For our first Thanksgiving (2021), we decided to head to Tennessee. This was partly as I’d gotten an ear worm about doing a Turkey Trot and there was a fun one on offer in Nashville, and partly as it seemed like a good holiday destination for people who like music!
Hearing horror stories about flying over Thanksgiving, we rocked up early to the airport on the Wednesday afternoon and found hardly anyone there. We did encounter the crowds when we tried to pick up the hire car at Nashville but while waited in the long line, we had a friendly chat with a local who was returning home to see family.
For dinner we tried some famous Nashville fried chicken at Party Fowl. We sat at the bar eating our tasty meal and enjoyed watching the barmaid pour beer from the bottom of the cups! The cups had a cool magnet system on the base which closed when not being pressed into the beer tap. There were warnings on the cups not to play with the magnets though, or else you’d get wet!
Nashville is synonymous with music, with the high church being the Grand Ole Opry. Researching for the trip, we saw that ZZ Top (minus one who sadly died from covid the year before) were scheduled to be playing while we were in town and it seemed like a good opportunity to see the venue as well as a show. The Grand Ole Opry was pretty awesome; lots of guitar decorations, the seats were pews like at the original Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Theatre and crowd members sported many ‘legitimate’ hats and boots. We were surprised by how much we enjoyed the support act of Tim Montana, and ZZ Top were good fun.
Thanksgiving morning was cold and wet, but not miserable! We headed out to the park where the Turkey Trot was being held and I was very excited to collect my turkey hat. It was pretty floppy though and no way that I could run in it (although for next year I did see how some people made it work with a visor). Being newbies we had dressed up to get into the spirit, but were in the minority. It was fun though and we got lots of comments on our turkey tutus throughout the race! Mark was fastest male in the tutu (well fastest overall in a tutu!) and I was fastest female in a tutu. This was good going as the course was very hilly for us poor flat-landers. There are zero real hills in Houston.
Unfortunately, there was disaster at the end of the race, with not enough medals for all the finishers. We did a good deed and gave us away our participation medals as we also won age groups awards! With the bad weather there were no presentations but lots of donuts at the end of the race – so we ate some and then headed home to warm up and dry out.
After a nice warm shower we went foraging for lunch as we didn’t know what would be open. Heading to the local Whole Foods we found some interesting state laws. For example, you could buy beer but not wine on Thanksgiving!
As practically everything was closed for Thanksgiving, we checked out some of the murals around town. It was pretty cold so we quickly hopped out of the car, got some selfies and then dived back into the car to head to be next wall. On our way home we drove past Broadway and were surprised to see that it was pretty crowded, with most of the bars open in the late afternoon.
We dropped the car home and walked in (bundled up!) There were lots of families out at the honky tonks, it was great fun with lots of dancing, good local beers and the cover bands were definitely a cut above your average! I enjoyed a great rendition of the ‘Devil goes down to Georgia’ and then had that as another earworm for the rest of the trip.
After a cold recovery run the next morning, we headed to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Not being big country music fans, we were interested to see what it would be like and what we would learn. It was actually a great museum tracing country music from folk music to present (Sing Me Back Home). I wouldn’t say that we became experts on the differences between Country, Americana, Western/Cowboy but we did understand about the polished Nashville sound versus the harder edged Outlaw Country from Texas. We saw some cool cars, amazing outfits by Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors and lots of famous people’s instruments in the Precious Jewels exhibits.
Also at the Country Music Hall of Fame is the relocated Hatch Show Print. It started back in 1879 creating posters for musical and touring shows, advertisements. The posters were made with letter press printing where raised ink surfaces are pressed on to paper. Each colour has to go through the press separately and then dry. There were heaps of really cool show posters from bands of pratically every genre lining the walls. We even got to make our own print, actually the first couple of layers of colour had already been printed, we got to do the last layer on top.
The last activity in our Country Music Hall of Fame trifecta was a Studio B tour. We took a minibus down to Music Row and the famous RCA studio which is the birthplace of “Nashville Sound”. Elvis, and others, have recorded several hits there and it was great to walk around the recording area – X marked the spot on the floor with the best sound (resonant modes minimised!)
Apparently when in Nashville, you have to visit Goo Goo Cluster, the US’s first combination chocolate bar. Originating in 1912, the modern versions are very expensive and a maybe a bit of a tourist trap? You can design your own chocolate bar and then have it made to order but instead we opted for a ‘White Chocolate Premium Goo Goo’ which had dark chocolate peppermint ganache, crushed oreos, vanilla nougat in white chocolate with a crushed peppermint base! It was very tasty…
Another Nashville institution is to have drink at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway. A lot of famous musicians have had a tipple in the purple bar, sneaking across before performances at the nearby Ryman Auditorium. We had a drink on the balcony enjoying the views, but it was very crowded and a bit concerning about covid safety.
Possible the best dinner we’d had so far in the US was our meal at Bastion, a small 24 seat restaurant. We were seat at the bar and watched the chefs prepare our 6 course meal, while we drank matching wines, soundtracked to live vinyl. The dishes were creative, beautiful and full of different flavours. There was even one with eucalyptus to remind us of home.
On our final morning in Nashville we had another cold run around the town. Afterwards we treated ourselves to brunch at a very “grammable” place, Pinewood Social, were we enjoyed some fluffy biscuits.
