Thursday, June 26, 2008

Road Trip All-Stars Day 2: Memphis & Nashville

The “Craig and Kevin” Story

At Craig’s funeral, we’ll be telling this story. It’s about as classic as a classic story comes. Allow me to indulge…

Since there are five of us, we could’ve gotten two hotel rooms to preserve our rights to personal space and privacy, but that would’ve cost twice as much money. With gas at $4.00 a gallon, we thought it best to just get one room with two queen beds, then we could all share and one guy could crash on the floor. It’s a little gay, but certainly less expensive. None of us minded the slumber situation in theory.

In practice, however, Kevin would eventually change his mind. Since Kyle and I brothers we shared one bed, and Kevin paired up with Craig in the other one. At some point in the middle of the night, Craig draped his leg over Kevin’s, played Big Spoon, and gave his bedmate a tender kiss on the shoulder. All of this before realizing that Kevin is not, in fact, Craig’s girlfriend Laurel.

We didn’t stop making a big deal about this for the rest of the trip.

Graceland

Elvis didn’t really live in a nice part of town, but that’s okay because Graceland Mansion is pretty well secured by a barrage of guards and minimum-wage docents at the home site. In truth, I expected Elvis’s house to be a little bigger; there wasn’t much difference between it and an average middle-class home you’d find anywhere on the market today.

Still, it was an interesting walk-through because the house isn’t the grounds’ only building. Elvis also had a racquetball court building behind the house which now acts as a pretty impressive trophy room. We got to see his Grammies and gold records and ridiculous Bedazzled rhinestone jumpsuits. The grand finale was Elvis’s grave, which was kind of a trip. It’s always strange to feel like you’re in the presence of greatness, even if that greatness is dead.

Overall, it was a pretty expensive house tour that didn’t add up to a whole lot, but we got to pay our respects to the King and get a sniff at what his mega-famous life was like. Personally, I would’ve done a little bit more with money, but what can I do?

Also, Priscilla Presley was hot.

Sun Studio

This was a much more interesting piece of Rock ‘n Roll history for us considering this is the place where the genre came to life and where Elvis Presley was discovered.

Way back in the day, Ike Turner’s original band was on their way to Sun Studio to put together their first record, but their amp fell out of the back of their truck and busted. As consummate pros, they played anyway but the broken amp gave the guitar a distorted sound for the first time in rock history, which is how Oktoberfest started.

Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, BB King, and Jerry Lee Lewis all recorded at this studio, which we stood right in the center of at the end of the tour. “Great Balls of Fire,” was recorded in that room, as was Cash’s “Walk the Line.” It’s the only recording studio in the country to be officially certified as a historic location, and we got a little piece of the action. We even got to pose with a microphone that Elvis himself used!

Pig on Beale BBQ

Eating lunch at Pig would be a lot like asking a friend to prom after getting denied by the girl you’ve had the crush on since freshman year. Our first choice was to munch at a rib joint called Rendezvous, which is tucked away in some random alley and supposedly has the best ribs in the state of Tennessee, but it was closed on Sundays. Starving, hot, and cranky we walked like bummed-out Charlie Browns back down to Beale Street to try and find a barbecue substitute. Pig was it.

We ordered the group meal, which consisted of an entire chicken, two full slabs of ribs, a half pound of beef brisket, a pound of hot wings, cole slaw, potato salad, baked beans, and onion rings. Impressive, no? Even more impressive—we ate almost the entire stinkin’ thing.

The food was pretty decent there, but mostly we were just hungry. Didn’t hold a candle to the Cozy Corner, but it was affable. I suppose a restaurant smack-dab in the middle of Beale Street would have to be, right?

Gibson Factory Tour

I won’t be naming my first-born son “Quinn,” if only for the reason that our goofball tour guide at the Gibson factory would share his name.

Look, Gibson is supposed to represent badassedness, so when you’re traveling through the plant to observe how these troubadourian idols are constructed the last thing you want to envision is some wiener kid strumming away the theme to “Legend of Zelda” in his basement. Quinn turned what should’ve been an awesome experience into a medley of ninja/robot/hobbit jokes that just never quite seemed to hit home. What a tool.

