Blue Hole

With Amarillo behind us, we were finally on our way to Albuquerque to visit Leah’s family. Earlier in the week, Leah had made preliminary plans with Carrie, her daughter to take the grandkids to Santa Rosa, NM to visit a popular water park the day after our arrival.

But not so fast!

We were driving on I-40 West with very light traffic, and had just crossed the border into New Mexico when a couple in a pickup pulled along side me and grabbed my attention. The woman in the passenger seat looked concerned. She mimed a circle with her finger while shaking her head, and pointed in the general direction of our Airstream before the pickup sped away.

“Oh, shit!” I grumbled. “There’s trouble back there.”

“What do you mean, trouble?’ Leah asked.

“I don’t think she was playing Charades…hopefully nothing serious” I answered.

I slowed to a crawl–pulling off the road to inspect our rig.

I hadn’t anticipated another blowout (see https://streamingthruamerica.com/2019/06/12/blowout/).

The original set of Goodyear Marathons looked nearly new upon general inspection, and I‘d only pulled the Airstream about 5,000 miles since starting out on our Great American Road Trip. Thank goodness for tandem axles. As for the blown tire, the tread was gone and the cord plies were shredded, but miraculously, the wheel and wheel well were still intact.

“We need a new tire,” I sighed. “The one that used to be there looks like spaghetti.”

“So now what? We’re in the middle of Bumfuck,” she panicked.

“Not exactly,” I tried to reassure.

“And on a Sunday to boot!” she continued.

“You’re not helping,” I advised.

Analyzing our location on GPS, I responded, “It’s showing that we passed a truck stop the moment we crossed the border.”

I called Russell’s Tire Center and learned that Cole was on-call. He agreed to meet us at the shop in half an hour. He also advised that he would be charging his travel time back to me at $95/hr. in addition to the emergency repair at $95/hr. It was a different kind of highway robbery, but I was out of options since I lacked the tools to lift a 7500 lb. trailer.

“There! It’s arranged,” I crowed. “We just need to get to the next exit and head back.”

“How are we gonna do that without a tire, genius?” she asked.

“Slowly and carefully,” I suggested.

It seemed like forever, but we limped along at 20 mph with flashers flashing until we approached the next westbound exit. Ironically, Jennifer (our GPS voice) routed our return along Route 66–parallel to I-40 West–as if she knew that slow-going was ill-suited for Interstate travel.

We got to Russell’s first and waited for nearly an hour when Cole arrived. He got straight to work. With the wheel off, I discovered what became of the tread. Luckily, no harm was done to the shock or the brake system.

Feeling insecure about using the spare under the Airstream, I opted for a new tire. When all the dust had settled, we were finally on our way to Albuquerque after a 2-hour layover and $300 in expenses. But I was feeling weary from the incident and wary behind the wheel, knowing that the other tires needed to be replaced.

90 minutes of drivetime took us to Santa Rosa, NM.

“Wait a minute! Aren’t we scheduled to drive here tomorrow with Carrie and the kids?” I asked.

“That’s right,” confirmed Leah.

“But we’re already here. Why on earth should I drive another 90 minutes to Albuquerque, only to return here the next day with your family,” I reasoned. “Why can’t they meet us here instead? They could even camp with us tonight if they want. Besides, I’m exhausted from this expensive mini-adventure.”

“Not a bad idea, Einstein,” she quipped.

Good News! Google confirmed that 2 walk-in sites with services were still available at Santa Rosa Lake State Park. Jennifer navigated us to the park campground, where we looped around twice to locate the open sites as advertised. Turns out, one site was handicap reserved; the other site was reserved for camp host.

As with most self-help campgrounds, Leah put our payment in an envelope and dropped it into a paybox at the entrance kiosk. After plugging into the host site, it was a relief to finally kick back with a cold beer and a blast of A/C to melt my stress level.

But not so fast!

Two park rangers have approached Leah, and it didn’t go well. We have been evicted, unapologetically.

So we rolled back onto Route 66 and found an overnight spot at a local RV park. Leah made arrangements with Carrie, who eventually drove to meet us and spend the night car camping with Devin and Gabe outside our Airstream window.

The next day, we drove to the Blue Hole

–ready for excitement.

When we arrived, I had this nagging feeling of déjà vu.

“We’ve been here before,” I mentioned to Leah.

“I would have remembered this place,” she disagreed.

“I’m telling you, this place is very familiar to me,” I insisted.

“Maybe you were here with someone else,” she theorized.

“Nope! You were with me, and I can prove it,” I stated emphatically.

I scrolled through the picture gallery on my phone, as if by chance…until…

“There it is!” I insisted. “We were here on October 18, 2017! And here’s the picture to prove it!”

“Congratulations! You’re right again, as usual,” Leah said without conviction.

“We never went in the water,” I said, “But that’s about to change today.”

It took some coaxing, but eventually everyone braved the 61o F temperature…

except me. I was going for the whole enchilada.

