With one of the largest stockyards in the country, it’s no surprise that Amarillo, TX has its fair share of real cowboys. Every year these ranchers bring their cattle and horses to the Amarillo National Center to compete against each other in the Coors Cowboy Club Ranch Rodeo for bragging rights in Saddle Bronc Riding, Stray Gathering, Branding, Trailer Loading, and Wild Cow Milking.
The event officially started on June 3, with its annual longhorn cattle drive through downtown Amarillo. Although Leah and I arrived one day later, Dorinda Blease was there to capture the procession in her grand prize photo.
We cheered with the crowd as the same cattle were released into the arena on the second evening of the rodeo. They milled around for 15 minutes, acting rather nonplussed…
or feeling right at home…
before meandering to the other end of the arena and through the egress gates as future steaks.
After a yellow rose ceremony to memorialize the local cowboys and rodeo guardians who passed over to the Great Ranch in the Sky during the past year, the evening started with saddle bronc riding.
The crowd waits eagerly in anticipation as the horse and rider are carefully prepared in the bucking chute. The moment the gate is opened, the horse bursts free with the rider holding on for dear life and 8 precious seconds,
showing off his finesse, balance and agility…
A rodeo interlude for all the little cowkids (aged 4 to 7) who were brave enough to ride a slippery mutton buster kept us entertained…
and the sheep, as well.
The cowboys also tested their roping skills, where they had to catch and wrangle a rogue steer to the ground before binding its legs.
With a dozen ranches competing against each other,
there were winners and losers for those keeping score.
But for me, the critters won the day.
And they could probably teach a thing or two to the guys who are pulling the wrong end for milk.
Few places on earth are more perfect for burying 10 aging Cadillacs nose first, than a hay field along I-40 East, just beyond the Amarillo, TX border.
Commissioned by Amarillo eccentric and millionaire, Stanley Marsh in 1974, Cadillac Ranch was the brainchild of Ant Farm, a San Francisco collective of architects whose counter-cultural take on consumerism inspired a Route 66 installation that’s still attracting tourists and future graffiti artists.
It was a carnival atmosphere when Leah and I arrived one late afternoon. Food trucks and vendors selling spray paint were parked inside the farm gates tending to families who had come to showcase their tagging talents…
albeit temporarily, since it never lasts for more than a moment when others are there for the same purpose.
Over time, the paint build-up has transformed the Cadillac shells into grotesque casualties of Rust-oleum polymers,
leaving behind a graveyard of cans…
atop freshly, blazed signatures.
Fortunately, there are advisory signs directing people to act responsibly.
But signs are just a distraction from the real business at hand,
which is group participation in a colorful experiment of American culture and capitalism.
With rainy weather on the horizon in Oklahoma City, Leah and I opted for indoor entertainment, which brought us to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, home to the most extensive collection of art and artifacts of American West and American Indian culture. With more than 28,000 pieces in its collection, The National Cowboy Museum is an obvious choice for history buffs and art aficionados.
But not for Leah…
“I can’t believe we’re here, she lamented. “This is so ‘not me’.”
“You’re kidding me. We’re talking about a place with the largest barbed wire collection in the world! More than 8,000 different kinds.” I persuaded.
“Barbed wire isn’t really my thing,” she confessed.
“Then how about the turn-of-the-century western town that’s been recreated indoors?” I implored.
“Certainly, you’d be interested in the structures along the simulated street that have been painstakingly rendered according to scale and design?” I wondered.
“This town may even be set up for some shopping,” I offered as an inducement.
“I’ll have to see about that when I get there,” she proposed.
“What about their Frederic Remington collection? I read that there’s an entire gallery devoted to his work,” I advertised…
“There are small bronzes…
and large bronzes…
and paintings, too,” I hyped.
“That might be interesting,” Leah affirmed, warming up to the idea.
“Maybe we can stroll around the garden behind the museum,” I suggested.
“I believe the outdoor space might be as big as the museum galleries…
and we can pay homage to Buffalo Bill while we’re in the gardens,” I encouraged.
