We ain’t fakin’, Whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on

As Jerry Lee Lewis sang on his 1957 release, catalogue no, Sun 267. Saturday morning dawned dreary and overcast. I thought the South was supposed to be hot by the middle of May but I’m still waiting for that to happen.

The big musical pilgrimage not yet completed here in Memphis was a visit to Sun Studios. Today we would put that right. It was here, in a nondescript brick building at 706 Union Avenue, that rock and roll music was born.

Sam Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service in January 1950, and from day 1, struggled to keep the business afloat. To make ends meet, he would record anything and everything: speeches, weddings, funerals, literally anything. In June of that year he launched his own label, called Phillips Records, which folded after one failed release.


He did, however, continue with his quest to find the sound he was looking for – a sound that would take the blues music he loved and somehow change it for a mass appeal – and specifically white – audience. Without his own label, he partnered with Chess Records in Chicago and sent them recordings for release.

When Ike Turner (of Clarksdale, Mississippi) rolled into Memphis in March 1951 for a recording session with his Kings of Rhythm, Sam was there to capture it. The only problem was that the band’s guitar amp had fallen off the back of the car on the drive from Clarksdale. They had stopped to recover it but when they set up in the studio, they discovered that the speaker was cracked. There was no money for a replacement, so they did their best to repair the damage by stuffing newspaper into the gap. And then they recorded Rocket 88, widely acknowledged as the first rock and roll record, notable for its distinctive, fuzzy guitar sound, thanks to that damaged amp. Ike Turner was hugely upset to discover that, for reasons unknown, the recording that was released by Chess Records was credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. Brenston was, in fact, the sax player in Ike’s band and another Clarksdale native.

Sam was encouraged to have another try at running a label as well as a studio and, in 1952, started Sun Records. In the label’s first year, he recorded BB King, Rufus Thomas, and Howlin’ Wolf but the label still struggled to make money. When, in July 1954, he agreed to record a young unknown by the name of Elvis Presley, he was hoping for great things from his distinctive voice. Elvis, together with musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black, recorded ballads and gospel songs all through the session. This was not what Sam wanted to hear. As he was giving up on the session, Elvis picked up a guitar and started playing an obscure blues tune by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup that he had heard as a kid. That tune was That’s All Right released as Sun 209. On the B-Side was a Bill Monroe song, Blue Moon of Kentucky, although Elvis recorded it in 4/4 time as opposed to Bill’s waltz version. Bill later joked that he made more money from Elvis’ B-Side than any of his own recordings and subsequently started performing the song in 3/4 time at the start and changing to 4/4 halfway through. But with this single release, this little Memphis building changed the course of popular music. Enthusiastic youngsters beat a path to the door of Sun. The careers of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins were all launched from here.

And that’s why we simply had to visit here. Unlike the Stax Museum, much of the studio is original and the setup is largely the same as it was back in the fifties when these guys were laying down musical milestones. There are even genuine vintage microphones there.


Striking the pose was simply irresistible to me. You can still book sessions to record at Sun Studios. The tour around the building was excellent. The guides and staff there are all working musicians and they have some great stories to tell.


After finishing here, we had a considerably more sombre stop to make on our sightseeing trip.


On 4 April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Downtown Memphis. The motel is now the National Civil Rights Museum and that was our next port of call.

The place is obviously popular, since there wasn’t a single space left in the car park when we got there. There was plenty of on-street parking, so we loaded the meter for three hours and went inside. This is an incredible place. The exhibits are set up really well, charting the history of human rights in the USA chronologically which, almost by definition, means the history of black human rights. From the drive to preserve the slave trade as an engine of economic growth, to the Civil War. From the rights acquired by freed slaves in the Reconstruction period, to the implementation of Jim Crow laws and the effective disenfranchisement of a huge percentage of Southern African Americans.

The implementation of a culture of non-violent protest to achieve change in the law created tensions all across America in the fifties and sixties. This was not just a Southern problem, which is how I always simplistically viewed it from my foreign viewpoint. Rosa Parks is one of the most famous icons of peaceful protest but there were so many people who sacrificed so much to make progress.


I also hadn’t realised the extent to which the television coverage of how these peaceful protests were being broken up by Southern law enforcement officers was being utilised as a tool of Cold War propaganda by the Soviets. It was this  Soviet agitation, and wider international condemnation, that was at least partly responsible for forcing the hands of JFK and, later, LBJ to enact civil rights legislation in the face of extreme opposition.

If you find yourself in Memphis, you owe it to yourself to visit this place.


In the land of the Delta Blues, in the middle of the pouring rain

Thursday dawned dreary and drizzly in the delta, hence the use of the line from Marc Cohn’s Walking in Memphis. We decided on an indoor activity for today. Poker! There is a town called Tunica in Mississippi which is home to a number of casinos, including the Horseshoe, part of the Caesars chain. It holds a daily poker tournament starting at noon and Thursday’s event has a $65 entry fee so we decided to take the hour-long drive down there to brush up our rusty poker minds. In the end, we both bust on the same hand so neither of us had to spend time hanging around waiting for the other.

