Banjo On My Knee

Part travelogue, part guide book, part music memoir but mainly observational nonsense – Banjo On My Knee shows you how to survive a three-week journey through the music of America’s South and avoid some of the pitfalls of US travel.

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“A thoroughly entertaining read, a travelogue through Nashville and the deep south of the USA, culminating in a trip to Memphis. Our guide is a UK evangelist for Americana music, in the downhome environment of the Railway Inn, Winchester. Oliver is an engaging raconteur, and the narrative slips along easily, though he has sharp words for a few over mighty musicians, and a succession of low level holiday apartments, and even worse food, plus the difficulties of US city bus routes. Oliver captures the more scuzzy elements of the music industry but also its glories, and locates run down studios where great sounds were laid down in days long gone. The book is an engrossing journey in its own right, and also as a road map for anyone who wants to follow Oliver and – in latter chapters – his wife Birgit, who tolerates his obsessive love for good sounds with amazing good humour. I came away from reading this book with, for the first time, an appreciation of where Elvis Presley came from, and what he achieved (and left) and a greater understanding of the mind set behind the lonesome sounds Oliver brings to Winchester, from this surprisingly alien landscape.”

Prof. Brian Hinton, author of South By South-West: A Road Map of Alternative Country, for the online music magazine Caught In The Act.

For a brief taste of what it’s all about, read on:

Just a few metres from the door of the Loveless Café, we found the beginning of the Natchez Trace Parkway. I had been particularly looking forward to this because, if you have a driving phobia, you frankly don’t enjoy hurtling down six-lane highways, whereas I correctly anticipated that the Natchez Trace Parkway would be a considerably quieter proposition, and so it transpired. It was practically entirely without traffic. We would sometimes drive three or four miles without seeing a single car.

The Parkway is entirely free of all the things you expect to find on American roads. For a start, there are no houses, no shops, no hoardings, no bars, no restaurants, no hotels and there is an upper speed limit of 40 miles an hour. The road ambles peacefully through beautiful countryside and is the motorised equivalent of a pleasant country walk. It stretches 450 miles and was completed in 2005.

The idea for the Natchez Trace Parkway was conceived in the 1930s. The route set up was to follow the old Natchez Trace as closely as possible. The Trace had been a major foot trail in the 1700s and then became one of America’s first National Roads. It went from Nashville to Natchez, which were both towns of strategic and commercial importance. From 1699 to 1763, the entire area had been controlled by France. After the Seven Years’ War, France gave the majority of its North American land to Spain and the Mississippi River became the border between the English and Spanish colonies. Navigation of the river was shared by both countries. The French had built a fort at Natchez in 1716. By the time the Spanish took control, the town had grown into a major commercial centre.

Goods needed to be transported down the Mississippi in the era before the railways. Although this was easy when going downstream, travelling upstream against the current was impossible. Boatmen heading for New Orleans therefore sold their barges for scrap once they reached their destination. The only way back home was to walk, and the trail they created to walk along was the Natchez Trace.

The Trace began as a series of disjointed Indian trails that connected the Natchez area to what would become Nashville. Gradually, the Indian paths became one well-worn, continuous trail. It took about six weeks to travel to Nashville on foot, or roughly four by horse.

After the Revolution, Spain took control of the Mississippi River and closed the port of New Orleans to American goods. In 1795, the dispute was finally resolved by the Treaty of Madrid. After this treaty, the Mississippi was open to tax-free travel by American merchants, and the Natchez area was given to the United States. In 1798, the area was organized into what was called the Mississippi Territory.

The government decided to expand the Natchez Trace into a National Road. Treaties were signed with the Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians and the Trace began to expand. Previously only used by boat people traffic, the road now started being used for general travel. However, it could be quite dangerous for travellers, as bandits abounded, as well as deep mud, mosquitoes, poison ivy and poisonous snakes in the swamps. Of course, white and Indian businessmen soon began to set up “stands,” or inns, along the Trace to offer accommodation and sustenance to tired and hungry travellers. Only one stand remains today, at Mount Locust, but as you travel along the Parkway, you can see signs marking where stands used to be.

Today’s route largely follows the original Trace and every couple of miles there is an excuse to stop. Small car parks by the road lead to historic sites, walking trails, scenic overlooks and nature trails. At some stages there are even opportunities to go off road and drive along the original Trace before it was developed as a tourist route. This really gives you a feel what it would have been like for those original travellers. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when we reached a particular nature trail where there was no sign of any other human beings and we saw numerous tiny hummingbirds, plus a couple of deer, and sat for nearly an hour watching two beavers traversing a lake repeatedly while transporting pieces of wood to create their dam. I’m afraid to say I had a little weep. As we emerged from the woods, we met two ladies who were armed with a forked stick, to ward off, they informed us, the numerous venomous snakes to be found in the area. Good thing we hadn’t known that before.

