“Nashville, Memphis & New Orleans make up the Americana Music Triangle & a road trip here transports you on journey through the origins of 9 different music genres. Here is my perfect itinerary, along with the story of how a dream journey turned into a race to get home in the week that the world changed.”
Nashville, Memphis & New Orleans
I love live music. My husband was a drummer & when he was around, we would hunt down venues which featured live bands wherever we found ourselves in the world. It prompted me to start to plan a future trip taking in the big music cities in the USA…Nashville, Memphis & New Orleans. Unfortunately, when I lost Terry, this plan went on the backburner, but the road trip took its place on my Life List (#24), along with #22, a visit to Graceland. You can see my full list HERE. If you are interested in live music then why not also check out my post on Chicago?
In 2019, I met Jill on a yoga retreat in Cuba. She contacted me to ask if I fancied joining her for a visit to the USA, as a bolt on to a work trip for her. I immediately suggested this adventure & she jumped at the opportunity.
“The route is also referred to as the Americana Music Triangle or “Gold Record Road”. Along the road you can find the origins & history that created 9 different music styles – Blues, Jazz, Country, Rock ‘N’ Roll, R&B/Soul, Gospel, Southern Gospel, Cajun/Zydeco & Bluegrass.”
Before I start, I think it’s important to set the context. Jill had flown to work in Washington a few days earlier, as things were starting to heat up around the COVID-19 pandemic. If I had been travelling alone, I may well have cancelled. I was meeting her, so I chose to go. The morning I left, the President announced that the USA would be stopping all flights from mainland Europe in a couple of days. The UK was not involved, so it was officially OK for me to go.
Here, I have decided to tell the story of our journey, how 2 weeks became one, how a dream holiday turned into a race just to get back home. I did a lot of research which I will share with you. But as we moved through the country, things started to close down around us. Many of the activities on our plan were no longer available to us. As a result, this post is part dream itinerary, part story of how we adapted during the week that the world changed.
What do you need to know?
Our plan was to have 4 nights in Nashville, 2 in Memphis & finish with 5 nights in New Orleans. It sounded like a great trip.
Nashville was first on the agenda. The home of country music & an epicentre for songwriters. I am not a particular country music fan but was excited to have the chance to convert, should anyone inspire me to do so.
Honky Tonk Bars
Our first stop was Broadway & the Honky Tonk bars. I had read that Nashville is now one of the party capitals of the USA & when we arrived on Friday it appeared that Nashville was already drunk! Bearing in mind the news that was quickly spreading across the world, it was very clear that Nashville did not get the memo!
“At 3 o’clock on Friday the streets were overrun with groups of drinking buddies on open top busses with music blaring. Others were on team drinking bikes touring the city.”
The pavements were full of people falling over & speaking loudly to each other. It was all a bit overwhelming & we felt that the guidance on regular hand-washing & sanitising may not have been so strictly adhered to in these establishments! We decided to have a look around a few shops, then settled for a coffee instead.
Of course, no visit to Nashville would be complete without a night out
at the Grand Ole Opry. We headed to the Ryman Auditorium where you can buy tickets for shows to both venues (Opry & Ryman). They also offer tours. Unfortunately, due to the circumstances all future shows at both venues were cancelled until further notice. It was a weird feeling. We were obviously disappointed that we would be unable to experience Nashville’s best in one of these iconic venues. On the other hand, we were kind of relieved that there was some recognition that something was actually happening.
On day 2 of our trip, it was announced that the restrictions on travel into the USA had been extended to the UK & Ireland (Jill’s home). It impacted our plans as we tried to fast forward our trip. The host of our Airbnb was very helpful in waiving our cancellation fees as we headed off a night earlier. In addition, after a bit of wrangling with Booking.com we were able to change our plans & bring the Memphis hotel booking forward without charges.
By far the best thing we did in Nashville was the Songbird Tour. The concept of the tour sounded a bit strange. Basically, you see the city on a bus while songwriters perform their music for you. It is literally a stage (granted, a small one)…on a bus! We were expecting the tour
to be taken by writers who were desperately trying to make it in Nashville but it turned out we were completely wrong.
“One of our companions had won an Emmy & written 10 number 1 hits, the other was equally as salubrious having written for ZZ Top & Keith Urban.”
When the tour guide started singing partway through & had an amazing voice, we discovered that she had been on American Idol.
While being serenaded by great music we were driven along Music Row where effectively every house has a story of the hits that were penned there. We followed this by heading into the more residential area & the homes of such famous faces as Tammy Wynette, Jack White & Dolly Parton’s office. As complete non country music aficionados, the tour could not have been more enjoyable!
