Aplscruf's Music Blog

Diary of a Married Groupie

Randomville via Margaritaville, Huntsville and Nashville

SOUTHERN EXPOSURE: ROAD TRIPPING THROUGH ALABAMA AND TENNESSEE

I recently had an opportunity to take a trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama and Nashville, Tennessee.  Struggling in Seattle where we’ve had nothing but rain and gray weather for almost nine months, I was ready for some 90 degree heat and humidity and a chance to see some live music along the way.  My husband’s home office is in Madison, Alabama near Huntsville and the Tennessee border.  He was already there on business, so my son and I joined him later in the month.  I also had a chance to report on the music scene for Randomville.  See the Randomville link for a music-only review, in a three-part series (it should post late this week, one part every day or two).

PART I:  GULF SHORES, ALABAMA

Alabama

Day 1:  Seattle to Atlanta, GA, then West to Smith Lake, AL

My son and I were up and out of the house by 6:25, and headed to my parents’ house.  Dad drove us to the airport without incident.  Traffic was easy.  I’d printed out my airline tix the night before, so we went right to the short security line.

I let the boy lead the way through the line, making sure I took off my shoes and had my little clear baggie of liquids (sun screen, shampoo, lotion, etc.) ready for the X-ray machine.  I looked up to see my 15 1/2 year old boy getting a pat-down.  WTF.  Then the TSA agents asked me to step inside the big blue X-ray box.  WTF again?!  I then entered the pat-down area.  A short woman, probably in her early twenties, told me she was going to pat me down.  “Do you feel comfortable with my patting you down?”

I could feel my eyes narrow, as I sarcastically said, “Uhh, sure.”

She paused.  “Would you prefer we go into a private location for the pat-down?”

“No, just get ‘er done.”

Did I really just say that??  Anyway, I let her pat me down there in front of god and everyone.

“I’m now touching your sensitive area…”  A quick swipe with the fingers around my bra.  I was wearing a tight t-shirt and  jeans.  I don’t know what I possibly could have been hiding in either location.

I was pretty pissed, but decided to stay calm so we could make our flight on time.  I had to choose my battles, and right now, I wanted to get to our gate.  End of story.

A young man outside the screening area  thought he was being singled out and profiled because of his his tattoos.  I told him both my son and I were patted down, too.

The boy and I got some great bagels and found our gate with about 1/2 hour to spare.  We called P and told him about our pat-down and X-ray adventure.  He laughed because after all his flying this past year, he’s never been subjected to that humiliation…Fer Freedom.  Yeah, right.

Our plane was very full.  We pulled out of the gate a little early, though, and made our way to the runway, and waited for 3 other planes to take off.  We were almost to the runway, when an interior ceiling panel came loose and drooped into the aisleway!  The flight attendant tried to quickly push it back, but then had to call ahead and ask a mechanic to meet them back at the gate.  We had to turn around!  Aargh.  Everyone groaned, then got out their cameras and phones and snapped pictures.  The lady next to me had it posted on her Facebook within two minutes!

Ceiling Panel of 737

Two mechanics and 45 minutes later, they got it fixed, which amounted to tucking the panel back in around the lip of the frame (a kid yelled, “I coulda done that!) and we were on our way again.  Because they had to go back to the gate, the flight attendants were required by law to run through the exit/seatbelt/oxygen routine all over again.  How stupid.  Sometimes one just needs to use the Common Sense Law.  Gawd.

After a smooth flight and no further incidents, we landed in Atlanta.  P was there to pick us up in the work van and we headed west to Smith Lake, Alabama to spend a quick night before our long drive to the Gulf.  Smith Lake is a beautiful, tree-lined lake that sprawls out with hundreds of miles of shoreline.  We were invited to stay in the company president’s home in a gesture of true Southern hospitality.  The home was beautiful with lake views from each window, large decks and screened porch, and patio areas suited for giant parties.  We had the whole place to ourselves that night, and thoroughly enjoyed our stay.  The loud chirping and hissing of cicadas were replaced with bird songs in the early morning.  I stepped out on the deck and felt the moist air hit my skin.  I felt like I’d just stepped out of the shower.  Steam was rising from the lake.  It was going to be hot, humid day today.

Smith Lake

Day 2:  Smith Lake to Gulf Shores

We cleared out about 9:00 and stopped in the small town of Jasper for a quick breakfast.  We stepped in a little local diner called Gabby’s.  We were looked up and down as we timidly took our seats at a small booth.  It was so obvious we were not locals.  P, who has been traveling back in forth to Alabama for the last 10 months, knew how to order.  How Y’All Doin?  Sweet or unsweet tea, or half-n-half.  Turnip greens and chicken-fried steak.  I stuck to an iceberg lettuce salad with sweet tomatoes and shredded cheddar cheese and a thin turkey sandwich.  The boy had his first taste of southern BBQ.  He loved his smoky, chopped BBQ pork sandwich.

