While you read this post, a question to ponder:
What song would you think is played at the HIGH HOLY CHURCH of Country Music, The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, at the end of the night ("walking out music" as we call it in "the biz")?
On June 2nd, JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE played a sold out show at the legendary Ryman Auditorium. Having never been IN the building to see a show (I'd drunkenly skulked around its alley a few times in the '90s, looking for...who knows?), I thought, as I often do, ROADTRIP. After all, it's not every day one of our artists gets to tread the boards where every single legend in the world of country music has played. If I can't get excited by such a prospect, it's time to get out of this racket, clean my ears out with an awl, close the office and turn it into a greeting card store (with helium balloons and stuffed collectible puppies).
As with on any road trip, my tattered and dog-eared copy of RoadFood was in the glove box. Avoidance of off-ramp clusters of chain foods is one of my ongoing fervent goals.
South of Indianapolis (ah, the joys of I-65, you are few and far between), Jonathan Byrd's Cafeteria was our RoadFood approved dinner stop. A mammoth building with the kind of crowd control velvet ropes found at a fancy DMV or Southwest Airlines boarding area (the waiting line included benches!) This place is equipped to, and expecting to, feed an army of Hoosiers. The tray line was 30 or 40 yards long at least. Uniformed and uniformly cheery—but focused on task at hand cheery—servers were stationed at every turn in the journey of your meal. The salad, the dessert, the fruit plates and then to the, ahem, meat of the matter. Of the 12-15 main dishes, I was torn between the shredded chicken over noodles and the BBQ beef over rice. Apparently, while I was eying the chicken I was obliviously pointing to the beef. So beef it was. On to the dizzying panoply of sides, where balancing all those plates on my tray was an exercise in spatial relations: mashed potatoes, gravy, cornbread muffin and something called fried corn, which were the corn-equivalent shape, size and texture of tater tots. My co-pilot Dee opted for fried chicken, mashed potatoes, dressing (stuffing, some may call it), some pretty damn good mac & cheese and a salad as the antidote.
It was all a la carte and nothing priced, so the dough added up faster than Bloodshot Pete's tote bag at a Reigning Sound collectibles convention. Still and all, it ended up being about $14 each and there were plenty of leftovers for the "Exit Now" hotel in Louisville later that night. It was all pretty good, nothing mind blowing. My rice was parboiled but the beef was whatever texture lies beyond tender, the chicken a mite salty but not greasy and the crust was, well, crusty and flavorful without overwhelming the moisty moist chicken beneath, and the fried corn reminded me of the documentary King Corn. Stolid Midwestern sticktotheribs (and whatever else might get in the way) fare in a banal setting with lots of framed Norman Rockwell decorative plates (framing decorative plates? A redundant level of Krafty Americana Kitsch I had not heretofore witnessed). It was like visiting your prim and tidy aunt (albeit one with an airplane hangar-sized dining room). It's not on the same level as my fave southern IN cafeteria, Gray Brothers in Mooresville, but it did the trick; a good gateway meal for the trip.
Once in Nashville, we went to visit United Record Pressing, where all our LPs and 7" singles are made. It was fantastic. The place was full of all manner of spitting, clanking, sputtering dangerous looking machines from a bygone era. It's truly ironic in this era of convenience and speed and casual consumption that this method of sound reproduction has remained largely unchanged for almost a century (and, to my ears, remains unsurpassed in quality). It was also so pleasingly disorganized, a comforting level of chaos and grime that made our office seem like a NASA lab. I've been to where our CDs are made and it reminds me of something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The human element in the LP process filled me with a giddy warmth. Or maybe it was the fumes…
Upstairs, we toured what's known as the Motown Suites. Back in the day, when the Motown folks came down to check on their records, they weren't, as was the fabulous custom of the times, allowed to stay in hotels, so they stayed upstairs. The rooms are perfectly preserved in mid-century super cool furniture. What I wouldn't give to have been a fly on the wall during some of THOSE parties. They give tours of this, so check it out if you're in town. I suspect they won't take you everywhere that we got to go; I can only imagine the potential for harm and lawsuits if a tour group from Wichita was crowded around a hydraulic press when something went awry (or "kerflooey" as we say in "the biz.")
