x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A rock and roll tour of America's Deep South

The states of Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi are the cradle of soul, blues, country and rock music, but they are also a song of America.

The blues musician James
The blues musician James "Super Chikan" Johnson sits on the front porch of a shack on the Hopson plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi. Getty Images

It is the music people come for and the music that is ringing in their ears as they head for home.

From Memphis, Tennessee, via Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to Clarksdale, Mississippi, this part of the Deep South is so rich in musical associations that there is no more evocative region in the whole of the United States.

It is not physically spectacular. Take away the mighty Mississippi, ol' man river rolling imperiously along, untouched by time, and much of the landscape is flat and featureless: mile upon mile of straight highway punctuated by shopping malls and fast food outlets.

The Mississippi stretch of Highway 61, immortalised in a Bob Dylan album, has a totemic place in music history, but is hardly picturesque. Roadside billboards promise everything from cheap burgers to affordable divorces. But if you know anything at all about modern music, you feel a tingle of excitement. History is around you.

From the parched cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to the grimy backstreets of downtown Memphis, the ghosts of the past are stirring - extraordinary men and women whose lives rose on a dizzying rags-to-riches trajectory and, more often than not, descended to an early grave.

Whether your passion is for soul or country, blues or rock'n'roll, you will feel as if you are on a concert tour as much as on holiday. There are so many musical shrines, from the birthplace of Elvis Presley to world-famous recording studios such as Fame and Stax, that it would take the best part of a fortnight to visit them all.

But for music-lovers who relish the thrills and spills of a fly-drive holiday, it is hard to imagine a better way to engage with warts-and-all America: a world that is the reverse of glamorous but which pulses with energy and humanity.

On the car radio, in glorious succession, the old favourites boom out, until the lyrics form a seamless whole, a strange cocktail of cornball sentiment, bitterness and deep melancholy. "Sleeping single in a double bed ... your cheatin' heart ... ain't that just like a woman ... love me tender, love me troooo ... "

You could listen to the same music at home. Of course you could. But until you see the harsh landscape of the Delta, birthplace of sounds that have become part of the background music of our lives, you will never fully understand them.

It is the music people come for and the music that is ringing in their ears as they head for home.

From Memphis, Tennessee, via Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to Clarksdale, Mississippi, this part of the Deep South is so rich in musical associations that there is no more evocative region in the whole of the United States.

It is not physically spectacular. Take away the mighty Mississippi, ol' man river rolling imperiously along, untouched by time, and much of the landscape is flat and featureless: mile upon mile of straight highway punctuated by shopping malls and fast food outlets.

The Mississippi stretch of Highway 61, immortalised in a Bob Dylan album, has a totemic place in music history, but is hardly picturesque. Roadside billboards promise everything from cheap burgers to affordable divorces. But if you know anything at all about modern music, you feel a tingle of excitement. History is around you.

From the parched cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to the grimy backstreets of downtown Memphis, the ghosts of the past are stirring - extraordinary men and women whose lives rose on a dizzying rags-to-riches trajectory and, more often than not, descended to an early grave.

Whether your passion is for soul or country, blues or rock'n'roll, you will feel as if you are on a concert tour as much as on holiday. There are so many musical shrines, from the birthplace of Elvis Presley to world-famous recording studios such as Fame and Stax, that it would take the best part of a fortnight to visit them all.

But for music-lovers who relish the thrills and spills of a fly-drive holiday, it is hard to imagine a better way to engage with warts-and-all America: a world that is the reverse of glamorous but which pulses with energy and humanity.

On the car radio, in glorious succession, the old favourites boom out, until the lyrics form a seamless whole, a strange cocktail of cornball sentiment, bitterness and deep melancholy. "Sleeping single in a double bed ... your cheatin' heart ... ain't that just like a woman ... love me tender, love me troooo ... "

You could listen to the same music at home. Of course you could. But until you see the harsh landscape of the Delta, birthplace of sounds that have become part of the background music of our lives, you will never fully understand them.

