Honky Tonk woman on the holy trinity - Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans
USA Deep South
New York, apparently, is not America. Which means that, until very recently, I had never been to America.
I only really understand this when I find myself having breakfast in a hotel that has 3,000 rooms - and this does not make it the largest in the country - surrounded by a quite astonishing number of people, with the sound of water cascading from a small waterfall nearby, while overhead thousands of tiny lights twinkle.
Then, I get it. This is America, loud and proud. Trump-supporting, flag-waving, war-veteran-cheering, BBQ-eating America. And I love it.
Thanks to Insight Vacations, I am on the music-lovers' trip of a lifetime: Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans; otherwise known as a whistle-stop tour through the three great strands of American music: Country, Blues, Jazz - guided by the charming and indefatigable Ann Harness, or 'Miss Ann' as we like to call her.
We start with in Nashville with Country - or, more specifically, RCA Studio B. This is where Elvis recorded Love Me Tender on one of his regular all-night sessions, during which he would start with gospel songs to warm up the vocal chords, then launch into the recordings - sometimes 13 or 14 takes in a night, fuelled by burgers and milkshakes, and the odd karate kick to keep his energy up.
Are You Lonesome Tonight was created in the pitch black at around 4am on April 4, 1960; I think you can hear it on the record.
The group I'm with get to record our very own version of Can't Help Falling In Love to take away. We aren't very good, but it is day one, and none of us has met before. I feel we might have done a better version on the last day of the trip, after we'd had a few bonding sessions over tequila shots and bad dancing in honky-tonk bars.
Later, we meet Richard Leigh, country music songwriter, who tells us he's going to "sing some of the good ones. The ones that did something. That made a lot of money for my ex-wives". Among these are That's The Thing About Love, which he wrote for Ray Charles but that ended up as a number one for Don Williams, and Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue, recorded by Crystal Gayle.
The Country Music Hall of Fame is a riot of sequinned costumes and personalised Cadillacs, of Johnny Cash memorabilia alongside Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, right up to Garth Brooks. There's even the Taylor Swift Education Centre - yes, the mind boggles somewhat.
I confess I had never heard of the Grand Ole Opry, or the Ryman Auditorium, before the trip, but this was quickly, and very comprehensively, remedied, with a daytime tour of the gorgeous auditorium, built as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in the 1880s, followed by an evening at the Grand Ole Opry.
This is a live music show, broadcast every Saturday night since 1943, where the great and good of the country music scene appear, even when at the very peak of their careers. Keeping faith with the Grand Ole Opry is a Thing, and the biggest stars keep popping back, for the fun, and to show how unspoiled they are.
Graceland in Memphis was interesting for its modesty. Yes, it's gloriously full of garishness and bling - thick white carpets, stained glass decorated with peacocks, the jungle room with its seats upholstered in various animal hides, the den, where all the action took place (girls, mainly, it seems, rather than drink or drugs) - but really, this is a nice, manageable, family-sized house. A far cry from the monstrosities with their scooped-out basement gyms, pools and home cinemas that celebs of even average standing live in these days. We get the grand tour from George Klein, one of Elvis's oldest friends - they met in the eighth grade at Humes High School - who has plenty of anecdotes and memories (including one rather risque one about Ann-Margret, who starred in Viva Las Vegas with Elvis), and a fine recall of detail.
But for all Klein's careful scene-setting, the garage is where I most clearly feel the ghost of Elvis. All those cars - Rolls Royces, Cadillacs, Chryslers, Stutz Blackhawks - lovingly polished up and waiting.
Here, we eat the best bbq of the trip, which I feel is just as the King would have wanted it.
Memphis is a city where the story of a rising crime rate is easy to read in what feels like the abandonment of the city centre. It seems to be permanently Sunday afternoon here; quiet, slightly forlorn.