“That’s a possibility,” Leah conceded.
“We could also visit the Western Performers Gallery,” I recommended…
“Y’know, we’ll have a look around at all the memorabilia from our TV star cowboys,
and movie star cowboys,” I proposed.
“That could be fun,” Leah predicted.
“And let’s not overlook the western art created by all the great masters and contemporary artists,” I urged.
“Okay, okay! We may as well go through the place since we’re already here,” Leah admitted.
“Finally! So how about a photo of you in front of the wagon?” I suggested.
“Absolutely not!” she insisted.
Once through the entry vestibule, it was difficult to ignore the immensity of the space. Occupying a floor-to-ceiling, window-lit, cul-de-sac at the far end stood the plaster cast of End of the Trail, James Earle Fraser’s iconic 1894 image of a bowed Native American…
and his weary horse, symbolizing the defeat and subjugation of a people driven from their native lands.
“Wow, that’s impressive,” Leah remarked.
Turning the corner, we were met by an impressive stagecoach…and I could see Leah’s layers of resistance slowly fading.
We wandered past Abraham Lincoln,
and Ronald Reagan…
through rodeo trophy rooms, the Native American galleries, the Gallery of Fine American Firearms, the American Cowboy Gallery, and more…
and determined that this was two hours definitely well spent.
As we were leaving, I coaxed Leah once more, “Now can I get a picture of you by the wagon?”
My buddy, Lee (who I’ve known since nursery school) escorted Leah and me to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, his local art museum in Bentonville, AR. Imagine, a world class museum in the midst of a population center of 50,000, courtesy of Alice Walton, heiress to the Walmart fortune.
Alice assigned renowned architect, Moshe Safdie to design a space, anchored by ponds and forest using generous amounts of glass and wood.
The 217,000 sq. ft. complex includes a sculpture garden,
and a restaurant named Eleven, to commemorate the day the museum opened (11/11/11). And admission is free!
It quickly became apparent that there was so much to see that we could have easily spent days walking through the wings, just to take it all in; it was overwhelming. And some of the rooms had walls that were tiered with art from floor to ceiling. It’s no surprise that museum officials have recently announced plans to increase gallery space by an additional 100,000 sq. ft.
Wanting to see as much of the space as possible, we quickly steered through the exhibition halls looking and reflecting, before moving on to the next art moment. However, some of the art that caught my eye has been curated for this post (in no particular order).
As much as I enjoyed documenting the paintings, collages and sculptures within the museum, I found it impossible to ignore the fantastic geometry that surrounded us that was equally worthy of photographing, like the echo dome in the museum vestibule…
or the Fuller dome in the garden…
But the final shape I reserve for Lee and Deb for their Arkansas hospitality.
Humans have been taking baths for millennia. The practice of releasing toxins in hot springs dates back tens of thousands of years to the Neolithic Age, when nomadic tribes would soak in thermal waters they accidentally discovered when seeking relief from winter weather.
And there is archeological evidence from the 1900’s from Pakistan, where the earliest public bathhouses were discovered in the Indus River Valley around 2500 BC.
In, fact, every known culture around the world has demonstrated a special bathing ritual with roots in therapeutic cleansing of body, mind and soul.
No doubt, Native Americans enjoyed the 147o F waters that flowed from the lower western slope of Hot Springs Mountain in Arkansas. This area was first occupied by the Caddo, and later the Quapaw, who eventually ceded this territory to the U.S. government in an 1818 treaty.
70 years before the National Park Service was established by Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson declared Hot Springs the first federal reservation in 1832, intending to protect this natural resource.
Scientists ran measurements and evaluated the springs’ mineral properties and flow rate. In journaling their finding, they numbered the springs and rated them according to temperature.
Immediately after, bathhouses began springing up around town to indulge the many guests who would travel to Hot Springs to avail themselves of the water’s restorative powers.
But trouble was brewing closer to the mountain. Ral City emerged as a community of indigents who had no use for fancy bathhouses, and subsequently dug pools beside the springs so they might enjoy the thermal water.