The blues music of the 1920s and 1930s flowered out of grinding poverty, with workers picking cotton for 16 hours a day on plantations that had hardly changed since the Civil War. Take away the context and the music loses its meaning.

One of the most evocative sites in the whole region is the scruffy street corner in Greenwood, Mississippi, where the blues legend Robert Johnson died at the age of 27, allegedly poisoned by strychnine. It is a dirt-poor part of town, on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. Half the telegraph poles are crooked, and there is a rancid smell from the shack where a mangy dog keeps watch behind a rusting fence. A solitary overhead traffic light sways in the breeze.

But the poverty explains the blues.

For Johnson, whose centenary falls this year, and whose memory is kept alive in a lovingly tended museum in a tumbledown house, the life of an itinerant blues singer, playing for tips on street corners, might have been precarious, but at least it offered an escape.

Others escaped in different ways. At the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, you can find out all about Muddy Waters, who got his nickname when he was a boy playing the harmonica in the mud in a backwater of Mississippi, but later moved to Chicago, where he became one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.

Across the road from the museum is the Ground Zero Blues Club, a trendy restaurant co-owned by the Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman. It has become a magnet for blues fans from around the world. Even at lunch time, you will get live music with your burgers: melancholy songs about love and loss, sung in growly basses that seem to catch in the throat.

Clarksdale may be the epicentre of the Delta Blues and attract coach-loads of visitors, but it remains a poor, rundown town. The roads are pitted with potholes and every other building seems to be boarded up. But the town also has a residual dignity.

The woman laying flowers on her husband's grave in the Clarksdale cemetery is dressed to the nines, in an immaculate navy suit and shoes that have been freshly polished.

You can still stay at the Riverside Hotel, in Clarksdale where Bessie Smith, empress of the blues, met her death in 1937 after being injured in a car accident. But don't expect luxury. The hotel, run by a charming man called Rat, has hardly changed since the 1930s, when blues singers could expect a bed and a roof over their heads and that was that.

Of the country juke joints in the Delta where the first blues singers performed, the only one still in business is Po' Monkey's Lounge, on the outskirts of Merigold.

It is basically just a shack with a corrugated-iron roof, at the end of a dirt road surrounded by cotton fields; but go there in the evening, when you will find a 70-year-old man hunched over his guitar, with his eyes half shut, crooning into the night, and you will learn more about modern music than in the swankiest nightclub in Chicago.

Even if they escaped the cotton fields, very few of the blues singers we now regard as iconic made much money. An exception is the incomparable BB King, that great bear of a man, almost as wide as he is tall, but still going strong into his 80s.

There is an excellent BB King Museum in Indianola, Mississippi, situated in the cotton mill where the singer worked as a boy. The museum does not just contain a wealth of memorabilia, but gives you a flavour of the life of struggle - the long hours of work, poorly paid, in debilitating heat - from which King and his fellow musicians emerged.

If Mississippi is hallowed as the home of the blues, its appeal to music-lovers does not end there. No visit to the area should omit a visit to Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis Presley.

The home where the King was born - faithfully preserved, just next to the chapel where he sang in the choir - is so tiny that it tugs at the heartstrings. On the wall of the solitary bedroom, there is a framed version of Kipling's If -, a poem Presley knew by heart. The kitchen is so small you could hardly get a guitar through the door.

At the Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum, old schoolfriends of Elvis are happy to reminisce about the boy they knew (improbably, until you do your arithmetic). "We were just ordinary kids," remembers Guy Harris, now a sprightly septuagenarian - while Elvis was becoming a musical superstar, he served in the Tupelo police force. "We'd play ball, go fishing in the creek, then hang out by the cinema, checking out the girls."

This is small-town America at its quirky, engaging best. The ramshackle hardware store where Elvis's mother bought him his first guitar as a birthday present - she paid $7.75 (Dh46), digging deep into the family coffers - has hardly changed in half a century. Elvis wanted a rifle, but she talked him out of it, and the rest is history.