Bluebird Café & The Listening Room
Following the tour, our plan was to head over to the Bluebird Café for a live show but after a quick check we discovered that again the venue was closed. The Bluebird Café is a famous listening room where you can go & hear songwriters perform their own music. Thankfully, my research paid off & we discovered The Listening Room which was a short walk away. The show at 6pm was fully booked but we were able to put our names on the list for cancellations. We got in easily & had a fantastic night listening to a line-up of 4 songwriters as they performed their music for us, with an added extra from the stories behind the songs.
Where I ate & drank:
Fenwick 300 was at walking distance to our Airbnb & the perfect spot for a delicious brunch
Frothy Monkey was a nice café in the centre of the city, close to but without the madness of the Broadway Honky Tonk bars
Smiling Elephant is a busy & authentic Thai restaurant. It’s quite small so make sure you either book a table or turn up early.
Also Check Out…
Under normal circumstances you may want to try these:
A 3 ½ hour drive brought us into Memphis & it was evident that things were already changing. It was beginning to concern me that we did not have an exit strategy. We were being sensible in terms of our hand-washing & sanitising, but my biggest fear was to get ill & trapped in the US. When & how would we get treatment if we needed it? How long before we were able to get home?
On check in at our hotel we were told the schools were all now shut in Memphis & that New Orleans had completely closed its doors (the second fact turned out to be incorrect). Time to reassess our plans again!
For the evening we headed to Beale Street on the Trolley Bus. The streets were deserted but riding on the empty bus was fun. Beale Street is termed “America’s Most Iconic Street” & “Official Home of the Blues”.
“Usually it’s a bustling street bursting with live music… not so on our visit. We did find several bars open, with a handful of people in. We chose one with a guy playing his guitar & singing to an appreciative, if small audience.”
Finding A Way Home
I was feeling unsettled, wanting to confirm my way home. Having checked the airlines website, I was told I needed to contact my travel agent. The UK government website was my guide on the ever changing situation. I made a pact with myself to organise things in the morning. Tomorrow it was Jill’s birthday. We were going to Graceland (#22 on my Life List) & I was excited to finally be heading there. Most importantly it was still open!
I woke early in the morning & was thrilled to get a call from my agent at Trailfinders. I have to admit I rarely use travel agents these days. Having researched my trip, it weirdly gave me a big discount on a “package” of flights & car hire. Would you believe I saved £500 on booking both together versus the flights alone? I have no idea how this worked but I was happy to benefit! They were asking if I wanted to rearrange my flight & I jumped at the chance. I still had to get down to New Orleans to fulfil my car hire contract. Unfortunately, I could no longer fly home from there as only 5 US airports were now able to process international arrivals & departures.
“I arranged my flights with them in 3 days’ time. Today Graceland, tomorrow New Orleans, then finally home…via Dallas. It felt great to finally know that I was able to get back.”
I greeted Jill on her birthday with my plans. I’m not sure it was quite the birthday awakening she was hoping for! Now it was over to her to contact her agents & get her flight rearranged too.
Then we headed to Graceland & I loved it! There are loads of different choices of tours depending on your budget & how big a fan you are. We chose the Elvis Experience Tour – an audio tour of the house, plus cars & a load of different exhibitions. It was perfect to make the most of the opportunity while not overdoing it!
Graceland itself is much smaller than I ever imagined. The audio-guide is excellent, giving some real insight into the life of the man behind the legend. The décor is amazing! My personal favourite was the Jungle Room, a particularly self-indulgent & extravagant space. I also loved the idea of Elvis & his entourage taking their golf carts out onto the main road outside!
“We followed our tour of the house with a walk around his fabulous selection of cars & then the outfits, including an eye-watering number of caped jumpsuits from the Vegas years”
I learned a lot & despite the chaos that this holiday was becoming, it was great to actually be achieving a lifelong goal, just before it closed for a while.
We returned to the hotel only to discover that the pool where we had been planning to relax for the afternoon was closed & I had an email from American Airlines to say that my flight to Dallas had been cancelled. Panic ensued once more!
I cannot praise Trailfinders enough for the way they dealt with my challenges. They were able to book me onto an earlier flight & I made a pact with myself to get to the airport as early as possible. If I could take any earlier flights, I would. I genuinely felt I could not relax until I was sitting in my seat, heading home from Dallas.
Peabody Hotel & The Duck Parade!
That evening we headed to the iconic Peabody Hotel, opened in 1869. We had been told by our waitress in Nashville that we had to go & watch the duck parade here. It all sounded a little strange, but we were informed that if we arrived at 5pm (or 11am) each day, we could witness the parade of ducks through the lobby. Very weird but it seemed like the perfect way to start the evening & mark Jill’s birthday.
The Peabody was packed & social distancing (back then still an unfamiliar concept to us all) did not seem to have been communicated to the ducks. The “Duckmaster” appeared in his smart red uniform to announce the ceremony as the ducks played in the fountain in the centre of the hotel.