But not before the government put a stop to that and instituted policy that “preserved” and regulated the springs. Fearing contamination, the reservation superintendent ordered the pools filled in, and the transients relocated to a distant spring to appease the bathhouse owners in town.
Enterprising businessmen like railroad magnate, Samuel Fordyce saw potential in Hot Springs, and invested heavily in the town’s infrastructure. He financed construction of the Arlington Hotel in 1875–the first luxury hotel in the area…
and vacation residence to every known celebrity, movie star and gangster of the era.
Fordyce also imagined an international spa resort that could rival Europe’s finest, and opened the opulent Fordyce Bathhouse in 1915.
The National Park Visitor Center now occupies this bathhouse–which has been painstakingly restored to reflect the gilded age of health spas, and how turn-of the-century America tapped into Hot Springs’ healing waters to bathe in luxury and style.
There were many different ways to indulge in water treatments…
But a menu of ancillary services was also available, such as: massage, chiropody, facials, manicure/pedicure, and exercise, etc…
Bathhouse Row quickly filled with competition along Central Avenue,
each one designed with classic architectural details.
and anchored by Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center on the south end of the street.
Formally known as the Army-Navy Hospital, it was the site of the nation’s first general hospital for Army and Navy patients built after the Civil War–treating the sick and wounded through World War II. Subsequently, it became a residential resource center for training young adults with disabilities, but state of Arkansas shuttered the facility in 2019, and the building is now derelict and fallen into disrepair. Currently, it stands as the world’s largest raccoon hotel.
We visited Hot Springs during Memorial Day weekend, and the sidewalks were teeming with families and couples who were happy to return to the land of the living after a year of coronavirus hibernation. Businesses were enjoying record crowds, and the bath houses had finally reopened to the public.
Unfortunately, Leah and I were too late to the party; there were no spa reservations to be had. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.
So we took a hike up the mountain, spotted a turtle in the middle of the trail,
and continued to the Mountain Tower,
offering majestic, mouth-watering views of hidden springs beneath us, while we massaged each others’ neck and shoulders.
After motoring through half of America in our Airstream for the past 1 ½ months and reporting travel highlights along the way (http://streamingthruamerica.com),
I’m temporarily suspending the chronological order of my posts to confess that I’m not as young as I used to feel. I’m usually up for a reasonable physical challenge, but I have to admit that today’s climb did not go as easily as I wanted it to.
Yesterday, Leah and I crossed from Taos, New Mexico to Alamosa, Colorado, and settled in at Base Camp Family Campground by midday. After hiking in Taos the past 2 days, we thought we had acclimated nicely to the thinner air (more to be said on that later), but we were feeling our age after our arrival. We took an early siesta in air-conditioned comfort, followed by a 27-mile sprint to the Great Sand Dunes National Park Visitor Center just before it closed.
The park ranger suggested a climb to the top of High Dune (699 feet), but to keep in mind that tomorrow’s high will reach 92o F. He recommended a 9:00 am start time in order to reach the top of the dune by noon, and before the surface temperature exceeds 150o F. The ranger predicted the 2 ½-mile trek should average 2 hours, round trip.
Since we were already at the park, we decided to have a look around. We found it very refreshing to glide through three inches of snow melt, ebbing and flowing from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Considering it was a Sunday afternoon, and peak traffic was winding down,
there was still plenty of activity around us;
far too many interesting vistas to ignore;
and surprising driftwood sculpture to admire.
We arrived at the Dunes parking lot by 8:45 am the next day, and we were not alone. Many other families were already parked and trekking across the sand flats with sandboards in hand. Canopies and shelters were already sprouting up throughout and within Medano Creek, and kids were romping in the water and shaping wet sand castles.
We surveyed the 10,000 acres of dunes and plotted our course as there are no marked trails, but we followed along the ridgeline like most others.
Looking back gave us some satisfaction, because it reminded us of how far we trudged,
but looking ahead reminded us how much more we had to cover. The closer we crept to the top, the deeper our feet sunk into hot sand, slowing our progress.
