We arose from our clean but cell-like rooms at the Wyndam “Microtel”–a new concept in moteling–and put on our cowboy boots (at least in our imaginations), and galloped into downtown Nashville to sample the country music culture.
Let us just note for posterity’s sake that it was very hot, even at this early morning hour. Heat has definitely played a role in this trip, albeit not in the hi-tech air-conditioned command module of the Dylan-mobile. When outside, we have had to limit our time in unshaded areas. The Audi has been burning some oil, and the car’s outdoor thermometer registered 107 degrees we returned to it today in the parking lot. But the most disturbing impact of the heat was the condition of the crops we saw along the way. We had been alerted to this problem by the South Dakota farmers we met in Duluth. But seeing it was another matter. In Iowa and Illinois the corn seemed stressed and stunted. But in Mississippi–and we had neglected to mention this–there were vast fields that rolled on for miles from the road to the horizon where the corn was burned to a crisp. If would be surprising if this calamity didn’t have an impact on world food supplies and prices. (An article in the NY Times the next day would confirm this). One young woman in Memphis told me that “It is always hot in the south and we have gotten used to that, but this has been a VERY hot summer.”
We parked and entered the Country Music Museum Hall of Fame and received what we hoped for: a good understanding of the complex origins of a musical genre that informed some of Dylan’s work. All the strands were traced out here and attractively through display case collages, video, and audio: Hillbilly, Gospel, Honky Tonk, Cowboy, Bluegrass, Rockabilly, Country Rock and more. There were tributes to all the great stars of Country, including Dylan’s Hibbing-era hero, Hank Williams. (William words were among those chiseled into the building’s outside wall: “You ask what makes our kind of music successful. I’ll tell. It can be explained in one word. Sincerity.”)We met a surprising number of people visiting from others countries, including, France, Denmark, and New Zealand. But naturally most of the people there were Americans and Bill’s perception was that they formed a closer musical community than the crowds we saw at Cleveland’s Rock n’ Roll Museum. It was wonderful to see elderly visitors looking reverentially at or listening to the beloved performers who made the old time music they grew up with.
Still, our question was, as usual, would some Dylan footprints be found here? We didn’t expect them and wouldn’t have been ticked off if we hadn’t found any. We would have understood. Fortunately, we didn’t have to deal with any conflicted emotions. In one of the last galleries, there was a photo of Bob talking to Kris Kristofferson. OK! (Strange doings: neither Larry nor I had thought about the place name Tallahatchie in years, or namesake river. But then we crossed the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi, and only moments later correctly associated it with the Emmett Till case. While we were examining the Dylan photo, we began to hear the audio from a video in the same exhibit case…it was Bobbi Gentry singing the “Ode To Billie Jo McAlister” who sadly jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Suddenly, we were surrounded by “Tallahatchie” everywhere we went! To add to the weirdness, the exhibit noted that the Tallahatchie Bridgewas located in Money, Mississippi, the very town where the young Emmett Till was killed. Oh phantoms, leave us be!)
Of course our hearts burst with pride and our eyes brightened when we discovered ten feet away a major video display of Dylan singing “One Too Many Mornings” in a recording studio with Johnny Cash. Hey, great museum! Just before leaving, Bill went into the gift shop and emerged with post card drawn by R. Crumb. In his inimitable style, it showed some old people sitting on rockers in a living room and playing guitar, fiddle, and accordion. The caption reads: “Where has it gone, all the beautiful music of our grandparents?”
We walked a hot block to the iconic Tootsie’s, a bar and venue for live music, where we happily munched on pulled pork sandwiches while listening to two young country singers who were surprising good. These kids may have a future! (Suddenly we were mavens of country music. After all, hadn’t we just spent a couple of hours in the museum?)
And from there, we walked a few blocks to the old Ryman Auditorium, which used to be the main venue for the Grand Old Opry and is still considered the “Mother Church of Country Music.” It had a few displays, but it was the sheer venerableness of the place that held and moved you. Oh, the performers who had sung and played on that stage! We can now include Larry who paid $10 to stand up there with a guitar prop and have his photo taken. If visitors went to the Museum as a community, they came to the Ryman as pilgrims.
We left Nashville for our long two day drive to Washington D.C. where our Dylan quest will continue. But before we left, we did an Internet search that showed Dylan had played at the Ryman at least five times, most recently in 2011.
Since we couldn’t see Dylan live, we listened to all his country records while in Nashville (Nashville Skyline, John Wesley Harding, New Morning, and Planet Waves). And then in a cloud of dust, we were gone.