Alabama Interstate

The rural road that led from Jasper to the Interstate was gorgeous.  We passed through corridors of 50 foot green trees of different varieties; the most recognizable being the beautiful pines.  Little farms and distant houses dotted the horizon.  Cemeteries were laden with a rainbow of flowers, which P pointed out are made of silk or plastic.  Each cemetery we saw was full of color.

Once we got to the Intestate, there were more small towns and churches lining each side of the highway.  The boy couldn’t believe how many churches there were and wondered why.  I didn’t really have an answer to that.  It’s just how it is in the South–the Bible Belt.  Many highways, bridges and side streets and buildings were all named after some famous and not-so-famous dead people: James K. Polk Memorial Highway, etc.

The buildings had a Roman/colonial look, down to the smallest farm house, with white columns, a triangular entry way over the door, brick facade.  Red clay was prominent in Alabama, so it was no wonder why so many buildings and homes were made of brick.  The highway had a reddish tint in parts.

We drove for hours, south to Gulf Shores.  It seemed to make a decent recovery from the horrible oil spill last year, although the spring tornado damage all along the interstate was enough to take my breath away.  People seem to move slowly forward here, though; some businesses re-opened, and damaged areas were getting cleaned up.  The devastation was phenomenal, and not just located in Tuscaloosa; we found pockets of damage all over the state.  I really don’t know how families fully recover, if at all, from such sudden and violent destruction.  We could only hope we helped out the economy a little by paying a visit to the local restaurants, gas stations and shops along the way.

Tornado Damage in Tuscaloosa

Gulf Shores and its sister town Orange Beach, are family-friendly, laid-back vacation havens.  This is not the place to be if you want to have a jet-set high-class experience in swanky nightclubs and posh restaurants.  You can head for Malibu or Miami for that.  We  stayed in a little hotel suite in Gulf Shores.  Most condos and hotels we noticed were pretty much the same, with hotels being a bit better deal because of the small living room, kitchen, and no added condo fees.

Gulf Shores View from Balcony

We arrived late in the afternoon and hauled a vanload of crap up to the ninth floor.  I immediately opened our sliding door to check out the spectacular view from our deck.  It was so warm and perfect.  I could hear the waves hit the beach and terns call each other.  Pelicans flew right by our window.  Little blue umbrellas and lounge chairs were set up in perfect rows.  The sand was white and went on for miles in each direction.

We were hungry, and it was already getting dark, so we thought we’d grab a bite before hitting the beach.  We crossed the street to Tequila West, located inside a hotel.  Although the atmosphere outside on the patio wasn’t so pleasant (smokers and lots of little kids running around and crying, cars driving by) the food was delicious, and the margaritas and tequila sunrises were strong.

We took a walk in the soft sand and stuck our toes in the warm Gulf water before heading to our room to finish unpacking.  Not a hint of a chill in the water.

Day 3-5:  At the Beach

After a restless sleep, we woke ourselves up with strong coffee, pancakes and ham cooked in our little kitchen.  We ate out on the deck and took in the humid, salt air.  We let the boy sleep in and finally hit the beach around 10:30.  We rented a couple of lounge chairs and umbrella from the quietly friendly beach attendant.  He informed us we’d get the use of them all day.

Lounging at The Gulf

We played in the calm gulf surf for hours.  It took a long time for me to even get a little bit chilled.  I would simply step out of the surf and hang out on the lounge for a few minutes before jumping back in the green-blue water.  Little finger-length fish swam around our legs, larger foot-long fish wove their way through the small groups of people.  We saw dolphins earlier in the morning.  Kids were playing with hermit crabs and a dad caught a jelly fish in a bucket.  Life was returning to The Gulf.

Hangin' Out with The Boy

In the afternoon, we showered, had a light lunch and decided to take a drive along the long spit that paralleled The Gulf, from Pensacola, Florida to the east to Fort Morgan to the west.  We went east to say we made it to Pensacola.  Hotels lined the roadway, with a few public beaches in between.

We started back through Orange Beach toward Gulf Shores.

Forest Fire Near Orange Beach

A big fire started in the pine trees of a state park near Orange Beach that created a huge cloud of smoke over the town.  Luckily for us, the wind blew it away from Gulf Shores. We could see the cloud throughout our drive, and later found out the fire had burned over 500 acres before being contained and doused.

