all the dressing rooms, then stand on stage in the circle of oak flooring that they transferred from the Ryman Auditorium when they moved to their current premises.

After the tour, we headed back to the hotel to get ready for our concert in the evening. The Opry doors open at 6:00pm and the show starts at 7:00pm. Over the course of the evening, we saw a few people we were not previously familiar with. However, we also saw yet another legend of bluegrass (and octogenarian) – Bobby Osborne.


Bobby performed two songs, one of which was Rocky Top. That song will forever be linked in my mind with the Tokyo bluegrass bar we visited back in January, which is called Rocky Top. Also on the bill were The Whites, who performed Keep On The Sunny Side.

The headliners tonight, however, were a band who had a huge crossover hit in 1979 when the country rock song The Devil Went Down To Georgia hit the pop charts. I was disappointed, therefore, to see the Charlie Daniels Band start their set with not a fiddle in sight. And I was absolutely delighted when, for their last number, a roadie brought out a well used fiddle and placed it in Charlie’s hands.


He said, “We was always taught you should dance with the one that brung you. This is the one that brung us,” and launched into a rip-roaring version of the Devil Went Down To Georgia. Charlie is yet another octogenarian but he can still play a mean fiddle.

And, if you didn’t know already, today’s title is a line from that song.

Late in the evening about sundown

Today’s title is taken from Bill Monroe’s song Uncle Pen, written about his uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, with whom Bill lived after the death of his parents. They shared a cabin in Bill’s home town of Rosine, Kentucky, which is where we were headed on a sort of pilgrimage on Thursday morning.

Rosine sits just over a hundred miles from Nashville and most of the road is interstate, so we reckoned it would be a fairly straightforward drive. Which it was, apart from the rain.


Once we had driven into this storm, the wipers struggled to deal with the volume of water falling on to the windscreen. We slowed to an appropriate speed but were surprised by the number of vehicles that went whizzing by us in this weather. I guess they’re more used than we are to driving in torrential rain.

We eventually reached Rosine and the weather there was beautiful. There were a few spots I wanted to see here, but we stopped first at the Slick Back diner to get our bearings. It’s located in the building that used to be the town’s General Store.


The waitress there was keen to find out what had brought us to their town and was unsurprised to learn we were visiting Bill Monroe sites. She immediately went off and fetched some leaflets about the museum and the Monroe Home Place, both of which were on our agenda. She also told us where we could find the cemetery where the Monroes are buried.

After the diner, we went along to the Bill Monroe Museum which opened just a year ago. It houses a number of artefacts related to Bill’s life in Rosine and elsewhere. It’s obviously still a work in progress as they develop the exhibits but it was well worth the $5 admission charge.

From the museum, we decided to go and take a look at Uncle Pen’s cabin. The lady in the museum warned that it wasn’t open but we would be able to see the outside of it, at least.


We arrived at the cabin and there was one other visitor hanging around outside. A pleasant lady who asked us a few questions about where we were from and why we were interested in Bill Monroe. Then she asked if we wanted a look inside. It turned out that she wasn’t a visitor but was, in fact, Merlene Austin, the widow of Bill’s nephew. Last Christmas, Ishbel gave me an e-book of Bill’s history by a gentleman called Tom Ewing, a former Blue Grass Boy. Merlene features heavily in the acknowledgements in that book both for her recollections and for the number of photos she was able to provide. She showed us round the cabin and shared some personal reminiscences of the Monroes, which was lovely.

After the cabin, we drove over to the Monroe Home Place, which sits up on Jerusalem Ridge. Once again, we encountered a caretaker there who was a Rosine native and able to provide some direct connection to the Monroe family history.


After the Home Place, we drove back towards town and turned up towards the cemetery. Bill and Uncle Pen are both buried here and we wanted to visit their graves. As we turned in toward the graveyard, we noticed one other car there, which caused me a little confusion on where I should park to avoid blocking them in. The couple from the car were tending a nearby grave and the gentleman came over and pointed out a spot at an uninhabited cabin where we could leave our car. He asked which grave we were visiting and when we told him, he pointed us towards Bill’s and Uncle Pen’s monuments.