We took a lot of breathers along the way,
and rated the sand boarders as they attempted to carve out a run…
but mostly, it was uphill twenty steps, pausing to catch our breath, having a look around, sipping some water, and repeating the process. Slow and steady wins the race. Right?
Many hikers passed us on the way down offering words of encouragement, but Leah–realizing her feet were about to catch fire–decided to mush down the sand slopes and soak her feet in the creek while I continued to the top.
And so I pushed myself, and willed myself up the final ascent, foot by foot, grabbing air along the way, until I finally reached the summit with barely enough energy to greet the younger people who passed me on the way up, and wave my arms for Leah’s snap.
Perhaps it was self-gratification…
realizing that I can still push myself,
or maybe I needed to see the other side of the mountain.
Either way, it’s all good. Ironically, as I admit to myself that I’ve lost a step or two, to my surprise, I often find myself taking a victory lap. As I get older, I’ll eventually have to make do with being young at heart.
After a spin around Sun Records, Leah and I altered our orbit a couple of Memphis miles to the center of a parallel universe of talent, originally known as Satellite Records in 1957.
Inspired by the success of Sam Phillips, Jim Stewart–a banker by day and frustrated fiddler by night–decided he too could produce hit records despite no music industry experience. Upon realizing his need for professional recording equipment, he enlisted his older sister, Estelle Axton who mortgaged her home for an Ampex 350 console recorder.
In 1960, Satellite Records moved to a converted theater on McLemore Ave. and Stax Records (a fusion of their last names) was born.
Rufus and Carla Thomas recorded the new company’s first hit record, Cause I love You, in 1960…
which caught Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler attention and willingness to negotiate a distribution deal for all future Rufus and Carla recordings, and right of first refusal of all other Stax artists.
Steve Cropper also added to the early success of STAX.
Originally, his guitar playing fronted the Royal Spades, but Jim Stewart invited Cropper to Stax where the group was re-billed as the Mar-Keys and became the house band, playing sessions with newly signed artists as well as recording their own sounds, like Last Night, a 1961 hit.
Steve Cropper would leave the Mar-Keys to become head of A&R for Jim Stewart, but continued to play back-up sessions as needed, always a part of the Mar-Keys floating membership. One day, while awaiting a session, Booker T. stepped in for a turn on the Hammond organ, and Green Onions was instantly conceived in 1962.
The Mar-Keys had just morphed into the next Stax session band, a/k/a Booker T. and the M.G.’s,
Stax success continued when Otis Redding, driver for Johnny Jenkins’ took the microphone after Johnny’s dismal performance. Subsequently, Otis auditioned with Booker T. and the M.G.’s on accompaniment, and wowed everyone with his song, These Arms of Mine, released October 1962.
Otis Redding would become the label’s biggest star, continuing with hits: I’ve Been Loving You too Long; Respect; Just One More Day; and Try a Little Tenderness. But like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, Otis and several members of the Bar-Kays lost their lives in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, enroute to a performance in Cleveland.
Only 6 months earlier, Otis was headlining at the Monterey Pop Festival, backed by Booker T. and the M.G.’s. At the time, he was fully aware of the opportunity and exposure. He said, “It’s gonna put my career up some. I’m gonna reach an audience I never have before.” He was 26 when he died.
(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, co-written by Steve Cropper was released one month later, and reached #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
In 1968, the wheels came off the Stax bus. They lost their distribution deal with Atlantic Records after Atlantic was sold to Warner Bros. Records in 1967. Warner Bros. also reclaimed the library of master tapes held by Stax, citing a clause in Atlantic’s contract that entitled them to “all right, title and interest, including any rights of reproduction.”
Adding insult to injury, Warner Bros. also reclaimed Sam and Dave, who were “on loan” to Stax from Atlantic.
And to make matters worse, the country was at war with itself after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4,1968 just blocks from the label’s headquarters.