We were back in Gulf Shores and were starting to get hungry again.  We decided to check out Lulu’s, Jimmy Buffett’s “Crazy Sistah’s” restaurant.  It sits back on the canal in Gulf Shores, next to Homeport Marina.  It has open-air seating, live music, a couple of bars, and a sand lot for the kids.  There are also original arts and crafts booths and a souvenir shop.  The food was great.  We ordered an appetizer of smoked tuna and crackers, then had blackened fish sandwiches, oysters and shrimp.  We listened to a nice Jamaican steel drum band while we ate.

Lulu's at Homeport Marina

The next morning, we went back to Orange Beach and checked out a really nice Italian restaurant called Villaggio Grille.  Although the air had a smoky smell from the fire, we were so glad we decided to eat here.  It was Sunday Brunch, and the waiters were so happy to see us.  I’m pretty sure the smoke caused a lot of people to drive elsewhere that weekend.   The staff bent over backwards to serve us, and the food was out of this world.  There was a bakery next door, and Villaggio coordinated with it for biscuits and desserts.  These biscuits were my favorite of the trip.  They were small, but flaky, buttery and sweet.  We then settled in for some amazing brunch food:  The boy had mussels (the waiter kept asking him questions to make sure he knew what he was getting!  We informed him that the boy knows how to eat, and is pretty much an omnivore!), giant shrimp, perfectly cooked and resting on a bed of homemade flat pasta.  I had eggs Benedict with sweet potato hash, country style, in big chunks.  OMG.  It also came with a blueberry muffin, that I saved for later.  P had seared Ahi tuna, and it was perfectly done.  We also shared a nice spring mix salad and two crab cakes–a feast!  We savored every bite.  We will definitely go back here someday, and I felt a little sad when we left, knowing that we wouldn’t be back on this trip.

Fort Morgan

We then drove west to Fort Morgan and toured the old Civil War-era fort.  It was  interesting, and reminded us the local forts on the Washington coast.  The boy enjoyed the tunnels and exploring the little brick alcoves.  It was really hot that day, though, probably close to 98 degrees.  We then drove around the neighboring village and saw some beautiful pastel vacation houses.

Quiet Living on The Gulf

I assume Spring Breakers were at Gulf Shores earlier in the year; but when we were there in late June, most of the visitors were young families.  Although most of the activities offered were for young kids (putt-putt golf, small amusement parks and zoo), we managed to find some quality entertainment for us and our teenage son.

The best venue in Gulf Shores is The Hangout, located right on the beach.  Over Memorial Day weekend, the place gets hopping, and the stage and crowds move to the beach for a big music festival hosting a variety of artists like Foo Fighters, Widespread Panic, Paul Simon, Grace Potter, My Morning Jacket and Cee Lo Green.

The Hangout includes an indoor dining area with large bay doors that open up to the beach.  A small stage on the premises hosts cover bands nightly.  There are a couple of outside bars, and a giant bar next to the dining area.  Kids are allowed to sit at the bar with their adults.  That’s how they roll in The South!

When we were there, we ended up going to The Hangout three out of the four nights we were at The Gulf.  It was enjoyable for us and our son had a great time.  There was a different band playing every night, and they played everything from Johnny Cash to Gnarls Barkley.  The Hangout keeps the youngsters occupied while waiting for their meals by participating in YMCA sing-alongs, massive foam parties, and pirates galore.  They announced people’s birthdays and anniversaries and made the birthday kids (and adults) dance for the rest of the audience.

After four days of sun and sugar-soft sand, we packed up the van and drove our sun-kissed, dark-white bodies north, with a brief overnight stop in Huntsville.  We then continued on to Nashville for a two night stay.

Tennessee

PART II:  NASHVILLE, TN
Loveless Cafe

Nashville, Day 1

First, a stop at the Loveless Cafe, just outside the city of Nashville.  We settled in for some authentic Southern food, complete with biscuits, home-made preserves, country ham and gravy.  Not only does this famous cafe fill up the stomach and the soul, they also host Music City Roots concert and radio show in the Loveless barn every Wednesday.  We were there for an early lunch, so we weren’t able to stay for the show.  At $10 a ticket, it would be worth a trip back.