On the way back, we stopped at a visitor information centre that also had a nice little museum attached to it. We stopped for a look around then headed back to Memphis. The weather just kept deteriorating all day, so we enjoyed a quiet evening in.

Friday, the weather wasn’t much better but we had set today aside for a look at one of the most famous locations in the history of the blues: the junction of highways 61 and 49. Also known as the Devil’s Crossroads.

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This is where, legend has it, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play guitar in a masterly fashion. This legend is referenced in Walter Hill’s 1986 movie and, of course, in Johnson’s own song Cross Road Blues, which was subsequently covered by artists such as Eric ClaptonLynyrd Skynyrd, and Cyndi Lauper.

Robert Johnson died at the age of 27 in 1938, allegedly poisoned in a juke joint, and left behind a legacy of only 29 recorded songs. His work has been hugely influential on the subsequent development of blues and rock and roll music. If you’re unfamiliar with his music, I urge you to give it a listen.

This crossroads is in the town of Clarksdale, Mississippi which brands itself the birthplace of the blues, with good reason. Many great bluesmen, including Son House, came from the area. Sam Cooke was born there. Bessie Smith died there. Chicago Blues exists because of the migration of rural workers from the Mississippi delta to the north, seeking industrial work.

Also in Clarksdale is the Delta Blues Museum, which features a huge range of artefacts from blues greats across the decades.


Unfortunately, there are no photos allowed inside the building, so we’ll have to make do with our memories. We really enjoyed our Clarksdale visit, and our immersion in old school delta blues. If you’re in the area and you like music (and why would you be in the area if you didn’t), pay a visit.

Long distance information give me…

Memphis, Tennessee. As Chuck Berry immortally implored back in 1959. We rolled into town here on Tuesday, May 7th.

On our way out of Nashville, we had stopped off to see a typical Southern Antebellum mansion, Belle Meade Plantation. Although nominally described as a plantation, the building and land had gained wealth and fame not through cotton but as a result of its thoroughbred breeding program. In particular, a horse called Bonnie Scotland was imported from England and was the progenitor of a large number of successful horses, including Secretariat and Seabiscuit, both of whom have had movies made about their success. The building itself was fascinating and the guide did an excellent job of guiding us through the various rooms and describing what life was like for the different populations of Belle Meade: the wealthy owners and the slaves.

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The mansion is now owned and run by a charitable trust and they have an interesting initiative currently underway. There’s a recognition of the lack of information on the lives of the many African Americans who lived and worked on the farm, both as slaves and post-emancipation. They are trying to address this gap by engaging in archaeological, sociological and genetic research to derive a fuller picture. We wish them well in their efforts.

Belle Meade was only a minor diversion from our route. We were moving in the right direction for Memphis but joined the Interstate slightly later than we otherwise would have. So we arrived at our AirBnB by mid afternoon and checked ourselves in. We’re in a converted garage – as we have been previously in our travels – and have plenty of room to park the car and to spread out in our little abode.

After unpacking, we checked the location of the nearest supermarket and discovered it was an easy walk away. It turns out we’re quite near a gentrification border where we have nice little row houses all around us then two blocks away we’re among some decrepit commercial and industrial units by the main road. It was still an easy walk to the supermarket, but the difference was abrupt and quite jarring. Importantly, we were able to buy some milk so our tea consumption was safe here in Memphis. We had a relaxed meal in and saved further exploration for the next day.

We have a couple of major sites that we want to take in here, but we had to make decisions on what to do first. We decided that Stax Records was the place to go. On our second wedding anniversary (32 years ago), Ishbel’s parents lent us their car (we didn’t have one of our own) and we drove to Fort William for a couple of days. Since it wasn’t our car, it lacked any musical choices that we had made. We decided to stop at a petrol station and buy something for the long drive. Petrol stations, as you’d expect, do not have a wide range of music available and what they have is mostly compilations. We settled on a cassette (32 years ago, remember) of Atlantic Soul Classics. Most of the songs on that tape were recorded in the converted cinema at 926 E. McLemore Ave, Memphis, Tennessee that served as Stax’s studio.

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This place was a dream visit for us. The old building was torn down in 1989 but the Stax Museum is a replica of what was there before. The volume of quality music that poured out of this place is remarkable, as is the list of artists whose careers it kickstarted. Booker T. and the MGs, Isaac Hayes, Otis redding, Wilson Pickett – the list goes on and on.

After Stax, we moved on to look at Graceland. We’re not huge Elvis fans and were a little ambivalent about taking the tour, but it turned out to be really enjoyable. They provide iPads to all visitors to guide you through the mansion, but that’s also a clever way of keeping everyone moving along which, with the number of people taking the tour every day, is very necessary.


I realised I wasn’t that big an Elvis fan because in my musically formative years, I was familiar with Elvis the Vegas entertainer, rather than Elvis the rebel who changed popular music forever. It was good to be reminded of what he did, when he did it, and why he is revered by so many even today.