“On cue, they then hopped out of the water & paraded in a row along a red carpet & into the lift! Apparently, they live on the roof. If I thought this trip could not get any more bizarre, it had just outdone itself!”
Where I stayed, ate & drank:
Sheraton Downtown Memphis is a great location & with a pool…when it’s open!
Capriccio in the Peabody Hotel is a fantastic choice if are looking to splash out on a meal while in Memphis. Excellent service & delicious food in a traditional setting.
Flying Fish is more of a canteen, but the Red Snapper was delicious, along with the fishing inspired décor. Our favourite was the wine menu, where your choice was “Good” or “Better”!
What I Had To Miss…
Again, I was planning on taking in a few more things that Memphis has to offer, had circumstances been a bit more predictable. Particularly the Smithsonian Rock N’Soul Museum & Brother Junipers for breakfast.
The next morning, we packed up our car & headed for our final day & destination. It was a 6-hour drive to get to New Orleans. As we headed south, we saw the landscape change & the temperature get warmer (it was pretty cold & miserable weather for the rest of our trip in March). It sparked up discussions of what could have been, had our timing been different.
We arrived in New Orleans with a sense of trepidation. It was St Patricks Day, usually a huge party in New Orleans. Jill is from Dublin & all the bars there had been ordered to shut. Who knew how things had impacted our final destination?
With one night only in the city, we headed out to see what we could find & made a beeline for the French Quarter. We found it practically deserted. Most bars & restaurants were closed. Those that remained open were only offering take away.
“The live music we had dreamed of was, of course silenced. As we walked around to get a feel of things & take some photos it was a very empty & eerie experience.”
New Orleans had been hit early by the pandemic in comparison to other cities in the USA. Mardi Gras in 2020 had well & truly taken its toll. We learned that the authorities had taken swift action as many were ignoring the restrictions. It seemed fair & it very much felt like time to leave. Tomorrow the Governor would probably order them to close entirely.
We had spotted a restaurant that looked nice near our Airbnb accommodation so headed there to grab a takeaway. They were fantastic. I ordered a traditional Po’boy with both oysters & shrimp to get the full experience. Then I added a “Hurricane”, the quintessential New Orleans cocktail. The restaurant staff also gave us some fresh beignets (like doughnuts) to try & a T-shirt. When in New Orleans, definitely visit Tacklebox!
We headed back to relax in the safety of our room for the night. I had a feeling of sadness but huge relief. There was still a long way to go before I reached home, but I at least felt I was on the way.
What I Could Have Done…
So, I did a lot of research about New Orleans & was hugely excited to be returning. Luckily you can benefit from this by adding a few of these to your itinerary. I hope to help you to appreciate this amazing city once you are able to do so again.
Where can you see Live Music?
Preservation Hall. I was lucky enough to spend an evening here on my first visit to New Orleans (20 years ago) & I will never forget it! There are performances every night (usually) & if you like your jazz traditional then look no further.
Where to eat & drink?
Try Cafe Beignet or Cafe Du Monde to sample your own beignets for breakfast. Later in the day, there are Lafittes Blacksmiths Shop Bar & Pat O’Briens. I have memories of a legendary night in the latter 20 years ago, fuelled by the famous Hurricane cocktails! In addition, Cochon Restaurant, Pontchartain Hotel & Restaurant, Parkway for po’boys, Ruby Slipper Cafe, Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel & Cane & Table Restaurant are worth sampling.
Fancy a park or museum? Try Louis Armstrong Park, City Park, Botanical Gardens or the New Orleans Museum of Art(NOMA)
To get a different aspect of the city, head to one of the most desirable neighbourhoods in New Orleans with a wander around the Garden District & Lafayette Cemetery. You can take the St Charles Streetcar from the French Quarter.
For one of the best views of the city, take a trip over the Mississippi on the Canal St Ferry.
It is also possible to get a flavour of Mardi Gras at any time of year. Head to see the floats come to life at Mardi Gras World. Apparently, they start straight back to work on the subsequent year, the day after the festival finishes.
If you fancy getting out of the city for a bit of hiking / biking, then head to the Northshore & Tammany Trace, an old railroad track which has been converted to a trail.
I hope that when things calm down, all these places are still around to enjoy & allow you to make the most of this unique city in a way which I was unable to. I wish all residents & establishments the best of luck over the coming months.
A Fond Farewell
“We both live alone & neither of us realised that this was the last physical contact we would have for a while. It’s been over 3 weeks now & is one of the things I am missing the most.”
I am pleased to report that we both made it back to our respective countries safe & sound. We have now completed the 2 weeks self-quarantine (imposed in Ireland, not required in the UK at the time). Three days after arriving home we went in to lockdown. I wish you all well in these uncertain times & hope you stay safe until we are able to hit the road again. I’ll certainly be hugging my loved ones a lot tighter when I next get chance.
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