Saturday, 23 June 2007

"Nashville Cats" 0 Miles

Another sticky 95F day in prospect. Went out to hit the shops and sure enough found Ernest Tubbs famous music store on Broadway. You will be hearing the result of this visit when I return.

Even mid morning bands were playing in bars. I wondered if I should visit the Grand Ole Opry but despite the attractions of Pam Tillis and Marty Stuart among others, I decided to go there another time. Instead I headed for the County Music Hall Of Fame. This is a fantastic place for music lovers with the whole history of country and its artists lovingly set out on three floors of a purpose built building. There is, as you would imagine, a huge amount to see and hear, as well as acres of memorabilia.

I took loads of pictures of, among other items, the colourful suits that Nudie Cohn used to design. For me, the most evocative was the suit that Gram Parsons wore on the cover of the "Flying Burritto Bros" album. There were special booths where you could revisit classics such as "Blue Yodel" by Jimmie Rodgers or "He Stopped Loving Her Today" George Jones. In fact speaking of George "No show" Jones as he was known when he was battling alcoholism, the only omission was the ride-on mower that he used to drive into town to buy booze when his then wife Tammy Wynette had confiscated his car keys. It is a wonderful exhibition and had me damp eyed throughout. I am a sentimental old fool and the music and the place just struck all the right notes.

Back at the hotel the guy from the room next door says to me, "Hey - you from Tesla?" (the rock band Tesla are in town tonight).

"Er no, you got a ticket?"

"Yeah - Tesla rock old bean - toodle pip."


"Oh maaan sooorrry. I have had a few beers, didn't mean to upset you". I have had my accent badly imitated so many times it is beginning to grate. I may do a bad US accent at home, but I would never dream of doing it to an American's face!!

In the evening, I thought I would have a change of genre and go to B.B King's Blues Bar. It is one of several he has around the U.S. and I fancied a bit of R&B. Early evening act had a great female singer but I was less impressed with her band. As you would expect with a "named" bar there is a theme: there are blues/B.B King cocktails such as "Lucille" and "Muddy Water". I was tempted to ask if they did a drink called "The Thril Is Gone" but thought better of it; however as I had consumed two tall beers I was allowed to take the glass home.

Still quite early, so snuck into a tiny bar that promised "steel guitar and fiddle". An old guy on stage with an acoustic and his mate with an electric sitting at the back doing the sound as well. Didn't stay there long. Next bar and another terrific house band playing for tips. At one point the lead singer disappeared. As I reached for my beer I noticed on the bar next to it a pair of cowboy boots, and these were on the end of the legs of the singer who was on the bar top roaring his heart out. Now that's entertainment!!

Friday, 22 June 2007

"Let me tell you a story 'bout a man named Jed" 162 Miles

I set off from Paducah with no particular plan in mind. Ahhh, the optimism of the Americans and their broad highways coursing through my increasingly clogged veins.

After the excitment of Fathers Day, they were yipping about the 20th June, which for us Brits is a moment of gloom being the longest day. Soon we will be plunged into darkness of winter. To the Americans the 20th is the first day of summer! This keeps them happy and is a useful peg for their advertising strategies (BBQ and pool sets) for a couple of weeks until July 4th - whatever that's all about!

After stopping at a roadside diner for catfish (damn, fried again), I thought I would head for Lexington.

The idea of this trip was to see the big country. The cities I can visit on a piecemeal basis another time. It has all been about the journey. However, the moment I saw a sign which read "Nashville 139 miles" I was toast.

I24 took me there in 2 hours and I took the downtown turnoff. Ten minutes later the valet parking guy "stole" my vehicle and it was out into town.

Not sure if I have been anywhere yet where the daytime temperature has been under 85- 92F, and a high humidity makes for a very sticky boy.

After getting my bearings, I picked up a free newspaper and had a look at the events listings. Who was on in town tonight? A rare performance by 83 year old banjo legend Earl Scruggs. I hot footed it down to the Ryman Auditorium and they had a few single tickets left. A little laundry, a shower and some chicken tenders later and I was being ushered to my seat.

The Ryman is a former church and so the seating is in the form of long curved pews with numbers screwed to them to denote places. The elderly usherette looked at my ticket and then at the pew said "No, this won't do at all - I am going to have to put you someplace else". The reason was enormously and bulbously clear - sitting in his seat.....and mine as well, was a bloke who at a conservative estimate must have weighed thirty stones! I was shown to a nearly empty row about 5 from the stage.