On the bright side, Gibsons are pretty awesome guitars. It costs something like $300 to actually assemble one of these instruments, but top-of-line guitars can cost thousands and thousands of dollars. When you see how they’re made, it’s a little easier to understand why.

So much of the process that goes into constructing these guitars comes via actual human hands. Machines do very little of the work, so what Gibson customers are getting when they big bucks for a product is something put together the old-fashioned way. If you’re a real music fan, that’s the way you likes it, anyway.

Jack’s BBQ

The food that the five of us ate for lunch at Pig on Beale probably could have sustained a starving third world country for 17-20 days, which means that by the time we finally arrived for dinner in Nashville, Jack’s just didn’t stand a chance.

Though there was an awesome Dave Chappelle-esque meat man keeping us entertained during the wait for our meals, the food itself just didn’t stand up to some of the other brisket and ribs we’d tasted on the trip.

Like I said, it may have just been because we were full, but Jack’s is a Nashville staple that ended up disappointing us. By far the worst cole slaw of the trip. Must of us just nibbled on our dinners like baby birds to save room for dessert: beer.

Flying Saucer Draught Emporium

And when I say beer was dessert, I really mean it. The Flying Saucer we visited in the home town of country music had over 80 beers on tap and well over 100 beers total. Several of these were fruit beers that were sweet and delicious enough to be our after-meal snack. Kevin, for example, ordered something called a “Chocolate Truffle,” which consisted of a double-chocolate stout mixed with lambic. Rich, but oh-so delicious.

The rest of us dabbled with sampler platters from all over the world. We all consider ourselves to be something of beer connoisseurs, so having an opportunity to really experience the full palate of worldwide spirits was both refreshing to our taste buds and burgeoning cultural developments.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Road Trip All-Stars Day 1: Memphis

The third official road trip of my life took place a couple weeks ago, and like every year, this is the blog of what that trip entailed. This time around we hit up Kentucky and Tennessee, and the trippers included me, Kyle, Kevin Clark (Beer and Now, 2006), Ed Harter (Midwest Road Fest, 2005), and newbie Craig Bingaman. Enjoy our exploits--we sure did!

Crystal Shrine Grotto

After seven hours in the car we arrived at our first destination in Memphis, Tennessee, which was the first city in our Road Trip All-Star adventure. Having seen some pictures of the thing on the internet, I had a good sense of this little grotto being a pretty photogenic spot, but the rest of the guys were a little doubtful about the credibility of my first destination choice, mostly because over half of my comrades didn’t even know what a “grotto” was. Ed, for example, asked if that was the part of town where poor people lived.

The second problem was that I neglected to tell these gentlemen that the grotto is located on cemetery grounds, so when we pulled into this graveyard (with like three or four burials occurring at the time), everybody except me was a bit confused. Once we approached the little shrine, however, everything became a lot clearer.

The area itself is essentially comprised of a couple stone tree sculptures that look rather intimidating, with the surrounding areas including a cool-looking crypt, a small pond, and an extremely creepy cave with multiple statues paying homage to Jesus and Christianity. Sounds weird, I know, but it was like being in The Shire on Lord of the Rings. Now it just sounds dorky. Maybe I should’ve left that sentence off when it was just weird…

Statue of Liberation

Tennessee is a very religious part of the country—it’s like the giant pewter cow skull buckle on the country’s Bible belt. This is why we weren’t surprised to pull up to a mammoth church with a replica of the Statue of Liberty standing guard out in front. I’ll give the statue credit; it looked pretty authentic. The only problem was that instead of holding a torch, old Lady Liberty was bearing a giant cross, most likely to keep vampires from attacking the congregation on Saturday evening mass.

Over a hundred parishioners donated at least $1,000 towards the construction of this monstrosity, which brings the total bill to somewhere comfortably over a million bucks. Add the cost of that statue to what clearly was a ostentatious, high-tech church and a pastor who drives a Lexus, and it makes one wonder if that money could’ve been better spent. Why not feed a few homeless people? Maybe buy a few houses for poor families who need a financial shot in the arm? It’s not like Memphis is the milk and honey capital of the country. People need help out there.

But people love statues, and they don’t necessarily care for poor black people. Statue wins every time.

Lorraine Hotel, Deathplace of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I went to Memphis with the intention of enjoying some blues and ingesting some barbecued meat, but in planning this trip I nearly forgot that a really important piece of American history happened in this city as well.