Having paid our respects, we walked back towards the car where the same gentleman engaged us in conversation. The grave he and his wife were tending was that of their son, who had died seven months to the day previously. They hadn’t missed a day at the gravesite since. But he also took time to share with us some of his own recollections of Bill Monroe. He was a local preacher and, in his youth, sang in a close harmony group.

I felt for his loss, and appreciated even more his generosity in telling a couple of stories to two foreign strangers.

There’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville

That’s the claim in the song Nashville Cats by The Lovin’ Spoonful, which was also performed by Del McCoury at Merlefest on Sunday. Based on the evidence of our first day in the city, that’s a gross underestimate. John Sebastian did write it in the mid-60s so it’s safe to say guitar ownership in Nashville has risen exponentially since then.

We left Cherokee on Wednesday morning and stopped off to see yet another waterfall which was more or less on our route, Mingo Falls.


There is some truly stunning scenery in Western North Carolina and our route took us through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park which was a beautiful drive. A great advantage of taking our time to make this trip is the latitude it gives us to choose scenic rather than rapid routes.

We still made it to Nashville by mid-afternoon, plus we had the extra hour we gained by moving from Eastern Time in North Carolina to Central Time in Tennessee. We checked into our hotel, which is on the outskirts of the city but very close to the Grand Ole Opry. And the decor in the room was an immediate reminder of that.


However, the gig we were going to on Wednesday night was in the centre, at the Ryman Auditorium. We had discovered that the legendary blues guitarist Buddy Guy was appearing there so we had managed to get a couple of tickets to go and see him perform. Buddy was ranked at No.23 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, ahead of some better known names such as Brian May and Prince.

We unpacked once again and took an Uber into the centre, grabbing an early dinner at a restaurant called Merchant’s which is housed in the building that used to be the hotel where artists playing at the Ryman would stay. We finished our meal and lingered over coffee, waiting for a thunderstorm to abate before we ventured outside. As we approached the Ryman, we passed a mural featuring many of the greats of country music, some of whom I recognised.

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The Ryman housed the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 until 1974 and is often referred to as the Mother Church of Country Music, partly because the building’s original purpose was the Union Gospel Tabernacle. It also claims credit for the birth of bluegrass.

IMG_3552 They certainly gave Bill Monroe the platform to bring his music into the living rooms of millions across the US thanks to the regular radio broadcasts of shows on the WSM station, which has broadcast the Saturday night shows every week since 1925. As well as the plaque above, Bill himself is immortalized in bronze, holding his Gibson F-5 mandolin.


I’m just hoping a little of the magic runs off. After all of the country and bluegrass references, it seems incongruous to be watching a blues concert. But what a concert. We seem destined at the moment to watch octogenarians who are absolute masters of their craft, and Buddy Guy really knows how to put on a show.


After the concert, we walked back down Broadway to let the crowds die down a little. We wanted a quiet drink but couldn’t find one. Every second building on this street is a bar, and every bar had live music playing. We had a choice of Country, Country-Rock, or Rock. Eventually, we found a place where the volume wasn’t turned up to eleven where we had a quick drink then Uber back to the hotel.

Music City lived up to its name. Tomorrow, we’re planning a side trip to the birthplace of a legend: Rosine, Kentucky.

Cherokee Shuffle*

On Monday morning, we packed up the car again and set off westward. The next scheduled stop on the road trip is Cherokee, North Carolina. Why would we include such a small town on our list of stops? Poker.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 provided Native Americans with a legal structure permitting them to formalise gaming establishments on tribal lands, and thus generate economic benefits for the tribes. It should come us no surprise that a town called Cherokee lies within the boundaries of the reservation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation.

So it was that we set off from Yadkinville after breakfast. We were in no desperate hurry because, as travel days go, this was a fairly short trip at only 185 miles. En route, we stopped in Asheville as I needed to buy some new trousers. That morning, I had disposed of a pair of Columbia technical trousers that I had worn out. Luckily, there is a chain of outdoor stores called REI that had a sizeable store there so we stopped off and I bought a replacement pair.

