Sometimes you forget that there are great travel experiences where you already live.
I have lived in Tennessee on and off a few times, but the time here now adds up to over ten years total. In that time, I had always carried around a secret. I had never been to Graceland.
It seems almost criminal, like the New Yorker who has never seen the Statue of Liberty, or someone from Arizona who has never laid eyes on the Grand Canyon.
To make it worse, about five years back, my hometown of Nashville opened up this very impressive new Country Music Hall of Fame, less than three miles from my house. Impressive from the outside anyway–I had never set foot in it.
This month I atoned for my sins and went to worship at the music history alters. I got a chance to do an article on “a tale of two music cities” and I made up for years of neglect–bigtime. I went to the Stax museum, to the Rock & Soul Museum, to Sun Studio, Graceland, and yes, the Country Music Hall of Fame. Invite me anytime to go do a university lecture tour on the history of modern popular music. I’ve got it down.
I set out thinking this Tennessee schooling would be kind of cheesy, kind of campy, and more than a little touristy. But damn, I’m humbled. I thought I knew a lot about music before. I worked at a major record label for seven years, in New York and Nashville. I co-wrote a book on the hip-hop business (more on that later.) I’ve got a CD collection that could run non-stop for 42 days without repeating. But man, I am sitting in the land of greatness here and too often have been taking it for granted.
If you’re into music and want to see where it all began, Nashville and Memphis are like pilgrimage sites. You’ve got Chet, Hank, Elvis, Jerry Lee, Isaac, Otis, Aretha, Ike, B.B., and fifty years of Nashville’s music industry output. After a while you start to see patterns in the genesis. We think of blues, country, rock, jazz, gospel, and soul as different sections in the store–real or virtual. But it was all one big stew for a while. In the Memphis museums I stopped counting how many historic black musicians said they had listened to the Grand Ole Opry every week on the radio growing up. Today, when seeing the new Ray Charles exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, he said the same thing. Most of the country musicians all say they were influenced by Mississippi blues and gospel. The evolution of pop music was more like a ping-pong match, with each kind of music influencing the the other, and the end result being something new entirely.
What kind of bonehead lives somewhere that hundreds of thousands of people travel across the world to visit, but doesn’t take advantage of what’s there? Well, me unfortunately. But a wrong has been righted, and I’ve been schooled.
Travel doesn’t have to involve long distances in order to lead to enrichment. What’s in your back yard? Get off the couch and go see it.
P.S. – I’m feeling especially proud this month: local girl Reese Witherspoon wins the Oscar for Walk the Line (about Johnny Cash and filmed partly in Nashville), a Memphis rap act wins the song Oscar from Hustle & Flow (based in Memphis), and Neil Young’s concert film is coming out now–directed by Jonathan Demme and filmed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. (Hmmm, maybe I can just sit on my couch after all…)