Earl Scruggs may be 83 and obviously frail but he can still cut it. With the help of an amazing band, which included two of his sons, and an audience who applauded every "plunk", it was a memorable evening. 61 years after he first appeared at the Ryman, he was headlining for the very first time. To hear everyone (myself included - I still remember the words), singing along to "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" brought a lump to the throat.

All over by 10.30, it was a short walk to Broadway and its bars. Every joint had a band playing....and a good one too. I went and sat in "The Second Fiddle" and watched a terrific group, which included a phenominal guitar player and a pedal steel player. They played for tips - no cover charge. What was interesting about the audience at the Ryman and the crowd in the bar, the age range was across the board - young to old. Country has no barriers.

"On the banks of the Ohio..." 354 Miles

Worrying that Branson would steal my soul and I would face all eternity watching sundry magicians, cabaret musicians and "The Magic of Pets", I hurried out of town after a breakfast at a "family" restaurant.

Not sure why that prefix makes an eaterie any better than its competitor! I had ham and eggs and biscuits and gravy. The ham and eggs were easily recognisable, however a side order of creamy grey sludge and a scone was not what I thought biscuits and gravy were supposed to to look and taste like. Around me, elderly Americans were peering at their breakfasts and tutting that that was not what they ordered. Maybe there was some meltdown going on in the kitchen.

I naturally did what Brits do when faced with a less than satisfactory meal and asked what I thought by the waitress..."Mmm, lovely thank you very much"! Next time I am in a similar position I shall order: "Ham, poached eggs, coffee and give me a side of creamy grey sludge and a scone" and I will see what turns up.

One of the things about this journey is that whilst I am enjoying it very much. It is shattering a few myths and creating a few more. We will doubtless discuss this topic on the show when I get back.

Not sure where to go, so I decided to carry on heading east along Highway 160. I stopped for fuel at a ramshackle filling station in West Plains. Just as I reached for the pump an old man hobbled out of the shop and said: "Wrong one son.." I hadn't done this before, but I was day dreaming as usual and I was about to fill the car with diesel. The green nozzles are for diesel and the black ones for unleaded here, as many of you know. Doh!

Poplar Bluff, Dexter, Sikeston came and went. Thinking about stopping for the night and saw a sign marked "Cairo". Headed in that direction suddenly I was on a narrow metal bridge and out over the Mississippi into Illinois. Cairo had some lovely old houses but they were all in various states of disrepair. Obvious that this place was in need of regeneration, so I pressed on. Suddenly another narrow bridge and another huge river...the Ohio. Once on the other side I was in Kentucky.

Eventually stopped at Paducah and checked into a motel. They had extreme difficulty understanding me although I did point out politely that it cuts both ways.

No one yet has managed to get my address down correctly despite me spelling it out for them. The internet didn't work in my room, so I gave up blogging and crossed the highway to a Mexican restaurant called "Los Amigos" for two huge vases of Don Equis. There I learned the secret of the differences between a Burritto and a Fajita; something to do with ground beef rice and cheese! However, as I was on my second frosted vase by then I am not sure I was taking it all in.

I picked up the local paper. I love reading newspapers over here as they concentrate on what is important to the local community. There is little or no national, and hardly any international, news coverage. This one had a huge births deaths and marriages section. The big story was one of the marriage in France of one of Paducah's most famous daughters: Jeri Ryan, perhaps better known to us as "7 of 9" from Star Trek Voyager.

Tottered back to my room and had troubled dreams of food and the Borg.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

"We gotta get outta this place..." 25 Miles

My computer has gone bang! Halfway through writing e-mails or this blog, the keyboard will either freeze or I will get a blue screen and a glimpse of some warning message before the whole thing shuts down. I can't go a step further without it being fixed.

If you are avoiding the big cities as I am (wanting to see small town USA, which was the purpose of this visit), you can't expect the services you are used to in every high street in the UK. For example, a friend has lent me an American mobile phone as his kids live over here. It is a "Pay As You Go" type, so I needed to put some credit onto the SIM. To do that over the phone you need a Zip Code as well as your credit card number; it won't work with a British post code. Back in LA, I tried several times until they suggested I visited a T Mobile shop and got it done in person. This I duly did. A few texts and a couple of calls back home and the money was gone. Could I find a T Mobile shop??? Not a chance.