With their back catalog depleted and no distribution deal, Stewart sold his shares of Stax to Gulf & Western for millions, but stayed behind to continue running the company. Enter Al Bell, record producer and songwriter, who joined Stax in 1965 as director of promotions, and became co-owner and vice-president after buying out Estelle Axton. In 1969, Bell shepherded the “Soul Explosion,” generating 30 singles and 27 albums within eight months,
utilizing house talent like the Memphis Horns (an off-shoot of the Mar-Keys) and new talent like the Staple Singers.
But musically, the resurrection of Stax records can be attributed to Isaac Hayes, the Black Moses.
In 1969, Isaac Hayes released Hot Buttered Soul, his four-song, soul-defining masterpiece which sold 3 million albums.
The Stax Museum has many alluring features and exhibits. There’s the reassembled Hoopers Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church from Duncan, Mississippi built around 1906;
there’s also a disco dance floor, that ideal for busting a move and showing your groove;
but the crown jewel of the collection has to be Isaac Hayes’ rotating 1972 peacock-blue, 24K gold-plated Cadillac.
The release of Theme from Shaft— which won an Oscar for Hayes for Best Original Song in 1971–
put Hayes in the drivers seat when it came time to renegotiate his contract…
In 1970, with the wind at their backs, Bell and Stewart repurchased Stax from Gulf & Western with borrowed money from Union Planters Bank.
In the summer of 1972, in pursuit of a wider audience, Al Bell brought an all-star revue to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum–dubbed Wattstax–to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the Watts riots. The sold-out crowd of 100,000 fans spawned a highly regarded documentary film and a live double album of the concert highlights.
Stax archives recount the final years of Stax Records:
By 1971, Stax had grown from a family production company distributed by Atlantic Records, to a freestanding independent record company. Stax now manufactured, marketed and distributed its own recorded music in America and through licensees around the world. The racial harmonies that typified Stax’s early years was becoming an issue. Trust was an issue. Jim Stewart, producer-cum-chief executive officer was tired, disillusioned, and pushing paper instead of making records. He had not attended Wattstax. He told his partner Al Bell that he wanted out.
Change and challenge were pervasive after so much growth. One major problem became the theft of Stax property, including master tapes. Stax hired one of the country’s premiere white-collar crime investigative firms. Their search did uncover improprieties involving some employees, but Jim Stewart and Al Bell decided not to prosecute. Instead new security measures were designed and implemented at the McLemore Avenue and the Union Avenue Extended offices to specifically protect and preserve Stax masters, East Memphis copyrights and other valuable assets.
Al Bell was enjoying a Midas touch. Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, and the Staple Singers had all emerged as superstars. Rufus Thomas had entered the most successful era of his career. Albert King had broken through to the white rock album market. Mid-level artists such as Soul Children, Frederick Knight, Luther Ingram, and Mel & Tim were all hitting the charts. Bell was pushing company expansion in many different directions at once, issuing pop, rock, jazz, country, gospel, and comedy records in addition to its staple of classic soul tracks.
Though Stax thrived in the independent world, it had still not broken through in mass-market distribution venues like Sear and Roebuck. Seeking a buyer for his company’s other half, Al Bell kept that distribution goal in mind. He wound up, surprisingly, making a distribution deal with Clive Davis at CBS Records. CBS, though successful with many white acts, boasted no major black artists. “The company was” as Bell says, “larger that life white with no real knowledge of the black market.”
Stax and CBS each complemented the other’s weakness. Stax could help CBS reach the small, privately owned stores, and CBS could get Stax into huge chains. In 1972, through a complicated agreement, Bell bought Stewart’s half with money loaned from CBS. Jim Stewart, agreeing to remain with the company for five more years, received $2.5 million, up front, and millions more in payments to come.
Though the new relationship began well, a disaster occurred in May 1973: Clive Davis was fired from CBS. The deal he’d struck with Al Bell was full of nuance and personal commitment between two parties, and Davis’ replacement neither understood nor appreciated the arrangements.
Faced with a contract it felt was a mistake, CBS began systematically reducing payments to Stax for records sold, precipitating a tangle of legal battles and a shortage of operating funds. Stax was bound to CBS as its sole distributer, and could not get its product in to stores nor receive monies for records that had been sold.
