Deep South USA – Jackson & Tupelo
Updated: Jul 5
When my boss broke the news to me that I would be looking after the company’s American programme my heart sank. The USA programme mainly consisted of one amazing but lumbering monster of a tour series, trailing coast to coast from New York to San Francisco via DC, Chicago, Colorado, Arizona and LA, piecing together three overnight rail journeys with nine hotels. Forty times. Every year.
It was the dreaded task. Besides, the USA had never really been a holiday destination that had captured my imagination. There was so much of Europe for me to discover, where language and culture changes every few hours of your journey. Travel broadens the mind, thankfully, and all that was about to change as I experienced the hospitality of Americans. Looking after America also gave me the chance to revisit some of my favourite music. On previous trips it had been the punk rock of The Ramones and Sonic Youth ringing in my ears in New York, in DC Minor Threat and Bad Brains and in Chicago Big Black. On this trip we’d just left Nashville where my mind had wavered towards the delightful Country voice of Laura Cantrell and next stop would be Memphis, which to me (and probably nobody else reading this) means Big Star.
The scenery of the road journey between Nashville and Memphis is hard to describe. The only emotions I can recall relate to fear and dread. Driving rain like I have never seen before lashed the windscreen of Jay’s car. Visibility was zero. The big guy stoically grumbled a bit about the rain, but cheerily carried on driving into the abyss, hopefully unaware of my white knuckles gripping my seat, flashing before me the images of the beautiful wife and daughters I would leave behind. This was a rock ‘n’ roll road trip but, hell, did we have to pay homage to Eddie Cochran or Marc Bolan by going the same way?
The rain ceased. We were still on time (thanks to Jay, who was probably also bricking himself, the poor guy) and our comfort stop was the curious Casey Jones Village. It’s in Jackson, Tennessee, where the railroad engineer who died at the brake of his runaway train called home. The ‘Ballad of Casey Jones’ helped immortalise John Luther Jones and the ‘village’ named after him features a small railroad museum and outlet shopping. Only in America would such a tale develop into a retail opportunity and mini-theme park, but whilst I browsed the trinkets Jay disappeared, returning with the local speciality, cracklin’ cornbread. Yum.
There are many towns named Jackson in the States. This one is also notable as the Jackson Johnny Cash and June Carter sang about and was also the home of Rockabilly king Carl Perkins of Blue Suede Shoes fame. But all that probably pales into insignificance by the next stop, Tupelo. Jay drove me past the Tupelo Hardware Company Store in downtown. It was here in January 1946 that a mother brought her son to buy his birthday present. It is said that the boy would have preferred a rifle, but Gladys Presley managed to persuade him to take a guitar instead. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum in Tupelo is authentic and inauthentic at the same time, but a fabulous place to visit. The two room wooden ‘shotgun’ house in which the Presleys brought up young Elvis, built by his father, grandfather and uncle, still stands as testament to the humble beginnings of the King of Rock n Roll. Another proud wooden building, the Assembly of God Pentecostal Church, stands close by and is the actual building where the Presleys worshipped, although it soon became clear that the building had been transported from a different place to this convenient spot for tourism purposes. Whilst I’m still contemplating whether that’s the right or not, there’s no doubt that once inside the building, watching a floor to ceiling film of young Elvis letting go at service, it was a powerful introduction to what was to follow. Memphis.
Thank you. Thank you very much.