Where I have been, I could buy a tractor or a gun any time I wanted, but a top up for my mobile was impossible. Eventually, I tried the call centre again and to my surprise and delight I now have dollars on the card. The same is true of computer shops. I looked in the phone book and located one which, like most places, was 5 miles out of town; hence the mileage.

They promised to give my machine the once over and said I should return in an hour. I went for a burger and was complimented on my hat by a woman who said I was "cute". I then realised that she was with her parents and was erm... "differently abled". So her critical faculties may have been impaired.

An hour later the guy in the shop said the hard drive etc was fine and he needed to run software tests, so could I come back in about 3 hours time. What to do for 3 hours??? The Titanic Exhibition seemed the logical choice!
As you can see from the picture, they have built a smaller scale replica of part of the vessel. You enter through what they describe as "Waterloo Station" which looks nothing like, but still. Everyone is given a card with biographical details of a passenger or crew memeber. You are that person and you can find out if you survived when you get to the end of the exhibition. Speaking as William McMaster Murdoch, First Officer, I am delighted to report I survived. Although, looking at the glass wall with all the names, I noted that third class passenger James Lester, alas, didn't survive. It is a clever exhibition, which takes at least an hour to get round. Nice touches, which give you the opportunity to stand on the deck at different times so you can fight against the angle of the ship's list. To me, the most interesting thing was the bowl of swirling water in which you could dip a digit which is kept at the correct temperature of the ocean at the time the unfortunate people plunged in. It was cold!

Back up to "Cyberstreet" and they said that my laptop checked out perfectly. Maybe it was getting too hot, they suggested. I am now typing this with the motel air con on full blast. So far so good.

"Hear those grand old Ozark Mountains callin' me..." 0 miles

I had read about Branson before I came. It is a small town that has sold its soul for shows. Family shows - good, wholesome entertainment.. In truth this actually means 'Cheese'.

The Americans are the world leaders in this and it is something for which we should be truly thankful. The huge competition means that everything has to be as good as it can be. So even the smallest venue has pretty high production values.

I went to see a Red Skelton tribute act by Tom Mullica. OK, you have probably seen him in a few old films but I didn't realise that he had a national tv show for over 20 years. A lot of it was fairly baffling to me as I wasn't au fait with many of the characters he portrayed. However, the audience loved it. There was also the moment where the patriotism kicked in and also the plug for the DVD on sale at the back of the theatre, which was interwoven as part of the act.

Branson is aware that much of its audience is elderly so it tailors not only the turns but also the times. This show was at 10.00am!

At 2pm I went to witness "14 Karat Country" a polished 6 piece who did country music and "shtick". They were a covers band and a very good one too. It was all in bite sized pieces of mainly 60's and early 70s tunes, complete with meet and greet the during the interval. Both shows I saw had an interval for elderly bladders and DVD/CD sales opportunities.

The patriotism went one further with this lot when they stopped the show and asked for war veterans and/or their widows to stand up and be counted/saluted and applauded. Frankly, for this old cynic it was quite moving when a few people rose to their feet, some with difficulty and were duly honoured.

Therein lies the problem with Branson - simply one of numbers, and a subject that Radio 2 addressed some years ago: If you are catering for the over 60's your audience, alas, isn't going to grow. They are beginning to realise that the market is dying and unless they reposition themselves they are sunk.

One thing that did ram home the whole "elderly" thing was that many places shut at about 9pm. A woman in a bar told me "We roll up the streets at 9.30".

Its wholesome fun for all the family and nearly impossible to cross the road. The elderly drive from one venue to another seeing 3 or even 4 shows a day before being tucked up at 10pm. There is an endless stream of very slow moving traffic as a result.

I enjoyed the break from the driving and the low key humour: "Algy saw the bear, the bear saw Algy. The bear had a bulge, the bulge was Algy". The U.S has a fixation with the $3 gallon of petrol which to us seems like a bargain. "Taco Bell, the only place you can get gas for less then $3" Hey, fart gags are universal!

After a day here though, I am looking forward to hitting the road. However it is not that easy......!

"Dead skunk in the middle of the road..." 274 Miles

An evening drinking beer from frosted glasses at "Mickey B's" in Iola, along with a bunch of farmers who were complaining about the low hog prices and chatting with the woman behind the bar in the tiny top and even tinier denim shorts.

"Like your curls," she said and then told me, rather too quickly I thought, that she was dating the son of a British ex-pat. I retired to my room in the "Crossroads Motel" (yes honestly, and no, they had never heard of the TV show).