Nashville

I was excited and admittedly a little anxious about this leg of the journey.  I had so much to see and so little time.  Although Nashville, known as “Music City,” is home to The Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium,

Ryman Auditorium
I didn’t feel like seeing a Patsy Cline tribute or any mainstream auto-tuned country acts on this trip.  I feel like some of those mainstream stars have lost some heart and soul by the time they get to that uber-famous level.  I wanted to see the musicians and singer/songwriters who played in the little clubs and divey bars.  The hard-working ones who still play gigs in town and drive to gigs all over the country.  Most of my favorite shows I’ve seen over the years have been lesser known artists playing in smaller venues.
Will Kimbrough
One artist I wanted to see if he happened to be in town was Nashville resident Will Kimbrough.  I’ve had the honor of meeting and chatting with him over the last few years, so I was hoping we could catch him at a gig in town.  He’s constantly touring, so it was a long shot.
I first heard of Will while listening to Radio Margaritaville several years ago.  Will plays and writes with Jimmy Buffett, so Jimmy in turn plays some of Will’s solo work on his online radio station.  Will is not only a very talented singer/songwriter with a list of solo albums, but he has also produced albums for various artists.  He was “Will” in Will and the Bushmen, the late 80′s alt-pop group, and he currently shares the spotlight with Tommy Womack in Daddy. Will has also played sideman for Todd Snider, Rodney Crowell, and most recently, Emmylou Harris.  He has been nominated and has won “Instrumentalist of the Year” from the Americana Music Association.  He is a self-proclaimed workaholic musician.  Will is so humble; I forget how great he is sometimes.
Will was indeed in town and would be playing guitar for Marshall Chapman at The Station InnMinton Sparks would open the show.
The Station Inn
The Station Inn reminded me of Seattle’s gritty, divey Tractor Tavern, only smaller.  The Station only holds about 100 people and has been around for about 30 years.  It is located in “The Gulch” district, a newly renovated area a few blocks off the main strip, where swanky, expensive restaurants and condos tower over the little brick tavern.  We walked into The Station, though, and felt right at home.
We found a nice old cushioned pew with a small table near the side of the stage and settled in.  We joined Will  for a brief chat before the show began.  We exchanged a beer-bottle toast and he welcomed us to NashVegas.  He said The Station Inn is the Bluegrass Capitol of the World, although this night would be a little different, as we were soon to find out.
Minton Sparks
The opening act, Minton Sparks, is a spoken-word poet and musician–a speaker-songwriter, she calls herself.  She was  dressed like a Southern Belle church lady, down to her little white patent leather purse and matching shoes.  Ms. Sparks had that Southern drawl where the words tend to linger on her lips before being gently released.  She could weave a story so well, and pull us into each character’s life.  A few times I had to pull back and remember where I was; I became mesmerized by each vignette.  Some were a little dirty, some were hysterically funny, and a couple almost made me cry.  Titles and words seemed so simple, but would twist and turn into something completely dark or more complex as the story progressed.  Some of my favorites were “Vicky Pickles’ Mama,” about a bikini-clad middle-aged neighbor;  “Suburban Snake Handler,” which was as dirty as the title implies;  and a yarn about meeting and talking to Minnie Pearl and spilling her soul to her.   Minton brought along John Jackson who played acoustic guitar and followed and adjusted his volume and tempo to match her characters’ mannerisms and quirks and jerks.

Marshall Chapman is a very busy singer/songwriter, author of two books, and recently simultaneously released a new album, Big Lonesome and nonfiction book, They Came To Nashville.

Marshall Chapman

She recently played the road manager to Gweneth Paltrow’s character in the movie Country Strong.
Ms. Chapman greeted us wearing black UnderArmour basketball shorts, an oversized black t-shirt, and bare feet.  Her gray hair was loosely pinned up into a crazy bird’s nest.  I liked her already, and she hadn’t sung a note.  She peered out into the audience and exclaimed, “Not bad for a Wednesday night in Nashville!”

Marshall’s latest songs are mostly folk/Americana, but her roots go back to rock ‘n’ roll.  Her songs, like Minton Sparks’ words, tell a story.  Some were more personal than others, such as “Tim Revisited,” and “Down to Mexico,” both written about Tim Krekel, her deceased friend and music partner.  She said sometimes the songs write her.
A few times in between songs, she would break out her latest book, They Came To Nashville, and read passages.  I enjoyed her story about asking Willie Nelson for an interview for her book; and after not being able to set a date with him due to his busy schedule, he invited her to travel around with him on his tour bus for a few nights.  Marshall also wrote a song about the experience called “Riding With Willie.” She has a very natural way of storytelling, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind and share a bit of her heart.  She strums to the rhythm of her own guitar; she is truly unique, and I completely admire her.

