January 2, 2015

USA: music road trip from Nashville to Memphis to New Orleans

One of the best trips we took as a family was our self drive from Nashville to Memphis, ending in New Orleans!

 

Mum, dad, my husband and me. We called it the Music Tour and spent 10 nights in total with a playlist that included Willie Nelson warbling “on the road again” as we hurtled down the freeways to meet my brother, his wife and daughter from the Cayman Islands (where they live) for a reunion in New Orleans.

A music store in New Orleans

A music store in New Orleans

Flying in from Hawaii we made our first mistake: not stopping for a night in LA. Consequently, due to a later flight being cancelled from Honolulu we landed in LA with about seven hours to kill at the airport. And we weren’t using the new Tom Bradley Terminal (read that blog post here) so had to while away our hours hopping from pizza restaurant to beer bar and staying as long as we could before being turfed out to sit in the rows of gate seats.

Where to stay in Nashville : Loews Vanderbilt Hotel

Our 8pm departure from LAX to Nashville had us flying through the night (although we were still on Hawaii time so it wasn’t too bad) and arriving at 5.30am local time. Yes am! That was bad. I had cleverly thought to book a room for the night before so we had at least one to check into when we arrived. As it happened both rooms were ready so we decided to have a short nap and shower then we were off to Honky Tonk Row to check out Nashville’s famous music scene and find something to eat.

Nashville

Downtown Nashville

 

Day 1 : Johnny Cash Museum and the Dueling Piano Bar

The Johnny Cash Museum had opened the day before and people had lined up round the block. Fortunately the hype had died down today and we strode right in (buying some souvenirs on the way). This is a huge collection of Johnny memorabilia. Photos, outfits, lyrics, his collection of framed gold and platinum albums. A must for Cash fans.

Johnny Cash Museum

Just a few of his gold albums

The jetlag hadn’t yet kicked in so as my dad is a fan of piano bars, and dueling pianos even more so, we pottered around the many bars with live music and in and out of souvenir shops until 6pm when dueling the doors opened. Early I know, but we were a bit knackered. The crowd was small at this early hour at The Big Bang but the sound was huge. The entertainers were brilliant, young guys in T-shirts and jeans and we were all encouraged to write song choices on a piece of paper and give it to them. If they liked it they’d screw it up and toss it to the other piano. Billy Joel’s Piano Man which started with one of the incredibly talented players on a harmonica was my hit of the night.

Day 2 : Country Music Hall of Fame, Studio B and Loveless Cafe

I was surprised to find how many great musicians have their roots in country music – and The Country Music Hall of Fame is filled with memorabilia including Elvis Presley’s car that is fitted with a huge TV and old fashioned telephone. We added a tour to Studio B only because someone at the Johnny Cash Museum said it was great, and so it was. A must-see. I sat on the piano stool where The King recorded about half his catalogue of hits and learned how he was all about lighting and ambience when he recorded and for one song even had his musicians playing in the dark.

Country Music Hall of Fame

This place is huge and about to get 3 stories higher

Loveless Cafe is about 25 minutes drive from downtown Nashville through beautiful countryside and huge houses with rolling front lawns. They smoke their own hams and make bacon and serve a mean brunch – with grits.

Get huge discounts on hotels here with Booking.com >>

Day 3 : Drive to Memphis

It’s about three hours drive from Nashville to Memphis – time to stop and shop on the way. Drivers are so courteous here, they pull over a lane when you’re entering the highway on the on ramp (so we did likewise) and all the huge container-carrying trucks keep right (in the slow lane).

Where to stay in Memphis : The Peabody Hotel

Day 4 : Memphis – Graceland and Beale Street

Only two blocks from the famous Beale Street, our hotel was ideally located. And it has ducks living on the roof who come down in the lift every day and walk on a red carpet to swim in the fountain before being returned with pomp and ceremony at 5pm!

Beale Street

Beale Street coming alive at night

To be honest I didn’t like Beale Street much. It was dirty and the cool bars with live music were few and far between. But a highlight was the BB King Cafe where we stayed for dinner and tapped heartily to the band on stage. My husband was here years ago when BB himself walked in and began jamming with the band. He thought it was normal and only learned later that this happens once or twice a year.

Graceland was cool though and you should allow a good three hours here. Expect to see Elvis lookalikes roaming the souvenirs and if you have about $3000 you can buy a replica onesie. On one side of the street are shops and museums all dedicated to the King – and where you buy your tickets to tour his house. (We didn’t pre-book and got on the next tour). Then you’ll get on a bus to drive you across the road and up the driveway. About 50 metres. But you know what they’re like in America – someone would sue if they got hit crossing the road! Here’s my photo blog inside Graceland.

Graceland

The upstairs rooms at Graceland are locked and alarmed and no one is allowed up there except family.

Day 5 : Central BBQ and Martin Luther King’s memorial

I’d wanted to try Memphis style pulled pork so Googled the best places in Memphis and found Central BBQ. This store is so popular they now have three shops. I had emailed them from NZ and had a plan to go in Monday morning to meet the manager and learn how to make pork sliders.

Central BBQ pork rub

Rub the dry marinade in liberally

Right across the road from here is the infamous Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jnr was shot and killed. It’s now a memorial and the motel room has not been touched since the day he was shot down by a guy with a gun in the bathroom of the hostel opposite. Eerily this bathroom – and building – is now the Martin Luther King Jnr Museum where you can track the time line (and sight-line) of both protagonists until the moment of that fatal shot.

Civil rights Lorraine 306

Day 6 : Drive to New Orleans

Where to stay in New Orleans : French Quarter boutique hotels

It’s a good six hours to drive from Memphis to New Orleans so we set off straight after brekky and took a little detour to Vicksburg for lunch because I’d visited a cool gallery (Attic Gallery) here a few years ago. But in New Orleans, staying in the French Quarter means you can walk everywhere and pop back when you need some peace.

Days 7-10 : Jazz time!

There are so many great bars serving live jazz in New Orleans and you’ll find all the tourists along Bourbon Street. But for the places where locals go read this post on Frenchmen Street and Preservation Hall.

New Orleans

The French Quarter is home to an eclectic mix of entertainment

Other things to do in New Orleans include a Cemetery Tour, learn to cook gumbo, eat beignets, buy paintings from artists around Jackson Square and try and find these awesome buskers singing A Closer Walk with Thee on the trombone.

Join my hosted tour to Houston and New Orleans from New Zealand in March 2017! >>

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About Megan Singleton

Megan

Megan Singleton is a travel writer, blogger and radio correspondent. She's been gallivanting around the world telling stories for the last 16 years and has her suitcase always half packed (or half un-packed!) Follow along on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for monthly newsletters if you want to keep up with the journey!

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