Finding America in its music
Juke joints, honky-tonks and all that jazz
By Rick Holmes
March 24, 2017
MEMPHIS – The currents of American music run as deep and wide here as the mighty Mississippi.
It’s no coincidence that my journey into America in search of common ground should take me to places where so much of our musical identity was forged. I’ve always seen music as the richest part of our cultural heritage. Music invented in America – jazz, blues, country music and rock ‘n’ roll – is among our greatest gifts to the world. Music ought to bind us together, even in these divided times.
So I went to the cradle of America’s musical traditions, and listened.
I started in Nashville, where country is king, in the Broadway honky-tonks that have become the center of Nashville’s tourist industry. Bridesmaids ride up and down Broadway on rolling bars, pedaling while they drink. The sounds of vintage country and modern country-pop flow out of doors and onto sidewalks. In another part of town, I heard Vince Gill, a near-legend in country music, and a band made up of some of country’s finest musicians play their regular Monday gig in a small Nashville club. Unforgettable.
I arrived in New Orleans just after Mardi Gras, when the trees were still dripping with beads and the locals still complaining of hangovers. It’s the birthplace of jazz, but the city’s musical mix today is a spicy gumbo of influences. Bourbon Street and Frenchmen Street are as noisy with music as Nashville’s Broadway. In New Orleans, you can hear better music on the sidewalk for free than you’ll find in the top venues of most other cities.
I went to churches in Alabama and Tennessee, where I was blessed with the exuberance of gospel music. Gospel music comes in different flavors – from the tight harmonies of a gospel quartet to full choirs, soaring soloists and screaming electric guitars. One Sunday I joined the congregation at Bishop Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, where for 40 years he’s been singing and preaching the same sweetness and power that made him an R&B superstar.
Green’s church is in a working class neighborhood in South Memphis. Eleven miles north is Beale Street. A century ago, W.C. Handy came to Beale Street from his home in the Mississippi Delta, bringing the blues with him.
The blues lives on Beale Street still, in a somewhat sanitized and corporatized environment. Horse-drawn carriages bounce on the cobblestones and open consumption of alcohol is not just allowed, it’s encouraged. I bought myself a “Walk Me Down,” and walked, sampling the sounds blasting out of a dozen juke joints as I sipped a potent concoction from a plastic cup.
But this isn’t a story of competing genres of homegrown music. Memphis is a place where musical traditions collide and find new forms and new audiences. It’s where a young white kid raised on country and gospel met the blues. With help from producer Sam Phillips and buddies like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley wove those threads into rock ‘n’ roll.
I visited Graceland, which is about Elvis the celebrity, not Elvis the musician. I found the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, also in Memphis, more compelling. It tells the story of a similar alchemy that blended blues and country into soul.
“You have to incorporate the church, the blues and country music” to understand soul, said Ray Charles, who knew a thing or two about American music. “They are all intertwined.”
A current exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame spotlights an intertwining that occurred at a moment when America’s musical tastes seemed as polarized as its politics. Encouraged by Johnny Cash, among others, Bob Dylan left New York for Nashville, where he recorded three of his best albums. Where Dylan went, music followed. Soon everyone wanted to record with the gifted musicians that became known as the “Nashville Cats.”
While much was made of the political implications of the Dylan-Cash collaboration, for Dylan and Cash, it was about the music, not politics. Both were steeped in America’s folk music traditions and deeply respectful of its roots, but both were also gifted artists and musical disrupters. Cash helped give us rockabilly; Dylan invented folk-rock. Together they made new music that still sounds great.
That kind of churning of tradition and innovation is what makes American music so alive. Nourished by deep roots, it keeps producing new branches. Like the mighty Mississippi, American music constantly replenishes itself. The same can be said for America itself.