I watched as several youngsters scrambled to the ledge 20 feet above the Blue Hole and jumped,

which was all the preparation I needed for my jump.

The water was freezing–enough to take my breath away. But at least I left with bragging rights.

P.S. After we reached Albuquerque, our Airstream got a new set of shoes…

and they fit just fine.

Man vs. Beast

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…

or not!

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.

Soul Food for Thought–The History of Stax Records

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.

Continuing:

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.

The Prodigal Sun

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.

Nashville Vibes

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.”

Ryman

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…

Start Your Engines

Motor sports awaits its biggest day on May 30, when 135,000 spectators will gather at the Brickyard for the start of the 105th running of the Indy 500. It will be the largest assembly of people anywhere for a single event since the coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed the country and the world.

Last year, the race was held without fans, but this year the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will accommodate 135,000 of 257,325 available seats, or 40% capacity. The number is staggering until the onlooker realizes that the curved rectangle is 2.5 miles long and occupies 559 acres,

with tiered grandstands reaching 7 stories on both sides of the track.

Having checked in at the Indiana State Fairgrounds for overnight accomodations,

we couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming noise coming from the nearby critter pavilions…

so off we went to follow the commotion, and found the source. Apparently, it was a tire spin-off to Mecum’s 2021 Indy Auction:

The Dodge Challenge

…an annual event that brings out the best and most coveted collector cars for bidding:

But Leah and I were in Indianapolis during the Indy 500 Practice to watch drivers rocket down the straightaways in their IndyCars at 240 mph,

in anticipation of bringing home the trophy and chugging a bottle of milk.

So off we went to the fabled racetrack, built in 1909 and mostly unchanged, until the addition of the Pagoda, completed in 2000.

Trying to track the cars as they went screaming by in a blur

would have certainly resulted in whiplash if we continued watching with each passing lap, but thankfully, the video screen provided necessary neck relief.

And then the unexpected happened…

With 1hr 44min left in the practice session, #45 Santino Ferrucci turning too early into the #2 corner careened into the wall,

collapsing the front end of his racer.

https://twitter.com/i/status/1395482600823791620

Out came the yellow flag…

and it was time for us to call it a day at the track.

Fortunately, Ferrucci escaped serious injury, and was taken to the hospital for observation.

He has subsequently been cleared to race on Sunday, qualifying for the 25th position in a field of 33 cars, with Scott Dixon enjoying the pole position at the start of the race.

I hope the winner likes milk!

UPDATE:

Helio Castroneves wins the Indy 500 for a record-tying 4th time, finishing ahead of Alex Palou by half a second.

Top qualifier, Scott Dixon finished 17th in the field after his car ran out of gas before his first pit stop, and Santino Ferrucci finished sixth.

Castroneves celebrated with a chilled bottle of 2% milk, but swapped that bottle out for some strawberry milk, which perfectly matched his hot pink and white fire suit and No. 6 Honda.

High Octave Convenience

There was a time in St. Augustine–not too long ago–when we’d stop at a roadside gas station to “fill-er-up” and use the restroom. Perhaps, we’d pick up a scratch-off card, or a sweet or salty snack and a beverage before getting on the road. But what about all those times when we needed gas and a bikini, or a lawn chair and barbeque, or a pound of Texas brisket, a box of fudge or a jar of pickled quail eggs? What were we to do?

Well, now there’s Buc-ee’s!

Newly opened along I-95 by World Golf Village, Buc-ee’s, a Texas import now lays claim as the largest filling station in Florida with 104 pumps…

and 53,000 sq. ft. of convenience store space.

Pandemic aside, after a St. Johns County ribbon-cutting on Feb. 21, patrons were idling their engines at 4 am the next day, anxiously waiting for a taste,

an outfit…

and a hug.

But this eager beaver is not resting on its laurels. In one month’s time, Buc-ee’s will be opening in Daytona Beach with 110 pumps, damming St. Augustine’s bragging rights as Florida’s newest largest gas station.

Avoiding T.S. Isaias

With Tropical Storm Isaias skirting the Florida coastline, and hundreds of northeast coastal towns preparing for wind-driven rain, subsequent storm surge, and certain power outages, Leah and I are presently gazing at a hypnotic sky across Johnston County, NC.

Rather than wait for bad weather, we put Florida in the rear view mirror in search of blue skies elsewhere. Seven hours of driving north through occasional downpours and lightning strikes across our windshield brought us to Selma, NC, where torrential rain was turning our campsite into an ankle-deep pond.

At first, we waited patiently inside the F-150, but within minutes the rain reduced to a drizzle, giving me a much needed window to set up camp…except for a nearby limb that crushed a power line and prevented us from accessing electricity.

tree limb down

Eventually power was restored by 1 AM, when the AC magically resumed its roar inside our capsule, and delivered timely relief from the incessant humidity.

