Sunday, September 24 - Memphis, Nashville

Today is Sunday, Mass day, here as anywhere else. We've been wanting to attend a genuine Gospel mass for a while. And since we are in Memphis, we choose the Full Gospel Tabernacle, Reverend Al Green's Baptist church. Al Green ? The one of "Tired of Being Alone", "Let's Stay Together", "Take me to the River", and so on ? Hell yes ! Before becoming a pastor, Al Green, born in 1946, made a name for himself in the 1970s with rythm and blues, Gospel, soul, etc., hits. He even has his plaque at the Rock'n Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Full Gospel Tabernacle, Memphis, TN
Full Gospel Tabernacle, Memphis, TN

The Full Gospel Tabernacle church is only 2.5 mi. south of Graceland, but a navigation error makes us drive a few extra miles. This is what happens when you are not willing to trust the GPS, but it is right anyway. We nevertheless make it long before schedule.

Anecdotal history pretends that each time repairs were needed on his church, pastor Al Green would embark on a new tour and pay the bills with the profits. True, false ? I found no information on either side. But in the United States, faith is never far from business, and vice versa.

Sunday school
Sunday school

Entry is free. Although the pastor here is a superstar, no security, nothing specific. We enter thru a side door, a friendly lady welcomes us, and ... that's it, we are now inside the church. Important detail considering the length of services, up to 2 1/2 hours, there are restrooms.

When we enter the church, it is Sunday school for the young, the equivalent of cathechism for Protestant denominations. Careful not to disturb, we take seats in the back. We are not alone. The few back rows are mostly occupied by tourists. The locals, the regular attendants, mostly sit in the front rows. Why ? The congregation firmly intends to remain till the end, whereas the visitors will take advantage of an interruption to quietly exit, without disturbing the rest of the celebration.

Sunday school is now over. During the pause before the service starts, musicians tune their instruments and touch up the setup of the sound system. Yes, there is everything needed to make music, and it will soon be used.

To be honest, there is quite a lot of background noise in this church. Then an assistant comes in, and silence happens as if by magic.

Reverend Al Green
Reverend Al Green

There is singing at the very start, and an assistant delivers a short sermon. Soon, pastor Al Green enters, under the audience applause. He says nothing at first, just sitting on his reserved armchair. When he begins to speak, silence is ... religious, of course.

The congregation is made up of a majority of African-Americans, but there are nonetheless quite a number of Caucasians. No way to confuse visitors and locals, the outfits are absolutely not the same !

The pastor's sermons alternate with Gospel songs. Let's be honest, we came for those in the first place. We are not highly religious, but we would not have missed that for anything ! These songs, with a complete band (guitar, bass, drums, and so on) and 7 background singers, are joyful, rythmical, lively, people clap their hands, the audience sings along the choruses. It's exactly the Southern Gospel as we imagined it. And although its pastor used to be a celebrity, this church does not seem to be more famous than any other. Nothing in common with some tourist traps seen in travel agents' catalogs, where visitors outnumber locals by 10 to 1 and the entrance carries a fee. We are immersed in a perfectly authentic celebration in a neighborhood church.

Suffice to say, when we came in, absolutely nothing was asked from us. The hostess merely suggested, in a very friendly manner, that we make a contribution at the appropriate time. That was our absolute intention in the first place.

The reverend and the gospel choir
The reverend and the gospel choir

On this picture, the pastor delivers his sermon. The people sitting behind him are the choir singers, with more hidden behind his impressive frame. As a matter of fact, compared to the slender Al Green of the 1970s, he has put on some weight. At the time of our visit, September 2017, he is 71.

Soon, music and singing resume. The pastor takes advantage of the interruption to walk thru the rows and shake all hands. All, really ? Yes, absolutely, and that includes mine. Can you think of that ? I did not shake God's hand, just Al Green's, but that's just about the same thing.

During the break, a group of 20-odd tourists quietly exit. We follow them, just as quietly, doing our best not to disturb the rest of the celebration, which only the locals will attend. We could have stayed longer, but we need to hit the road.

In fact, a quite long ride on Interstate 40 is taking us to Nashville. Interstate 40 ? Yes, that's the one which we already know a rather long stretch of, way in the West, in Arizona, which we drove in 2015 after a kind of pilgrimage on Route 66.