We carried on to Cherokee and checked in at the Harrah’s Hotel. It’s part of the Caesar’s chain so I was able to exploit my elevated status from Vegas and booked two nights at zero cost, which was nice. We had a nice room, although it looked out on to the car park roof – but free is free.

The poker tournament was due to start at 7:00pm so we grabbed an early dinner and registered. The tournament eventually drew a field of 37 players in total. Ishbel got unlucky early on and busted out while I was able to build a decent chip stack and lasted quite deep into the tournament. I suggested to Ishbel that she buy into the 10:00pm tournament while I continued to survive in the earlier one. Eventually, I bust in sixth place, and they were only paying four places which was unfortunate. On the bright side, Ishbel met with greater success in th 10:00pm tournament and the last three players agreed to an even split of the prize pool, so her winnings comfortably covered the costs of our entries, and then some.

Ishbel had played quite late so we were a little slow getting started on Tuesday morning but after breakfast we were raring to go. We had driven through some beautiful scenery on the way to Cherokee and decided to get away from the casino for a while and take in some of the countryside. We discovered that, about a 45 minute drive away, there was a waterfall, called Dry Falls, that had a walkway behind it. We jumped in the car and headed out.


The falls looked great from above, and the noise was deafening as we walked towards them. This was a good time of year to see them as the water was still running off of the mountains while the weather was pleasantly warm. As we approached, Ishbel filmed a video.

This was a lovely little spot to just relax and breathe the air.

After the falls, we headed back and both signed up again for the 7pm tournament at Harrah’s. Ishbel lasted longer than me but neither of us cashed. We didn’t feel like having the late night that would be necessary if we played the 10pm tournament that night, so we headed off to bed. Tomorrow, Nashville!

*Cherokee Shuffle is a traditional American fiddle tune often played at Old Time and Bluegrass jams.

They don’t have a soul like a Vincent ’52

The song 1952 Vincent Black Lightning was written by British singer/songwriter Richard Thompson, whom it would be fair to describe as a music industry outsider. It was a surprise, therefore, to hear a number of Del McCoury’s loyal fans calling for him to sing the song when Del asked the Sunday Merlefest crowd for requests. I was unaware that he had recorded the song back in 2001 and that it had become a favourite at his live appearances since then. I liked that the location of the song was changed so easily by substituting Box Hill for Knoxville.


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Sunday was another gloriously sunny day in North Carolina and we had made it to the festival gates even before they opened, with our instruments in hand. Once again, we wanted to jam for a while before the picking place got too busy and we achieved that goal. If anything, we were a little too early and we were there before the designated jam leaders showed up. Merlefest appoints local players from Wilkesboro to take the lead in these on-site jams and support anyone who comes along to play, which is a really nice touch for nervous pickers like us. We spent only a little while here before checking the instruments and going to listen to some professionals.

Doc Watson, the festival’s founder, described the target genre of music as Traditional Plus. We were definitely on the plus side of traditional for our first act of the day when we listened to Roy Bookbinder and guests play some Sunday morning blues. It was after Roy that we went to hear Del McCoury play.

Del was, undoubtedly, one of the highlights of the weekend. He played as a Blue Grass Boy with Bill Monroe back in 1963 and today was his 80th birthday. For an octogenarian, he played a mean guitar and still had an amazing voice. Also, the band use a single vocal microphone to sing three part harmonies. This means you get the theatricality of the traditional bluegrass instrument players stepping in and out of mic range in a miracle of choreography that is a joy to watch.

There wasn’t much that could follow that, so we went and watched Wayne Henderson and friends, including young Presley Barker again, pick some great traditional tunes. Before finally saying goodbye to Merlefest for the last time and heading back to the hotel, we stopped by the sand sculpture that had been a work in progress most of the weekend and was now finally complete.

We had watched this evolve out of a huge pile of sand as the weekend wore on. A very impressive piece of impermanent art.

We had been delighted to discover that the hotel had HBO so we were able to watch Game of Thrones on Sunday night. Avoiding long distance spoilers is important at the moment so we are compelled to watch each episode as quickly as we can.

Monday we will be moving on to Cherokee, NC.