To keep the company going, Stax founder, Jim Stewart secured operating loans with his forthcoming CBS payments as collateral. Going further, he gave Stax a personal loan and then personally guaranteed even more borrowed money. But CBS continued to withhold payments and Stax continued to hemorrhage.
By summer 1974, Stax defaulted on payments to Isaac Hayes, and was forced to relinquish the marquee artist. Around the same time, Stax gave Richard Pryor, in lieu of payment, the master tapes for his groundbreaking album That Nigger’s Crazy. Pryor took the album to Warner Brothers; it went gold and won a Grammy award. By the end of 1974 Stax had given 85 of its employees their pink slips.
Bell, Stewart, and Stax vice-president John Burton campaigned for capital to pay off both CBS and Union Planters Bank, from who, Stax had borrowed heavily. Leaving no stone unturned, they approached Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal, A tentative agreement was worked out, and Burton headed to the Middle East. Faisal was assassinated by his nephew on March 25, days before the meeting was to take place.
Stax persevered but times were increasingly turbulent. The nation itself struggled: Watergate led to President Nixon’s resignation. Recession gripped the U.S. economy. In Memphis, Union Planters Bank—which had loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to Stax—struggled for its own economic survival.
Despite chart topping hits during late 1974 and 1975 by Stax artists including Rance Allen, Little Milton, the Staple Singers, young pop sensationalist Lena Zavaroni, Shirley Brown, Albert King, the Dramatics and others, distribution challenges perpetuated by CBS Records strangled Stax.
When Union Planters abruptly called in Stax’s loans and they were unable to pay promptly, the bank immediately and aggressively pursued the company. Stax’s daily operations were crippled. On June 8, 1975, the company basically ceased being able to pay anyone. In October, Stax officially laid off all its remaining employees. Many still continued to work for free. The battle between the bank and Stax was rancorous and bitter. Many believed that racism was the motivation which drove Union Planters pursuit while others believe that it was strictly a business decision.
For years, Stax had contributed to community efforts. In the company’s final days, the local community gave back. In latter 1975, when Stax could not pay its remaining employees, the proprietor of the College Street Sundry, Ms. Ethel Riley Flowers, regularly fed them at no charge. Merrit’s Bakery also gave food to the last employees “because,” in the words of William Brown, “she knew we didn’t have no money. These people were surviving on the love of each other. They weren’t surviving on waiting for that dollar to come around the corner. They knew it wasn’t coming!”
Unable to pay its bills, its artists, its loans, Stax was shut down on December 19, 1975, forced into receivership by an involuntary bankruptcy petition.
Union Planters Bank, that had helped Stewart and Bell buy back the company from Gulf & Western, moved to collect on personal guarantees given by Jim Stewart. He lost his fortune, his assets, and his home.
The Stax building was padlocked.
In January 1977, Stax’s assets were parceled out in a bankruptcy sale on the courthouse steps. The catalog of tapes was sold to a liquidating company, the office furniture to an auction company, and the recording equipment to an individual who hoped the magic would continue to work.
The Stax building was sold for ten dollars in 1980 to the Church of God in Christ (COGIC).
For Jim Stewart, it’s always been about the music.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 for his important contribution to the music scene.
Rolling into West Memphis from Nashville to lay down 3-day roots wasn’t going to be easy. On May 11, the country learned that the I-40 bridge connecting Memphis, TN to West Memphis, AR was shut down after inspectors discovered a critical crack in a 900-foot beam that compromised the bridge’s structural integrity, and it would takes months to complete emergency repairs (oh, infrastructure…wherefore art thou).
All traffic was being rerouted through I-55–a less than desirable 4-lane crossing–that was now backing up for miles in both directions. Leah and I agreed that the only way to avoid traffic mayhem would be to relocate east of the Mississippi.
It was a snap decision with few available options, but we scored a shady site with electricity at F.O Fuller State Park, 2 miles downwind from a sewage processing plant.