Our last tourist site was the Nashville Parthenon in the middle of Centennial Park. It was very strange to see in the middle of an American park – being a full scale replica of the Greek version. It was originally built for Tennessee’s 1897 Centennial Exposition, as a temporary structure. However the locals loved it so much is was left there although being plaster it degraded and in 1920 it was rebuilt in concrete! Inside, there are art works and in the centre a giant (nearly 13m) statue of Athena. A trippy experience in “Athens of the South”.
The three hour drive from Nashville to Memphis was unremarkable, other than drivers doing the speed limit unlike Texas! Being the Thanksgiving weekend, lots of people had travelled back to family and it was fun spotting at all the different state number plates going past.
After checking into our Memphis Airbnb, we walked around town and waited for the ceremonial Peabody Duck march. During the day, the mallards swim in a fountain in the hotel’s lobby and in the morning and evening they march (waddle) along a red carpet to and from the elevator to where they sleep on the roof of the hotel. It was quite ridiculous, with a Duck Master decked out with a golden duck cane, but entertaining.
For dinner we went to Rendezvous Charlie Vargas for their famous Memphis ribs. Memphis BBQ is different to Texas BBQ due to the use of dry rubs with lots of spices (Texas rub is only salt and pepper) and is more pork focused, whereas Texas is more beef focused. Although yummy, we are more are more fans of Texas BBQ which is in our opinion much more moist and succulent!
We walked back through Beale St, but it was still pretty early and compared with Broadway in Nashville there didn’t seem to be as much going on. We will need to return when we are less tired to hear some famous Beale St Blues.
Never one to miss an opportunity to claim a new state, we woke up early and ran over the mighty Mississippi River to Arkansas! There was a nice path along the river through a gated community where you were not allowed to stop (just continue running/walking on the set route) and then we jogged over the new pedestrian Big River Crossing bridge. There was quite a lot of traffic on the river, it was interesting to observe that it is still a major transport route with long flat barges carrying a variety of goods.
One of the main places we wanted to visit in Memphis was the National Civil Rights Museum and it was just as powerful as anticipated. Located at the Loraine Motel, it traced the civil rights movement all the way from the first slaves who arrived through to modern times. There were moving exhibits like the Rosa Parks Bus and details on the Freedom ride. It was very eye opening as we didn’t know much about the American experience with segregation and Jim Crowe laws, although there were some similarities with the treatment of Australian indigenous people. With the institutionalisation of racism, there is still a lot to be done in both the US and Australia. The last part of the first building was the actual hotel room where Martin Luther King was staying in 1968. It was also where he was shot. It added another layer to the museum, with the historical significance of the exact site.
Across the road was the building where the shots were fired and some exhibitions about the specifics of the investigation. We didn’t spend as long here, as it almost seemed irrelevant in some ways (more of a whodunit) compared with the powerful exhibits on civil rights in the first building. The museum as a whole is definitely recommended to understand the basis of some of the major issues which still face the US.
After ruminating during lunch, we visited a more positive place – Stax Records. Renowned for Southern soul, the record label released lots of soul, gospel, funk and with famous artists including Ottis Reading, Booker T and the MGs, and the Staple Singers. The old recording studios was converted to a museum starting with a reassembled Mississippi delta church as soul music came out of Southern gospel music. We saw Studio A, the Hall of Records and lots of memorabilia including Isaac Hayes custom Cadillac Eldorado which for a 1972 car had a TV, mini-bar (also 24 carat gold trims and white fur!)
By this stage, I wasn’t feeling very well, so I rested up whilst Mark had Gus’ World Famous Fried Chicken for dinner (though wasn’t blown away).
Ironically, one of the items that MLK protested was gentrification and our Airbnb (again something that takes away from not so well-off locals) though steps from the National Civil Rights Museum was also not far from lots of new wave coffee shops and trendy cafes. The coffee was nice though…
We couldn’t leave Memphis without a trip to Graceland. Even though we are not really Elvis fans, you can’t help but know a lot of his music and the huge influence he has had. Graceland wasn’t very crowded and we were not sure if this was because of the tail end of covid or that people are not really into the King anymore? We did the audio tour around the bottom level of the house and it was pretty kitsch not having changed since the late 1970s. We saw the famous jungle room, ridiculous TV room and pool room. You can also visit the squash court, trophy building and mediatian garden when Elvis and his parents are buried. The audit tour, as you can imagine, did mention anything about the more controversial parts of Elvis’ life (and death), so we did some googling afterwards to try and piece together the ‘real’ story.
Across the road there is also lots of building with all kinds of memorabilia including cars, jumpsuit costumes, war info, gold and platinum records and props from movies. It was quite eerily empty, and probably more for super fans.
We returned to Nashville in August 2022 as we couldn’t pass up one of Mark’s favourite bands (The Decemberists) playing the Ryman Auditorium. So additionally we’d recommend:
Ryman Auditorium – the original home of the Grand Ole Opry, a real church for music and a great place to catch a show.
Assembly Food Hall & Skydeck – High end food hall where we had dinner overlooking the Ryman, before heading to a gig. The Skydeck was a great stage area and there was lots of energy from Michael Franti.
Biscuit Love – Really fluffy biscuits in the trendy Gulch area. We went for late lunch and hardly had to queue up at all.
National Music of African American Music – Great interactive museum with sections that focus on the origins of African American music such as gospel, soul, jazz, R&B and hip-hop.
Hattie-B’s – One of the quintessential Nashville fried chicken shops. Tasty and worth the wait!
Acme Feed and Seed – Multistorey venue at the end of Broadway, it was one of the more laidback places (read not too many hen’s parties!) and we had good food whilst listening to the house band.
Gibson Guitar Garage – Like a giant sushi train – but with guitars!