Next morning, and another hot day. Off I went again east on the 54 to Fort Scott. Then I turned south to Joplin and looped through a bit of Arkansas and into Missouri. I was in need of light entertainment and knew exactly where to go.....!

The scenery was changing. Slowly it turned into the low (well for the US, not for us) rolling lush green Ozark Mountains. As the area is far more densely wooded, I started to notice more roadkill compared to my previous days driving. There was the odd small deer, a very smelly brown bear from the look of it, numerous racoons and sundry odd creatures I was not sure of. Pretty sure one was an armadillo though, and a skunk. I did wonder if they smelled better dead than alive.

Eventually I arrived at the "cheese" capital of the USA - Branson, Missouri. A resort town that boasts dozens of theatres and even more shows. Finding a room is, as usual, no problem and once I have showered and unpacked it was time to see what delights the town had to offer this weary traveller. First impression: the tourists do seem a little....erm, elderly. It seems a bit like Bexhill with neon.

Check out my route so far at Click on my show page and then "The Great American Adventure". You'll find it eventually!

Monday, 18 June 2007

"Where seldom is heard a discouraging word..." 291 Miles

I lit outta Dodge at high noon just after the scheduled gunfight and continued heading east.

Still a lot of Kansas to go. Mile after mile of the Great Plains with nothing to catch the eye apart from the roadside advertising hoardings.

Cheery messages such as "Smile, your Mom chose Life" or "A baby's heart is beating 24 days after conception."

I then came upon a large crucifix with a foetus where Jesus would have been. Underneath, a banner read: "America's Holocaust - 55 million abortions."

To leaven things in between the ads for mundane stuff like cars, clairvoyants and propane products were "improving" religious tracts or, as it was nearly Fathers Day (something taken very seriously over here - by the way, I love you Dad), were exhortations such as: "As a father it is your duty to teach your children God's law".

I turned on the radio and a talk show host had a woman on the phone and throughout the conversation they referred to a Witchita based doctor who specialised in terminations as: "Tiller the killer". Free speech is enshrined in the first amendment of the U.S. constitution; I just wonder what it must be like living in a small town in the "Land of the free, home of the brave" where your opinions don't match those of your neighbours.

I passed through Greensburg where a tornado had hit a few months earlier. The devastation is total in the path of the twister, yet leaving other buildings totally untouched. The hospital is now housed in tents.

At Eureka (home to aprevious twister), I stoped at a liquor store to stock up and had this opening conversational gambit with the shopkeeper: "How you doin?".... "Er I am fine thank you. Are you well?"...."Can I weld?...what kinda question is that!!".

He was a nice man with the whitest teeth I have ever seen (something we will cover at the end of my trip in a "Mythbusters" section). A few miles later I was in a bar in Iola. A smallish town, population of around 6-7000. One radio station, a few bars and restaurants and according to the town website if I have done my maths correctly...27 churches!

Sunday, 17 June 2007

"I'm a stranger here, just blowed in your town..." 314 miles

Practically in as many days, I have moved 3 time zones - Pacific to Mountain, now in Central time.

I am driving across the Great Plains, where a huge proportion of the food is produced. It is wheat and cattle country. More or less completely flat as far as the eye can see, with the landscape dotted with grain elevators, and then there is the all pervading smell of... errr... cows.

Now I know what the cruise control is for. I have been on Highway 50 the whole day. The concept of miles now seems pointless. I have also given up on the map more or less, and am now navigating by the sun. It is behind me so I must be heading east.

When I eventually hit Dodge City, I am expecting a big place full of cowpokes. It is a smallish place desperately trying to turn itself into a theme park. I halt and meet Betty in the Boot Hill Information centre who patiently answers my questions and asks where I am from. I am then requested to push a pin into the european map she has set up. Every time you undertake a transaction in Boot Hill they ask where you are from. I have a load of pamphlets thrust into my hand and am asked to return early tomorrow for a guided tour round town. Everything seems to have a wild west twist; then again, this is/was the wild west. Not sure it is that wild now. However, everyone is terribly friendly and I am also beginning to experience a certain curiosity from the natives. This never happened on the west coast. Takes time to get to my motel as due to roadworks, traffic is moving slowly on Wyatt Earp.

As I check in I notice all the pictures are paintings or photos of cowboys and there is a tv in the lobby showing old cowboy movies or episodes of "Gunsmoke". Think it's time to freshen up a little then I guess I'll mosey into town...