We had designs on visiting the National Civil Rights Museum built around the Lorraine Motel,
which was one of only a few hotels that hosted black entertainers of the era, like Cab Calloway, Count Basie, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, and Nat King Cole.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated outside Room 306 on April 4, 1968, making the Lorraine Motel a symbol for the civil rights movement.
We would have liked to tour the museum, but it was closed. So off we went to Sun Studio…
to pay homage to a galaxy of recording stars whose origin stories are etched on acetate discs.
Patrons gathered inside the café waiting for the 45-minute tour to begin. It was a good opportunity to browse the weathered record collection and grab a cold drink.
The tour began on the second floor–at one time a flop house for disadvantaged musicians–where we learned about Sam Phillips’ humble beginnings,
and his role in producing arguably the first rock ‘n roll record in history.
But Sam Phillips was really looking for a white guy, someone who could bridge the gap, someone “with a Negro sound and the Negro feel.”
Fortunately, Marion Keisker, Sam’s business manager/lover was at her desk on July 18, 1953…
when a recent high school grad with long sideburns and a greasy ducktail hairdo walked into the studio with $4 to record My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin as a gift for his mother, Gladys.
Being the only one present at the time, she took a turn at the console to record his demo–her first and only time–and she immediately knew that Elvis Presley was the real McCoy.
Nearly a year later, Sam called Elvis in for an audition supported by upright bass player Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore. After a few sessions of Elvis noodling around, singing different genres of music while strumming his guitar, he stumbled upon an up-tempo blues number by Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup called That’s All Right (Mama).
The trio eventually worked out a raw arrangement for Sam, and the rest is history.
Next thing, Sam called local DJ Dewey Philips for radio support, and he obliged by playing Elvis’s record 40 consecutive times on WHBQ, at times singing along.
Of course, it was a smash hit…
The tour continued downstairs, inside the fabled studio–where not much has changed–that gave rise to so many legendary careers.
Our guide played refrains of famous tunes recorded at Sun. There was Carl Perkins warbling Blue Suede Shoes, Jerry Lee Lewis belting out Great Balls of Fire, Roy Orbison’s crooning Ooby Dooby, and Johnny Cash intoning I Walk the Line.
Elvis had five hits at Sun Studios: That’s All Right, Mystery Train, Milkcow Blues Boogie, Good Rockin’ Tonight, and I’m Left, She’s Right, You’re Gone, and they’re on display.
On November 20, 1955, Colonel Parker brokered a record-breaking deal between Sam Phillips and RCA Records for $35,000, with a signing bonus of $5,000 for Elvis.
A year later, on December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash reunited at Sun Record Studios for a seminal impromptu jam session dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet. It was history in the making, producing 3 reels of tape.
Our guide delights in telling the story of Bob Dylan’s visit to Sun Records.
It is widely known that Dylan was a huge fan of Elvis. The day he arrived in Memphis, he had a car drive him to Sun. Without ceremony, Dylan walked into the studio and asked if it was true that Elvis had stood on the mark on the floor during his recording of That’s All Right. Upon confirmation, Dylan knelt over the spot and kissed the ground, paying respects to his long lost hero.
It’s also been rumored that Dylan later licked the microphone once held by Elvis, but I’m probably not the best qualified person advising Leah when it comes to germs.
Minutes from Ryman Auditorium stands Ernest Tubbs Record Store, the nation’s first all-country record store located in downtown Nashville, welcoming visitors from around the world for the past 74 years.
But getting there always takes longer than it should because of all the distractions along the way:
The first thing I see is a white-painted edifice with lyrics penned by Peter La Farge and performed by Johnny Cash.
It’s intended as a grim reminder of broken promises to Native Americans.
Continuing on foot, there’s bound to be a bridal party featuring a Bridezilla…
or a homeless prophet…
and a bunch of battered, drunken drivers…
or an overheated zealot…
and a mad hatter…
until you get to Ernest Dale Tubb, an influential honky-tonk singer-songwriter, Grand Ole Opry star, movie actor, and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame who began a record store in 1947.
And this is his testament.
The Midnight Jamboree hit the stage the following year, featuring Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours...
and a slew of cowboys and up and comers shooting for the stars.