Broadway, Nashville
Broadway, Nashville

Downtown Nashville knows no shortage of parking lots. We park at the Country Music Hall of Fame lot, which is quite close to what we came to visit, the Johnny Cash Museum. We walk down Broadway (yes, like in New York City), turn right on 3rd Avenue, and there we are.

In Nashville, Broadway is where most of nightlife is concentrated : restaurants, bars and, of course, plenty of places to listen to music. Country ? Sure enough, along with rock, blues, and so on. As long as you can shake it, that's alright.

It's mid-afternoon, and the placer is still sort of quiet. Weather is nice, there are people on the sidewalks, but we can walk without bumping into each other.

Johnny Cash Museum
Johnny Cash Museum

The Johnny Cash Museum takes up the first floor of a small red brick building in the heart of downtown Nashville, with the Patsy Cline Museum, in memory of another country music star who died in 1963 in a plane crash, on the second floor. It opened in 2013 and, quite logically, celebrates the artist's life. We can see his portraits, stage suits, guitars, gold, platinum and many other precious metals records, music instruments (mostly guitars), and enough artefacts to tell any detail of his life.

And his was not an easy life. Born J. R. Cash (since his parents were unable to agree on first names, they settled for mere initials) on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, in a family of cotton plantation workers, he grew up in poverty, starting to work in cotton fields at age 5. Later on, after becoming a star, he gave many benefit concerts to collect charity money to assist the most destitute.

During those difficult times, he finds his salvation in the Armed Forces. At age 18, he enlists in the US Air Force and, after basic training, is assigned as a radio operator to Landsberg Air Force Base in West Germany. A totally unsubstantiated legend pretends that, in March 1953, he was the one who decoded the first Morse message informing of Stalin's death.

His earliest musical memories come from the radio he listened to as a kid while working, mostly gospel. After moving to Memphis with his young wife Vivian, he works during the day as a radio salesman and, at night, performs in a trio with local musicians. Later on, his early recordings for Sun Records, Sam Phillips' recording company, are gospel, then rockabilly, then country.

His first guitar
His first guitar

At the time Sam Phillips signs Johnny Cash, his priorities as a publisher are Elvis Presley, then Jerry Lee Lewis. Johnny Cash is only number 3. He becomes Sun Records' star artist only after Elvis, then Jerry Lee, leave.

Save for a few less-than-formal lessons provided by his mom and a childhood buddy, there are no traces of guitar or singing lessons in his biography. Musically, he was a near-perfect self-taught artist. His voice, originally quite high-pitched, after his puberty became the immediately identified, superb baritone pitch which made him famous all his life.

Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash

At some point in his life, like many other rock stars, Johnny Cash began to use alcohol and drugs, mostly amphetamines and barbiturates, in definitely unreasonable quantities. His addictions and untamed behavior owed him a few arrests and other run-ins with police and justice. He never actually served jail time, his incarcerations boiling down to a mere few nights in police custody. That troubled period gave him the image of a romantic, undaunted outlaw. He was probably thinking of this criminal that he could have turned into when he performed several times in prisons, most notably at Saint Quentin and Folsom, California, producing the hit "Folsom Prison Blues".

Stage suit
Stage suit

According to another unsubstantiated legend, Johnny Cash had a  revelation in 1968, returning to his childhood baptist faith. This did nothing to steer him away from his addictions and repeated adulteries, quite predictably ending up in a divorce. His second wife June Carter's patience (the word "resilience" was not yet fashionable, at the time) gracefully stood the test of time, till her untimely death in May 2003. Worn out by addictions, the frantic tour life and the absence of his beloved wife, Johnny Cash outlived her by only a few months, dying on September 12, 2003. He left five children, four daughters with Vivian, including Rosanne, and a son with June, John. Rosanne and John also became talented musicians.

Recording gallery
Recording gallery

Obviously, Johnny Cash left us lots of recordings, including many hits listed in the charts, mostly country, with a few cross-overs, hits that were listed in more than one category, gospel and rock, or country and rock, for instance. We also have the copies of the Johnny Cash Show, a program that the Man in Black hosted on ABC from 1969 to 1971.