Another fascinating detour was to a mysterious memorial to Captain Meriwether Lewis, near Grinder’s Stand. As personal secretary to Thomas Jefferson, Lewis was sent on an expedition to Louisiana and later became governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory. While travelling to Washington, where some of his bills had been queried, he travelled along part of the Natchez Trace. On the morning of October 11 1809, while staying in Grinder’s Stand, Lewis died of gunshot wounds. Most evidence suggests that Lewis’ wounds were self-inflicted, and it was generally accepted that he must have committed suicide, but some later accounts suggested that Lewis may have been murdered. It’s one of the most eerily atmospheric places on the Trace.

We pulled off the road repeatedly into deserted car parks and everywhere we went was pure fascination. We took a trail down to Jackson Falls, which turned out to have no water in them, on account of the drought-like conditions. The weather, of course, continued to be utterly idyllic throughout. At the Falls, we met an unlikely group of roadies – young bearded students clad in black shorts and T-shirts saying “Crew”. They were so out of condition that they were suffering from exhaustion, having walked the mere mile or so from the previous car park.

When researching where to stay along the Trace, it wasn’t easy to find any accommodation, because there are no hotels anywhere near it, so I’d had to choose a particular town to head for. We had agreed that we were going to book accommodation in advance as far as possible, because of so many bad experiences, many years ago, of trying to find hotels in France late at night and discovering that they were all booked up or closed. This causes stress, and the idea of this road trip was to avoid stress as far as possible, so I had stuck a pin in a map and come up with Waynesborough. This was chosen simply because I liked the name and could imagine John Wayne, pistols cocked, striding into the saloon for a shoot-out. The motel I had picked looked gorgeous and indeed, to be fair, the photo on the booking website hadn’t been doctored, but merely been taken from an extremely advantageous angle. What looked like a country mansion on the website was a standard motel by the side of a busy road, overlooking an industrial estate. But the Indian owner, having reacted with the customary amazement at the suggestion that we might want to walk into town, did recommend us a particular restaurant. He said it was on the square, which slightly baffled me because small American towns seldom have squares. (Pretty much all the franchisees of all the motels we visited were charming Indians, which was unexpected but very pleasant).

Waynesboro did indeed have a square at its heart. Most of the shops round it were abandoned but there was one restaurant, which was adjacent to the only functioning building, which inevitably was the local headquarters of the Republican Party. The meal began with an awful shock, which we received when ordering from the friendly young teenage waitress:

“Two burgers and two beers please.”

“We don’t have beer.”

“You don’t have beer?!”

“No sir, this is a dry county. You can have water, Cola or Dr Pepper.”

This was bad news indeed, as we were both parched and both hate sugary drinks, but as there were no other restaurants in town, we settled for water. At the table next to us, a very stiff meal was taking place. A father was clearly having a scheduled meeting with his estranged children, all of whom largely ignored their very full plates and stared at their phones for the entire evening.

Back at the hotel, it was time to indulge in that familiar American experience of trying to find anything whatsoever worth tuning into on TV. In the unlikely event that there is anything worth watching, it’s only a matter of a couple of minutes before it will be interrupted by advertisements, mainly for strange and incomprehensible pharmaceutical items whose merits are entirely negated by the enormous list of terrifying-sounding side effects, which lasts much longer than the actual advertisement. But it had been a long and wonderful day and, having given up hope of ever finding out the results of the US equivalent of Dragon’s Den, we slept like logs. The following day’s target was Muscle Shoals.

As we crossed the state line from Tennessee to Alabama, I’d been searching for a generic way to describe the Natchez Trace parkway. There’s a road in Southern Germany called the Romantic Road. It is indeed extremely romantic, but even it has the odd town here and there, whereas the Natchez Trace Parkway simply glides on calmly for hundreds of miles without touching any agglomerations. As far as I’m concerned, it’s so perfect that it should be christened the Idyllic Road.

On the route towards Muscle Shoals, we were attracted by a place called Florence. Having spent pleasant times in its Italian namesake, we had high hopes for this town, but it turned out to be a major disappointment. We spent nearly two hours searching for anything of any interest whatsoever, all the while panicking about whether we had understood the parking restrictions correctly. What the Americans call “historic” does not equate with European notions of the concept. Still, we did have quite a nice ice cream in a sweltering parlour in the largely abandoned main street.