On March 29, 1968 King was shot at the Lorraine Hotel on the balcony of Room 306. Today there's a white wreath that hangs at the place where he was shot, and the hotel has been turned into a Civil Rights Museum, including a view of King's room, which hasn't been touched since the day he was shot forty years ago.

I don't know what it would be like to visit the Ford Theater and see where Lincoln was killed, or the street where JFK was shot, but this was an utterly spooky and historically gratifying experience. Having been born in 1982, King is just a legend to me, somebody I've heard about in textbooks. To bring him to life by visiting this place was really nice.

Damn shame... I can't imagine what it would've been like to have lived through this and what the fallout would've been.

Cozy Corner BBQ

Kyle was watching Guy Fiero on the Food Network go to a small barbecue dive in Memphis called the Cozy Corner. They do the usual ribs and brisket, but their specialty is the Cornish Game Hen. Kyle really wanted one, and the rest of us really wanted smoked and sauced meat.

The directions to the restaurant took us quite a way from downtown Memphis, which is pretty much the only area in the city where you can travel freely without fear of rape or robbery. In fact when we pulled into the tiny parking lot I said, without thinking, “You might want to hide your electronics, boys.”

Even though the neighborhood looked like something in a war-torn area of Africa, the restaurant had a nice ambience and the drifting scent of smoked meat and seasoning salt got us salivating profusely. Kyle got his Cornish hen, I had the brisket, and the other guys worked on the ribs, which might have been the biggest any of us had ever seen.

By the time our trip was over, we’d all agree that this was the best barbecue joint of the trip hands-down. It was cooked best, sauced best, and provided the heartiest eating. If you’re ever in Memphis and feel like braving the neighborhood, I highly recommend it.

Memphis Redbirds Game

After eating, the majority of us were slipping quietly into a meat coma from such a substantial dinner, so we decided to check into our downtown hotel before doing anything else. On the way home, however, we realized that the St. Louis Cardinals’ AAA team resides in Memphis and had a game going on that evening. Craig is a big Cards fan and I just love baseball, so the two of us went to the game while the rest of the boys went for a dip in the pool and had a few beers in preparation for Beale Street later on in the evening.

So, Craig and I footed the several blocks to the ball park and had a nice time. The Memphis Redbirds didn’t win the game, but we snatched first-row seats behind the home dugout despite the fact that we bought outfield seats from a scalper. We’re so bad.

It was hotter than hell, but the park was really nice and I’d rather have watched baseball than sat on my rear end in a hotel room. I guess you could say I’m a real man.

Beale Street

Misty with perspiration from the trek down Third Street after the ball game, Craig and I stepped into the surreal nocturnal world of Beale Street on a summer Saturday night. Truly, I’ve never partaken in anything like it.

On the one hand, Memphis is a pretty dirty, poor-looking city with an unimpressive skyline and armies of panhandlers, but on the other hand it’s the birthplace of rock ‘n roll and is the blues capital of the world. The center of the city’s spirit is at Beale, which I’m not sure how to describe.

The roads are made of brick and are completely blocked off for the evening’s festivities. Crashing cymbals and rattling guitar distortion bounces at you from every direction as people of every color, shape, and size line up the streets, beer-filled plastic cups in tow. The bulk of the interesting stuff all takes place in about a two block radius, but everywhere you look there are blues bands playing (either in bars or right there on the street), and everybody really seems to be having a good time.

Especially us. After grabbing some drinks we sat and watched a blues band comprised of old-timers do their thing behind a bar called the Black Diamond. Great music, but they didn’t hold a torch to my boy Richard Johnston—a one-man band that pretty much rocked out harder on a street corner than any musician I’ve ever seen live and in person.

His guitar was essentially made of an old cigar box and a couple of broom sticks (I’m not kidding), and he pumps them through amps to distort the sound. While he’s doing that and signing, he’s using his feet to play the drums. The total effect makes you want to dance right there on the street, and in fact I did just that with a drunk homeless guy wearing cutoff shorts. Good times were had all around.

The vibe of the music, the camaraderie, the beer-drinking in the wide-open muggy summer air—all of it made for a pretty memorable experience. Every trip has at least one big winner, and this was one of those instances. Definitely an all-time road trip highlight.