After Graceland, we went back to our little pied-à-terre to relax for a while before our next stop: Beale Street.


There aren’t many streets that boast their own app. Beale is about three blocks of music bars and restaurants. It’s a little bit like Broadway in Nashville, but with a grittier, less gentrified feel. We ate in Silky O’Sullivan’s, and managed to get a seat under cover there just before the heavens opened and the rain settled in for the night. We listened to the band there for a little while and chatted with a nice group who were visiting from St. Louis before moving on to our next stop, which was Tin Roof. Again, we had a drink and a listen to the band there before our third and final stop of the evening in the Rum Boogie Cafe. This was probably the best music of the evening, but it was also the latest so maybe bands get better as the evening draws on. Or maybe we become less discerning.

One note for Beale Street bouncers: if the sign says “We ID everyone – No exceptions”, then it just makes us old people feel bad when you casually wave us through. We don’t want to be exceptions!

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.


Down beside where the waters flow

Olivia Newton John certainly brought the song Banks of the Ohio to a wide audience, but it actually originated in the 19th century. It’s one of a great number of murder ballads in the canon of traditional American music. And it may be surprising to learn that Olivia’s isn’t the first version that pops up on a Google search for videos of the song. That honour belongs to a duet between Bill Monroe and Doc Watson.  Merlefest is named for Doc’s son Merle who died in an accident on the family farm in 1985.

Friday was our second day at Merlefest and we drove along from our hotel to park in a designated lot and pick up a shuttle bus again. The heavens opened as we approached Wilkesboro and, after we parked, we spent a further ten minutes sitting in the car hoping for the rain to relent. We had brought our instruments with us today with the intention of perhaps joining a jam at some point, but between the awful weather and sheer cowardice we decided to leave them in the car. Eventually the rain let up slightly and we headed to the festival proper.

We had each downloaded the Merlefest app, which was a real help in trying to decide which act on which of the thirteen different stages we wanted to see. Our first stop was to go and see Wayne Henderson, who would be on stage with one of the Wednesday night jammers from Independence, VA. He was appearing on the Traditional stage at 12:30 so we made our way along there in good time, but were still lucky to get seats. Appearing alongside Wayne were a couple of young guitarists whom he has mentored and who play his guitars. One of them is a quite astonishingly talented fourteen-year-old by the name of Presley Barker. He played a tune called Nashville Pickin’ which he played as an eleven-year-old to win an adult guitar competition. It’s enough to make you either give up or try harder. I’m not sure which, yet.

We wandered from stage to stage, catching various acts along the way and enjoying them all. One of the most fun things we saw was Gordie MacKeeman and His Rhythm Boys, a Canadian outfit who played some great tunes and Gordie danced like a demented leprechaun.

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We headed back at a reasonable time to avoid the end of festival rush for the shuttle buses, and I’m glad we did. Someone told us later that they had waited two hours for a shuttle at the very end of the day.

Saturday started much brighter and we had determined that we would get to the festival early and join one of the jams before they got too crowded. After a quick breakfast, we packed up and headed over to Wilkesboro. We arrived at the Bluegrass Picking Tent just as the first musicians were unpacking so we steeled our nerve, tuned up and sat in. It went surprisingly well. We both, of course, declined any opportunity to take a break (in bluegrass, a solo is called a break) but we were reasonably happy playing backup. I even trotted out my party piece and sang Gotta Travel On which, I’m delighted to say, attracted a crowd. And not in the way a road accident attracts a crowd – people joined in on the chorus. Everyone loves a singalong.

IMG_3479 As it got busier, we made way for more accomplished musicians. The festival has a special cloakroom facility where you can check your instruments for free, so we dropped them off and headed to the festival proper.

Our first stop was the main stage where there was a set by Merlefest veterans – musicians who had attended every one of the thirty-one Merlefests to date. Of particular interest for us was that Sam Bush was playing mandolin and Jerry Douglas was on dobro – both masters of their craft. Straight after this, we moved to the Creekside stage for what I found to be an irresistible session: Mando Mania. This featured a half dozen of the best mandolin players on the planet jamming along to tunes they selected themselves. They also introduced us to their own personal mandolins, two of which were Lloyd Loar signed Gibson F-5s. This will mean absolutely nothing to most people but, to provide real-world context, across all six players there was roughly a half-million dollars worth of mandolin on that stage. They were great to listen to, and they even played a tune that I can play, which delighted me. A bluesy little Bill Monroe tune called Bluegrass Stomp.

After these guys, we stayed at the Creekside Stage to watch Molly Tuttle.  Molly was the first woman ever to win the IBMA Guitar Player of the Year award. I happen to know she had a very good teacher as her father, Jack Tuttle, was my mandolin tutor at Sore Fingers last year and he was brilliant. After Molly, we headed over to the Walker Centre stage to watch Ana Egge and The Sentimentals.

We have had a great couple of days watching music at Merlefest and we still have Sunday to go. Looking forward to that!