There was a reason for heading for the Muscle Shoals recording studios. Not only did The Rolling Stones record several tracks of their classic album “Sticky Fingers” there, but it was also the source of one of my favourite records of all time, namely “Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory”, by Traffic. This album was the follow-up to the very highly acclaimed “Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys” and, while most people claim that the latter was a greater record, I prefer “Shoot Out”. It was very clearly the product of gargantuan drug use, being almost entirely snail-paced and highly stoned in character, but the musicianship is sublime and one reason for that is the presence of the session musicians known as the Swampers.

The studio was originally opened by them in 1969. Then known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the Swampers consisted of Jimmy Johnson on guitar, David Hood on bass, Barry Beckett on keyboards and Roger Hawkins on drums. They had got together at the Fame studio in Muscle Shoals (which is just down the road and can also be visited). At Fame, the Swampers had became renowned for accompanying artists like Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, in a style of funky soul/R&B. In 1969, the Swampers decided to branch out on their own and open their own studio at 3614 Jackson Highway. It was very unusual at the time for musicians to actually own their own recording studio and administer all aspects themselves. From working with him at Fame, they already had a good relationship with Jerry Wexler, the boss of Atlantic Records, and he was willing to lend them money to buy equipment.

The studio got off to a great start, producing Cher’s first solo album, which actually bore the title “3614 Jackson Highway” and has a photo of the building on its cover. Also that year, they recorded an album with Lulu called “New Routes”. Unlikely as it may seem, this is a great record, one of the many now displayed on the walls of the studio’s basement. It followed a trend set by Dusty Springfield, who, the year before, had made the album “Dusty In Memphis” with American soul session musicians.

Muscle Shoals Studio’s first chart success came in 1969 with a one-off hit by RB Greaves, called “Take A Letter Maria”. Just at the same time, the Rolling Stones took over the studio for three nights, during which they recorded “You Gotta Move”, “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar”, all of which eventually appeared on their 1971 album “Sticky Fingers”. The sessions, which have since passed into legend, were slotted, at the suggestion of Keith Richards, into a few days off that had been built into the Stones’ US tour. The band felt it was an appropriate place to record “You Gotta Move”, as it had been written by Mississippi Fred McDowell. “Wild Horses”, in particular, captured the swampy feel of the deep South area they found themselves in.

In the nine years from 1969 to 1978, the Swampers played on over two hundred records, of which more than seventy-five went Gold or Platinum. Artists who recorded at the studio included Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Sweet Home Alabama”), Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens and Rod Stewart. Eventually, by 1978, the studio had outgrown its premises and therefore moved to a larger building nearby. Original Swamper David Hood (who is the father of Drive By Truckers’ Patterson Hood) hit the road with Traffic for several years and is still an active musician.

Following closure, the original location on Jackson Highway was used first as an electrical goods retailer and later as an appliance repair shop, before falling into disrepair in the late 1990s. It lay empty until being re-opened in 2009 as a working studio, where the Black Keys recorded their album “Brothers”. In recent years, it has finally been restored to its former glory by a music foundation, recognising its heritage and potential as a cultural tourist attraction. Bizarrely, but happily, this was largely achieved with the help of a large donation from Beats Electronics, the audio company owned by Dr Dre.

The hotel I had booked was a so-called Red Roof Inn. This was a chain of which we had previously had no experience, but which turned out to be exactly the same as any Days Inn, Motel 6 or Super 8, which was fine. It even had a tiny pool, which we leapt into with alacrity. We then programmed the address of Muscle Shoals Studio into our admittedly slightly fallible Sat Nav and set off. In the middle of a large metal bridge crossing the Tennessee river, our friendly digital guide announced, “You have reached your destination.”

“This can’t possibly be right,” said Birgit, so we pulled over at the first opportunity and re-programmed it. The result was exactly the same. As we crossed the bridge in the opposite direction, it once more announced that we were where we were wanting to be. Several more attempts produced the same result, so all we could think of doing was returning to the hotel and asking for advice. The previously rather grumpy receptionist burst into a wide smile; this was obviously something that she had had to deal with many times before.

“That would be because Muscle Shoals studio isn’t in Muscle Shoals,” she announced triumphantly. “Did you put Muscle Shoals into your GPS?”

“Yes, of course I did. It’s called Muscle Shoals, isn’t it?”

“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong. Muscle Shoals studio is not in Muscle Shoals. It’s in Sheffield.”

It’s always slightly baffling when you come across the names of English towns and cities in America. We had already passed a Gloucester, a Worcester, a Winchester and a Manchester, so it wasn’t really much of a surprise to find ourselves near Sheffield. A quick bit of Sat Nav manipulation, replacing Muscle Shoals by Sheffield, led us to our destination, the tiny nondescript white building we had been seeking at number 3614, Jackson Highway.

