When the U.S shut their borders to U.K visitation in March 2020, nobody foresaw how long it would take for the States to welcome us back again safely. Therefore, when the news came that the border would open in November 2021, the excitement of returning once again was palpable.
By then, I knew I had one place on my mind that I needed to visit: Tennessee. Accessing the state is straightforward. BA offers a direct service to Nashville from London, while Memphis is a great entry point if moving from west to east, with connections from many US hubs such as Atlanta and Chicago. Flying has changed slightly since the pandemic, but the airlines and airports have gone above and beyond to make travel as comfortable as possible in a time of public health consciousness.
Upon landing in Memphis, I was determined to make the most of being back in the U.S for the first time in almost two years. After riding downtown, I dropped my bags and headed to the local sports bar, conveniently located right by the world-famous Beale Street. Sinking a drink and a bite to eat, I made my way outside, followed my ears and entered B.B Kings, the famous Blues bar, eponymously named. There, I heard some brilliant live music while soaking up the ambiance, before preparing myself for the rest of my stay.
Memphis is a city born of two things: music and the Civil Rights Movement. Often, those stories are intertwined. Visiting the Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum and Sun Studios, you learn more about how overcoming racial and socio-economic barriers through music had such a large impact in propelling equality into the wider psyche of the city. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel serves as a poignant reminder of what had to be overcome and stands as a tribute to those who gave everything for that cause, particularly Martin Luther King Jr, whose last moments came on the balcony outside room 306 at the Motel. You also have the city’s ties to Elvis Presley, from his first apartment at Lauderdale Courts, The Arcade Restaurant where he consumed many peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and Graceland, which acts as a museum to his life and works.
From Memphis, I took the four-hour drive east to the Music City, Nashville. There, what can only be described as the loudest street in the world, Broadway, takes you on a musical journey. Walk into any venue, and you will hear some form of live music, ranging from bluegrass to old school country, to even pop classics reimagined (*NSync, anyone?). Where Memphis was understated, Nashville was in your face, wearing it’s musical heritage like a badge of honour. When it’s the home of such legendary venues as the RCA Studio B, the Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry, it’s not hard to see why. However, the real gem of Nashville is the new National Museum of African American Music, which provides an interactive exhibition space to telling the story of the various African American influences across all genres of modern music today.
Finally, my trip took me east into the towns of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. The home of Dolly Parton and Dollywood, there is a certain energy to the region that borders the Great Smoky Mountains. Families can while away hours down the main strip of Pigeon Forge, where the abstract and unconventional is in prevalence. For those looking to escape into the mountains, head up the Chondola from Gatlinburg to Anakeesta, for breathtaking sights and a unique way to explore the nature around you. For the adults, once you’re back at sea level, you can check out the home of Ole Smoky Moonshine and take a taster session for $7. After experiencing multiple shots of various flavours, you won’t care about possibly running into a real-life bear back in the mountains, like I did!
Boarding the plane back to London, a wave of melancholy hit me. Happiness at being on the first direct Nashville service home since the border shut, but sad to be leaving such a vibrant, energetic place. I will never forget my experience of Tennessee. It really is the Soundtrack of America. Until next time…
Written by David Venables