As so often in my life, I feel I'm at least 25 years too late; that only the pale ghost of a scene remains, something put on for tourists and out-of-towners. But later, a tour of Sam Phillips's Sun Studio, and the bars on Beale Street - the energy, passion and sheer brilliance of the musicians - persuades me otherwise. The city undoubtedly has its problems, but this is still, very much, the heart and home of the blues.
You cannot journey through the south of America without confronting the question of race. It is all around, in the most obvious manner, with a kind of informal segregation still very much in evidence.
We get a chance to explore the roots of this, with a trip to the Frogmore Cotton Plantation, where owners Buddy and Lynette Tanner have preserved the old antebellum slave quarters and cotton gin, alongside a thoroughly modern, fully-functioning, cotton plantation. Lynette's knowledge, along with her ability to recreate the story of slavery and the Deep South, is mesmerising.
The details of the daily lives of the slaves and their plantation owners - what they ate, where they slept, the hours they worked, the songs they sang - are as much a part of the fabric of Frogmore as the physical remnants; the ice house and smokery.
We spend one night in a historic plantation house, Monmouth, now a luxury hotel, where we eat the food of the Old South - fried green tomatoes, arugula salad, Louisiana beef - and take a tour of Houmas House plantation and gardens, where the oak trees are well over 300 years old, and utterly beautiful.
A visit to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968 formalises the civil rights story - and it leaves most of us in tears. This begins with life-size models of slave boats, and progresses through the tragic, enraging history of American Civil Rights, up to and including the present day.
The jewel in the crown of the trip was undoubtedly New Orleans, a magnificent port city even more seductive and exciting than I had imagined. Whatever physical devastation was wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has been mended, although the emotional and social impact lives on, not least in the number of still-empty city centre apartments, abandoned by people no longer willing to trust to nature or the US government's good intentions.
We stay at the gorgeous Hotel Monteleone; perfect old-world elegance in the heart of the French Quarter. A trip to the New Orleans School of Cooking and a session with chef Kevin Belton kicks off the eating side of things, which we then pursue enthusiastically. Beignets at the Cafe Du Monde, muffaletta at the Central Grocery, gumbo at Arnaud's restaurant, one of the city's oldest, most authentic restaurants (where a brass sign in the ladies loos reads a stern warning around drinking in pregnancy).
A tour of the city, taking in the American Quarter, the Saint Louis Cemetery and a trip down the Mississippi on an old paddle steamer, sets the scene perfectly for this most dynamic of cities. Then later that night, we go on a jazz hunt, starting with the famous Preservation Hall, a tiny, wooden-framed shack where you can take your own booze, sit on wooden benches or the floor, and hear the most remarkable jazz, played by a bunch of (mostly) elderly men, who make music matter in a way I have never heard before.
After that, you would think everything else would be a downer, but the Spotted Cat holds its own, as do the many more bars and clubs we try that night. If this is America, I'm in.
Luxury Gold’s (luxurygoldvacations.com; 1800 98 98 98) nine-day Southern Grace itinerary visits Nashville, Memphis, Natchez and New Orleans, and is priced from €3,395 per person (departures from September 8).
This price is based on twin share and includes eight nights of luxury hotel accommodation, daily breakfasts, 13 signature dining experiences, sightseeing, luxury coach transportation with business class legroom, complimentary Wi-Fi, arrival and departure transfers, fast track and lounge access in Ireland, and the services of a dedicated travelling concierge throughout.
TAKE TWO: Top Attractions
Dishing up classic Creole cuisine in a turn-of-the-century building for over 100 years now, Arnaud’s is elegant, gracious and delicious! Their Sunday jazz brunch is particuarly legendary (try the alligator sausage). See arnaudsrestaurant.com.
New Orleans lends itself perfectly to a good long wander — with more than enough history, culture, curiosities and gorgeous buildings to keep you moving. The best of the city will come more easily in company with tour guide Jim Besse, thanks to his remarkable knowledge. See nolatourguides.org.
Read more:Houston Calling: Why you should visit America's most diverse city The US Bucket List: 30 things to do in America before you die Big Easy Bounce: New Orleans, 10 years after Katrina
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