It seemed likely that we had misunderstood the promise on the website that there would be hourly tours, as the place appeared to be deserted. But no, as we entered, we found a small gift shop and a couple of friendly staff. Before long, we had been joined by two or three middle-aged couples rather like ourselves. We all fitted the expected demographic to a tee (the men being overawed and the wives smilingly tolerant), and set off with our guide, Chase, for what turned out to be one of the most emotional experiences of my life.

First, we entered the basement, which was where the musicians would hang out when not recording. It was decorated from top to bottom with sleeves of albums that had been recorded there, classics from the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger, Traffic, the Rolling Stones, of course, plus Rod Stewart and Cat Stevens. Also in the cellar was a secret bar. Sheffield having been being in those days a dry county, the only way bands like the Stones could get their hands on any alcohol was to send someone out to the next county to smuggle a few crates back and hide them in this wood-panelled cave, which was always kept locked.

Upstairs in the studio, which is a working recording facility, was where the real excitement began. Following decades of dereliction, the building had only been reopened for visitors six months before. What’s so brilliant about Muscle Shoals is that you don’t just look at the studio, you are allowed to be a part of it, playing the instruments (including the piano that Jim Dickinson played on “Wild Horses”) and touching the equipment, for all the world as if you were recording there yourself. The tour is, of course, illustrated by iconic pieces of music that were created there, and among the many exhibits is the invoice for 1009 dollars presented to the Rolling Stones for when they recorded “Wild Horses”.

Chase told us the story of how the Stones locked Keith Richards into the tiny toilet with the melody for the track and instructed him not to emerge until he’d written the lyrics, which he duly did. We do not know what else Keith did in the toilet, but I made sure to go in and take a selfie in there.

I quizzed Chase about the making of Shoot Out At The Fantasy Factory. Apparently, Traffic did not have the requisite work permits to record in the USA at all, and the whole process had to be carried out in some secrecy. He smiled conspiratorially when I enquired what he knew about their legendarily copious drug intake. As we left, Birgit took my photo on the small balcony where people like the Stones would go out for fresh air or to smoke something or other. It just felt so surreal and so perfect that I’m afraid to say I burst into tears.

We had been puzzling about where to go out for dinner, because all that was to be seen along any of the roads were chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, etc etc, none of which held any attraction at all. I button-holed Chase and described what we were after: something authentic, something local that wasn’t a chain, something where we could relax with a beer and possibly some music.

Chase said, “I know just the place. All you need to do is turn left down this road and at the end of it you’ll find Champy’s.” This turned out to be a spectacularly good piece of advice, because Champy’s was everything I had dreamed of when I made the request: a wooden road house specialising in locally sourced fried chicken. Normally chicken has no attraction for me, but everybody I had spoken to in advance of the trip said you had to try fried chicken if you were in the south of America. The waitress was absolutely charming and amazed by our presence, because it was not the sort of place that tourists would normally find.

Personally, I have absolutely no problem with standards of service in the USA. If people are being nice to us just because they want a good tip, that suits me just fine, because I like people who are nice to me. We had a few questions about the menu, for example what Hush Puppies were. She couldn’t really describe them, so suggested giving us a couple to try. They turned out to be something along the lines of falafels, extremely tasty and easy to eat. I had already noticed with great joy that the cold beer was just three dollars a pint and in the end, we both went for the fried chicken. This was a perfect choice, because it was the best chicken I have ever eaten in my life: gigantic hunks of breast meat in spicy breadcrumbs that luckily were so tender that even the flimsy plastic cutlery provided was just about able to cut them.

As we returned to the Red Roof Motel, feeling suitably replete, I did notice that the next door room had a couple of picnic chairs and some stuff that looked suspiciously like drug paraphernalia outside them, but it was none of our business, so we thought no more about it. We were asleep by ten, but around about midnight, the noise started. It was two people sitting in those chairs, accompanied by a dog, loud music and endless loud, coarse and profane chatter.

Despite the inconvenience, my overwhelming thought was “guns” and I was confident that Birgit’s earplugs would be protecting her from the disturbance. Thus it was with a certain amount of horror that I became aware that she had got out of bed, wrapped herself in her sheet and was striding determinedly towards the door.

“For God’s sake, you’ll get us shot,” I whispered as loudly as I dared.

“Nonsense, I’m going to sort them out,” she replied and, before I could protest any further, had wrenched the door open and was lecturing the pair in a very polite but clear way on the selfishness of depriving other guests of their sleep.

“That’s it,” I thought. “I’m going to be pulling her out of a pool of blood any moment now,” but I was wrong. A deathly hush descended and we were able to drift back into undisturbed slumber for the rest of the night. In the morning, there was no sign of our neighbours and, by a miracle, we were still alive.