Will Kimbrough accompanied Marshall onstage.  Will’s guitarmanship was in fine form, although a bit subdued to match the folk genre and Station atmosphere.  He had some slow solos that showcased his total instrumental control.  He played a bluesy slide, and interchanged his two guitars to match the mood of the song.  The mostly quiet and polite audience responded with loud whoops and applause when Ms. Chapman introduced him after one such solo.
PART III:  NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE, DAY 2

The next night, we decided to check out Broadway.  The street is lined with vintage neon signs advertising honky-tonk bars and kitschy restaurants and shops.  You can find every imaginable souvenir mug, magnet, bedazzled t-shirt, and Elvis likeness.  Made in China.  If you look closely, though, you can also find the beautiful Gruhn Guitar shop filled with vintage Martin acoustics, Fender and Gibson electrics, banjos, mandolins, and Dobros.  We also stumbled upon Hatch Show Print, which has been printing show posters since 1879.  We found one for Wanda Jackson and Old 97′s and purchased them on the spot.
I loved walking down the sidewalk on Broadway and hearing different music from each venue spilling out into the night.  Every few steps was a different sound:  Mainstream country covers, tribute bands, bluegrass and karaoke.  There is no cover charge for most bars; the musicians survive on money left in tip jars.  We wanted to go to Tootsie’s, a tiny bar with good country rock, but it was completely packed–standing room only.  I wanted to stand outside and listen, but the sidewalks were crowded, and people were pushing to get through.
We moved to the next bar, called “Second Fiddle.”  It was a long, skinny bar, dark and dead silent, except for the county cover band trying to get everyone’s attention on this Thursday night.  The band was fairly decent; but not good enough to hold our attention for more than one drink, so we left.  We weren’t sure where to go next; we were a bit tired from our late night and from hoofing it all over the city earlier that day.
Layla’s
Then…the sound that captures my soul…old-timey, Outlaw Country!  We peered in the picture window of Layla’s Bluegrass Inn and saw the upright bass getting spanked, flying fiddle rosin, a frontman with a mohawk and tattoos, a rockabilly drum beat, and guitar player who looked and sounded like Ken Bethea of Old 97′s.  We were in!
Slim Chance Through the Chicken Wire
Layla’s was tiny half empty (or haf full, depending on how one looks at it), and half of the people were half-drunk.  We decided to catch up, and ordered Pabst Blue Ribbons and saddled up to a tall round table close to the stage.  The PBR slid down like water, and we ordered a couple more.
Slim Chance and the Can’t Hardly Playboys
That little band blew us away.  And their name, perfection:  Slim Chance and the Can’t Hardly Playboys!  It doesn’t get any better than that.  Within minutes after our arrival, they broke into a rollicking version of Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” followed by a Waylon Jennings number, Hank III and then my favorite train song, “Orange Blossom Special.”  Josh Headley almost caught that fiddle on fire during his rendition of that song.  They played a few more songs that were equally rowdy and a little dirty.
Bass and Fiddle Hamming It Up
Slim and the boys play at Layla’s every Thursday night.  I wanted them to come to Seattle and fire up The Tractor.  They’d fit right in.  I wanted to get up and dance, but instead, I let the ex-football player white guy at the other table get up and act like a fool.  I took a few pictures and the band hammed it up for me.  I could’ve stayed the rest of the night until they kicked me out; but we had to be responsible parents and get home at a reasonable hour, and try to act sober.

On our way out of town the next day, we stopped by Third Man Records,
Third Man Records
snapped some pics and purchased some t-shirts in the tiny storefront.  We were hoping for a tour, but they were busy that week.  It was pretty amazing just to be there and see the Rolling Record Store up close.  There are hundreds of vinyl records on sale from the many bands that are now on Jack White’s label.  Lots of cool souvenirs and shirts, too.

Rolling Record Store

I wish we had more time to explore Nashville.  I would have loved to see more shows at some of the other smaller, but well-known venues such as The Bluebird Cafe and The Basement, and also visit the historical United Record Pressing, but it wasn’t meant to be on this trip.
My Southern experience exceeded my expectations.  The Gulf weather was warm, the countryside was beautiful, and the people were friendly.  I embraced the South, and it embraced me.  And Nashville still has a heart and soul, if you know where to look.

July 14, 2011 Posted by | Concert Season 2011, Music, Randomville, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Star Anna Update – CD Release Party at Easy Street Records

Freaking awesome show.  We fell in love with Star and the boys all over again.   A warm humid night, free show, CD purchased for under 10 bucks signed by the entire band…priceless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

July 12, 2011 Posted by | Concert Season 2011, Star Anna, Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs New CD Drops 7.12.11

Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs are releasing their third CD called Alone in This Together Tuesday, July 12.  The CD release party will be held at Easy Street Records in West Seattle at 7:00.  Can’t wait!

July 11, 2011 Posted by | Concert Season 2011, Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs | , , , , | Leave a comment

   

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.