And that helped to sell a lot of records. It was a beneficial arrangement for everyone.
Ernest could also promote his famous bus tour. In 1970, Mr. Tubb purchased a 1964 Silver Eagle from Trailways Bus Company and dubbed it the Green Hornet.
For the next nine years, Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours logged over 3 millions miles on the Green Hornet, hitting all 48 States and Canada.
The coach accommodations included sleeping berths and a bathroom behind the wall,
while Mr. Tubb lived in the rear of the coach with a television mounted in the wall above his feet.
The middle compartment was equipped with a coffee bar and a sound system that ran the length of the corridor.
Mr. Tubb retired the bus in 1979 and donated it to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop for public viewing. In 1995, it was restored to its original state and was put on permanent display in what is now the Tacky Turtle, an exotic gift shop of tchotchkes and folk art.
Leah and I went looking for it, initially unaware that it is just minutes from our RV campground.
We fed the coordinates to Jennifer and she directed us to a local strip mall featuring the Texas Troubadour Theater at the vortex of two legs, but it took two circles around the parking lot until I realized that the bus was hiding in plain site inside the gift shop. In fact, the mall was built as an enclosure around the bus!
We walked away enlightened, but disappointed having not heard a note, except the blare of mixed music bleeding from the Nashville bars.
But to our surprise, upon returning to the campground, we discovered a poolside concert by Tim Atwood, an 8,500-performance veteran of the Grand Ole Opry (old and new)…
with Jeannie Seeley in attendance to celebrate Tim’s 65th birthday.
Could it be, we finally beat the Grand Ole Opry curse? In the immortal words of Ernest Tubb, “That’s all she wrote.”
Nashville seldom disappoints, given the music, the Broadway scene, and the local history and flavor that makes Nashville such a go-to destination for letting loose.
But here we were in Nashville again for a third visit in as many years, and again, there were no concert bookings at Grand Ole Opry during our stay, just as before.
Perhaps, we should make our own music, although we would eventually take the stage at Ryman Auditorium like so many others,
by first taking a self-guided tour of the hallowed hall before having our picture snapped by the gift shop photographer.
Very little has changed since Ryman Auditorium opened…
as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892. Originally built as a house of worship…
by Thomas Ryman, who made his fortune from a bevy of saloons and a fleet of riverboats,
Ryman found God at a big-top revival, and vowed to build a tabernacle, allowing Nashville folks to attend large-scale revivals indoors.
The balcony opened in 1897, raising capacity to 6,000 worshippers.
Ryman died in 1904, and was celebrated inside his tabernacle. It was at his memorial service that Samuel Porter Jones, the preacher responsible for Ryman’s conversion, proposed the name change to Ryman Auditorium.
While Ryman Auditorium continued as a religious venue, it also opened its doors to popular culture and performing arts as a means of paying the bills, often hosting concerts, speaking engagements, dance recitals and theater, and earning its reputation as the “Carnegie Hall of the South.”
The Grand Ole Opry took up residency in 1943, and sold out its weekly shows for the next 31 years, becoming “The Mother Church of Country Music.”
Country music acts performed in front of capacity crowds and reached audiences around the world through radio and television broadcasts, earning them large followings and superstardom. Artists were eager to appear despite the primitive accommodations.
Leah and I took our sweet time as we perused the exhibits note by note, and studied the memorabilia from entertainment royalty…
In 1974 the Grand Ole Opry shuttered its downtown location in favor of a larger, modern venue within a theme park setting, dooming Ryman Auditorium to the wrecking ball. But the historical importance of Ryman, known as the birthplace of bluegrass (and so much more) could not go unnoticed, until the preservationists prevailed, and Ryman was saved from demolition.
After a dormant period of 20 years and new ownership, the exterior was eventually rehabbed and the building’s interior was refurbished and modernized for artists and patrons, restoring it as a world-class concert hall that past and present music legends agree has some of the best acoustics in the world, only adding to Ryman’s mystique and continuing renaissance.
As for Leah and me, all that was left for us to do was smile for the camera and take our final curtain call…