After that, we swung by to see our pals over at Third Man Records and got the full tour of Jack White's Wonka-esque studio/retail/warehouse compound. It's where the first ever concert/recording session was held with our own Dex Romweber Duo. We've been sworn to secrecy about the whole thing (not really), but I am sure other folks have written about it in much better ways. Suffice to say, they are never, EVER allowed to visit our shabby offices that have no discernable design aesthetic other than "yeah, just put it over there," nor does our retail staff wear saucy matching outfits. Hell, we don't even HAVE a retail staff.
After all that high pressure, taxing industry conviviality, it was time for dinner and we chose Swett's, one of my go-to meat & threes joints in Nashville (along with Arnold's, but they close after lunch). Into the cafeteria line we went, eyes goggling over all the potential combinations. The line starts with dessert. Two words: banana pudding. Two more words: 'Nilla wafers. Kelly Hogan used to grace the office with homemade Georgia-style banana pudding when she worked here and I've been hooked ever since. For the meat, I could not resist the special of the day: pulled pork shoulder and I was not disappointed. It was smoky, porky, moisty with the occasional burnt end adding an exclamation point. The sauce was, as it should be, perfectly superfluous. For the threes: creamed corn, bitter BITTER greens—tempered vigorously with hot sauce and the sweetness of the corn, and a warm yeasty dinner roll, the kind pillows are made of in heaven. Dee once again went for the fried chicken—a fine flavorful crunch enrobing the chicken within, mashed potatoes and mac & cheese (she is nothing if not consistent). Nightcaps of local brews at the Blackstone Brewery and some Yuengling Lagers at the Springwater Supper Club (I did not know that "Supper Club" meant "Dive Bar with Eaves Roped in Christmas Lights that are 54% Burned Out" in Nashville---it carries a very different connotation for me from me travels in Wisconsin) rounded out the night.
The day of the show was pleasingly warm and sunny. Locals kept telling us what a flaming, humid pit of hell it had been just a few days earlier, so we felt quite lucky as we strolled around Music City USA. After a late breakfast/early lunch (blueberries, a peach or two and a killer fresh shrimp po-boy at the New Orleans sandwich stand) at the Farmer's Market, we poked around Lower Broad in the daylight. I hadn't been to Nashville in a few years. So, tell me Nashvillians, when did Lower Broad turn into a rednecky Rush Street? A Yee-haw frat party? A countrifried Bourbon Street? I'm not one to lament the passing of "the good old days" of gritty urban decay and seedy street crime and despair, but…Tequila Cowboy? AC/DC cover bands? 31 flavors of Jell-O shots? Robert's Western World and Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, ur-honky tonks, the CBGBs of country, ground zero for songs embedded in our musical DNA, had lines out the door at 1pm for music that was as country as Bon Jovi and Billy Joel. The streets were redolent of stale beer, cologne-infused air conditioning blasting out of open windows and new leather from "Dress Like A Cowboy Star" clothing/trinket shops. Eek. Well, we must destroy that which we love, musn't we? The maw of the Nostalgia Machine must be fed.
Speaking of being fed, all that walking in the sun left us a wee bit hungry and a wee bit thirstier. For a quick snack at Puckett's Grocery (yeah, I know, it's not the original, but there's a dispiriting dearth of food choices around Lower Broad on a Saturday afternoon that didn't involve Hot Wings or doublecheesebacon somethings), we split a BBQ pork sammich that was quite good (YES, with slaw….whattya think we are? Idiots?) and washed it down with some local Yazoo Dos Perros ales. A fine respite among the philistines…
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped to by American Pickers complex in the bee-yew-tiful Marathon Motors buildings. We wanted to see if the person who wore a Whitey Morgan T shirt on one of the episodes was there. Nope. Mostly it was full of people looking at $12,000 salvaged gas pumps and buying $25 t-shirts. But the architecture was that early 20th century industrial gorgeousness that'll never be reproduced.
When one attends church, one dresses up, so we did. Again, if you are a music fan, particularly a country music fan, and don't get the chills walking into the Ryman Auditorium, then a pox upon your house and gimme yer tickets, cuz I'll go again. The church metaphors get overused, but it WAS originally a tabernacle and you DO sit in pews and you DO feel history dripping from the walls and off the stage. Patsy Cline stood THERE! Hank Williams! Flatt & Scruggs! And now Justin Townes Earle. Humbling and thrilling. Justin charmed the audience-as is his wont-and all the songs on his records that we've released sounded grand in that room. Afterwards, we were backstage and JTE said casually "I'm going to get a smoke, let's go" so we followed and POW we were on the stage on our way to the exit. ON THE STAGE. I'll tell you, friends, that was a shot of adrenaline that left me shaking. What a night. How excellent if, a la Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," we could have walked out the back door, slipping through a few decades, and traipsed right into Tootsie's and tied a few on with Ernest Tubb (hopefully it'd be more fun than the movie, though, sheesh that was stinker…).