Elvis fans will naturally want to visit Graceland, near Memphis, Tennessee, where the singer lived until he died in 1977. It is a depressing experience. The whiff of conspicuous consumption - the pink Cadillacs, the no-expense-spared clothes, the solid gold sink in the humongous private jet - is ubiquitous.

The singer never lost his small-town decency. The wall of his office is lined with copies of $1,000 cheques made out to everyone from the Salvation Army to the Memphis Jewish Community Centre. But he paid a high price for his celebrity - like many others.

More rewarding than a visit to Graceland, surrounded by camera-clicking hordes, is a visit to Sun Studio, also in Memphis. This is where the young Elvis walked in off the street and begged the woman at the front desk to let him do a demo recording. You can still hear it when you visit the studio: raw, hesitant, but so rich in promise that it makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

Memphis is central to any understanding of American music, indeed of the US as a whole. Not far from the Sun Studio is the Stax studio, now a museum of soul music - another ingredient in a rich, multicultural stew.

In the early 1960s, black and white musicians worked alongside each other at Stax, sharing ideas, fusing traditions, without giving race a second thought. But all that changed with the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.

The Memphis motel where King was shot is now the National Civil Rights Museum, and a place of pilgrimage in its own right. The museum is as uplifting as Graceland is depressing: a reminder of battles waged and won by men and women of courage - like Rosa Parks, "the first lady of civil rights", who in 1955 refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Birmingham, Alabama.

Alabama does not have such a rich musical heritage as Mississippi or Tennessee, but music buffs will want to make a detour to Muscle Shoals, home to the Fame studio, where Aretha Franklin recorded many of her best-known songs, and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, beloved of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and many others.

The Alabama Music Hall of Fame, in Tuscumbia, is a delightful place, a real showcase for the music of the area. I indulged myself by cutting a record of me singing the 1970s hit Sweet Home Alabama, with assorted friends, relatives and museum attendants providing the vocal backing. It will not be featuring in the charts, but it was wildly fun.

And so to our last port of call - Nashville, Tennessee, the world capital of country music. Some music buffs are a bit snobbish about country music, and start making Dolly Parton jokes if you admit you are a fan, but it is not hard to see its appeal if you track it down to its source.

Cruise the honky-tonk bars in downtown Nashville and you will find yourself humming along with the music, or tapping your foot on the floor, before you realise you are doing it. After the melancholy of the blues, it is an infectious sound.

No music-lover would want to miss the Ryman Auditorium, affectionately known as the Mother Church of Country Music. In its heyday, from 1925 to 1974, the splendid 2,000-seater auditorium, originally the Union Gospel Tabernacle, was home to the Grand Ole Opry, an American institution with a global reputation.

From Hank Williams to Patsy Cline - two more musical legends who died tragically young, at 29 and 30 respectively - every country singer of note performed here.

It is their voices we remember, but we should not ignore the guitars that accompanied them. Another not-to-be-missed Nashville institution is the Gibson guitar factory. It was badly damaged by a flood last year, but is now back in business, producing instruments that have become a byword for craftsmanship.

Of the many steps in making a guitar, from the neck-fitting to the painting to the buffing, almost all are done by hand; and to watch the workers bent over their respective tasks, concentrating furiously, is a reminder that great art is not produced without elbow grease.

One of the Gibson workers is singing Patsy Cline's I Fall to Pieces under her breath as she buffs a guitar. Music is catching in this part of the United States. You can't get away from it - and you wouldn't want to.

If you go

The flight

Fly Abu Dhabi-Chicago-Memphis on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) and then American (www.aa.com) for fares starting at Dh5,005 per person, taxes included

The stay

Original Music Travel (www.originalmusictravel.com; 0044 20 7978 0500) organises individual trips and small group tours to the Deep South. A seven-night trip from Nashville to Memphis via Alabama and Mississippi costs from £1,200 (Dh7,187) per person, based on two people sharing, and includes room-only accommodation, car hire, transfers, local guides and taxes

The info

For general tourist information about the Deep South, visit www.deep-south-usa.com