The following day was hot and steamy. We took a ride into downtown Smithfield–a ghost town of shuttered businesses–

iron cycle

to explore our surroundings, 

Lee's surrender

and happened upon the Ava Gardner Museum. 

Ava Gardner

I would have enjoyed a trip down memory lane with Ava, the area’s favorite sharecropper’s daughter from Grabtown, however the museum was closed due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, all I could do was appreciate her stardom through a pane of glass,

Ava Gardner interior

and wonder how and when it will be safe to go to the movies again.

Cirque du Soleil–JOYÀ Entertainment

See  Part 1 before continuing…

With our table cleared, and the house lights dimmed, the performance was about to begin. We were reminded by the maitre d’ to take as many pictures as we wanted, provided no flash photography was used.

Drawing from Mexican folklore and fantasy, the storyline is set in an alchemist’s library/laboratory–complete with rigging and a trap door–where we are introduced to a loyal menagerie of characters,

animal people1 (2)

beholden to a mischievous girl, and her scatterbrained, but well-meaning grandfather,

Cirque leads

who for the next 80-minutes embark on a quixotic quest through space and time to rescue Grandpa’s Book of Life, and in the process gain an understanding and greater appreciation of the world’s wonders and secrets of life.

Throughout their journey (part bilingual theater, and part circus), the duo encounters:    a skip rope team…

jump rope

a Risley acrobatic duo,


a silk curtain dancer…

curtain split1

curtain split

an audience participant…

audience member

dueling pirates…

pirate ship

a juggler…

juggler

a hand-balancer/contortionist…

contortionist

pageant and puppetry…

fish puppet

puppets

strap aerielists…

rings couple (2)

and a trampoline wall before the finale…


The show, now in its 6th season was sassy, classy and fun.

As expected, the performers’ imaginative costumes were cut from the same creative cloth that distinguishes Cirque’s originality.

pets

And the acrobats’ anthems appropriately delivered the romance and drama that supported their feats of daring-do.

With the last bow was taken, and the house lights turned up, our family agreed that this was an evening well spent,

jungle

deep within the repurposed Yucatán jungle.

 

Cirque du Soleil–JOYÀ Eatertainment

Cirque du Soleil is seemingly ubiquitous–with a dozen touring companies scouring the continents, and 7 different resident shows selling out across the Las Vegas strip, making this entertainment company the most prolific circus producer on the planet.

But JOYÀ is different, and I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my family.

family portrait

Staged in a custom-built, butterfly-inspired structure surrounded by a cenote within the Riviera Maya jungle,

theater1

the 600-seat theater features a thrust stage anchored by perimeter table service, and  tiered seating beyond the waiters’ service stations.

theater

For the epicure, this production offers a dinner component one-hour before showtime that relies on gastronomic smoke and mirrors to draw the guest deeper into the Mexican experience.

According to Mexican Top Chef Alexis Bostelmann, “Each element of this magnificent show served as my inspiration, where imaginative curiosity is met with unexpected discovery,” said Bostelmann.

The adventure began with an edible menu, 

edible menu

followed by a polished slab of wood featuring a salad of edible flowers and Iberian ham, served with a lobster taco, a sweet potato, and fresh ceviche seasoned with coconut, mint and passion fruit.

appetizer platter

I said “yes” to the protein option to garnish my salad: locally-sourced chinicuiles–a salty worm that feeds off maguey roots, and is often found swimming at the bottom of a mezcal bottle. A true Mexican delicacy!

salad with worm garnish

Our featured beverage, in addition to a chilled bottle of Mecier Brut Champagne was  Dragon Breath–a signature tequila concoction that was smokin’ and refreshing!

dry ice cocktail

We noshed on a basket of bread bark,

bread basket (2)

and broccoli boughs while we waited for the second course.

bread treat (2)

My entree arrived under a meteor shell. I opted for braised short ribs nestled beside a dugout dinosaur bone of grilled veggies, and accompanied by a geode-styled crock filled with ginger, coconut and sweet potato mash. 

short ribs

Leah received a treasure chest of jewels…

treasure

accented by a fillet of salmon resting on a poblano-mint puree, elevated by a tower of grilled vegetables, and an oyster-sized seaweed salad topped with a coconut milk pearl.

salmon entree

All the while, our remaining senses were treated to traditional Latin music performed with a jazzy twist.

music interlude

After the second course was cleared, we were presented with a novel idea–

book of pastries

–a quartet of desserts plated within the pages of the Periodic Table of Pastries.

dessert box

Yum!

“My goal was to present a menu rooted in historical meaning that parallels the show’s beloved storyline so that once the performance begins, guests will connect all the details for a completely immersive theatrical experience,” Bostelmann added.

If dinner set the scene, then the show would bear more earthly delights. Noah, Nathan, Leah and I waited for the lights to dim…

lanterns

and let Cirque du Soleil transport us to a magical place, where gravity is optional.

Continue to Part 2