Sunday morning found us wanting a full on Southern breakfast before we set our compass on NORTH, we discovered a RoadFood entry about a place 2 blocks from where we were staying, Sands Soul Food Diner. Author Michael Stern hailed it as one of the best for breakfasts in town, but they tend to run out of their renowned country ham early, so, presuming a big post-church rush and not wanting to be left sans la joie de pig rustic, off when went at the opening hour of 11. Possessing all the outward charm of a pawnshop—tiny, steel mesh grated windows and concrete block construction—Sands was not crowded, with only a couple of folks ahead of us in the ubiquitous cafeteria line. Rather graphic Blood of Jesus-type gospel blared through distorting speakers and it smelled of heaven. Behind the plexi-glassed windows were stoves and ovens covered and crammed with all manner of pots, pans, dutch ovens and foil covered skillets. I was dizzy. But, OHNO, they don't serve breakfasts on Sunday! Curses!
We soothed our breakfast-less sorrows with a truly magnificent repast of roast turkey with dressing (the day's special), a corn fritter, baked beans and stewed apples and (blerg) sweet tea. Dee, somewhat panicking in line, got smothered chicken wings, corn, and potatoes. The wings were a surprising hit, although it tough to go wrong smothering meatstuffs at a meat and threes emporium.
To break up the drive back home through the pristine Kentucky countryside and breath some non-Music City air, we stopped for the night at a cabin in Mammoth Caves National Park in KY. Nothing, we thought, would stir our appetites, clear our heads and sooth our souls like a several mile hike through the hickory forests, up the bluffs of the Green River and around the various spooky cave entrances, followed by a hearty meal at the lodge and some icy cold beers.
Excellent hike: check
Scenic bluffs: check
Picturesque river: check
Legs stretched: check
Heads cleared: check
Appetites stirred: check check
Icy cold beers: D'OH! Sunday night in whatever county we were in was dry!. Beer coolers padlocked, waiter giving us the "I'm so sorry" look as he brought our waters. Traveler's beware: pack a flask, a cooler, extra mouthwash…whatever, when you venture to certain states on Sundays. Keep a list in your glovebox and take note of county lines packed with fireworks and liquor stores.
Adding to our torment were some nutjobs from Louisiana in the cabin next to us. 4 adults, 2 cats and an old OLD dog that had to be carried onto the porch were all crammed into the one room. The matriarch had a laugh like an aggrieved goat. (How did we know they were from Louisiana, you might ask? License plates? Cajun drawls? A bubbling pot of jambalaya and a cooler full of Dixie beer that they graciously shared with their tired and sweaty neighbors? Nope, the giveaway was the aforementioned goat-laugh woman shaking her rather prominent behind against the screen door and shouting at us "this is how we party in Louisiana!") Ah, the bounties of nature.
Next day, after a 2 hour tour of one of the Mammoth Caves, formed by water interminably seeping through the limestone over millions of years—or conjured 6000 yrs ago by Jesus—depending on who you listened to in our group, we carried on northward to Louisville. My rage at Country Hamus Denius had grown to near obsessive levels, so the only dictum to my friend in Louisville Catherine Irwin (Freakwater, new solo record in the fall on Thrill Jockey Records!) was Country Ham, dammit! Thus, she led us to the Garage Café on Market St (the "New Lou" area, I'm told) where they had, it pains me to write this, "Country Ham Flights." Now, I typically prefer my country ham served to me by someone in overalls rather than skinny jeans, but I'll stop by again. It was a bit of a precious presentation of a foodstuff of such an inherently earthy and Gnostic nature, but damn it hit the spot. And their wood-fired pizza oven produced a top-notch pie.
To summarize, Ryman awesome, meat and threes awesome, Lower Broad skeezy, watching records getting pressed awesome, caves dark, and beware the dry county!
Until next time…
Oh, and back to the question I posed at the beginning of this post: The song played at the end of the evening at the RYMAN F'ING AUDITORIUM was the theme to Sanford and Son. No lie.