By the way, why The Man in Black ? For the very simple reason that most of his stage suites were black, head to toe. Simpler than that is going to be kind of hard ! The song "Man in Black" gives a few hints : in sharp contrast with the brilliantly colored outfits favored by 1970s rock stars, he chose very simple stage suits out of solidarity with the poor, the inmates, the illiterate, the sick, and all those that life has not treated especially well.

As a conclusion, he sings in "Man in Black" :

Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day
And tell the world that everything's okay
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back
'Til things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black
 
Among his many awards, including a dizzying number of gold, platinum and diamond records, let's remember that he is one of the very few artists to be nominated in three different Halls of Fame : Gospel, rock'n roll and country.
 
Million Dollar Quartet
Million Dollar Quartet
 
Of course, a visit of this museum would not be complete without a strong reference to this picture of the four Sun Records stars recording together. We already saw it yesterday at Sun Studio in Memphis. Here is its story, and let's acknowledge that pure luck, once again, really worked wonders.
 
In the night of December 4th, 1956, Carl Perkins is in the studio at Sun Records in Memphis. After the success of Blue Suede Shoes, he is recording new numbers, with his two brothers as rhythm section. To enhance the sound, Sam Phillips has asked Jerry Lee Lewis, still an absolute unknown outside Memphis, to play the piano along with the trio. Johnny Cash is also present, though not recording. At that time, Elvis has already left Sun for RCA but, since he remains on friendly terms with Sam Phillips, drops by to say hello to his former boss.
 
Nobody ever knew why the four of them started playing together, with no prior rehearsal. Sensing a possible commercial windfall, the always opportunistic Sam Phillips lets the tape recorders roll, and he disclosed to the press the so-called existence of a "Million Dollar Quartet", which quickly became mythical simply because, for many years, everyone gossiped about it without ever hearing it. Long after Sun Records had been sold, the tapes were rediscovered and published under that name in the early 1980s. Technical quality is absent. As a matter of fact, these were not professionnal recordings meant to be released, but, according to present witnesses, simply a group of friends joyously sharing their love of playing music together.
 
From left to right, we can see Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis sitting at the piano and Johnny Cash.
 

Johnny Cash's piano
Johnny Cash's piano

Music was part and parcel of the Cash family's daily life. In a way, young Johnny learned music with his mom. What a formal musical education did not provide him, a well above average ear and, to put it mildly, a proven talent, more than compensated. Though never a virtuoso, Johnny Cash was a rather decent guitar player. And as far as his singing is concerned, his childhood years spent in cotton fields singing along with other workers, as well as his Sunday contributions at the local church, largely trained his voice, this baritone voice that anyone can tell among all others.

Since Johnny Cash's family was very poor, chances were against them owning a piano. It nevertheless belonged to his paternal grandparents, who had purchased it from a mail-order company and paid for it in monthly installments. Johnny repurchased it in 1967, to furnish his newly acquired home in Nashville, TN. Throughout his file, it remained one of his most cherished material belongings.

While doing the research for this article, I found no reference to Johnny Cash playing anything else than a guitar.

The Highwaymen
The Highwaymen

In the 1980s, though still popular with his core fan base who flocked to his sold-out concerts, his recording career was hitting a really low point. He took advantage of that to record three albums with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson under the name The Highwaymen. The name of the quatuor is a romantic reference, so to say, to the not always glorious history of America : highwaymen were those men who roamed, alone or in groups, the roads of the country, looking for naive and easy preys. To put it bluntly, they were no more than sheer bandits. And it's also a reference to interstate highways, which make it easier to hop from one concert to the next one.

There is no way to talk about Johnny Cash without also mentioning his relentless advocacy, starting in the 1960s, for Native Americans, the so-called Indians, the first residents of America. Openly espousing their cause, he mentioned them in his songs, publicly supported theirs struggles each time he had an opportunity, not shy of going into open conflict with radio stations that would not broadcast Native artists. On the album "Bitter Tears : Ballads of the American Indian", he insisted on the first single being "The Ballad of Ira Hayes", a tribute to one of the 6 soldiers who had raised the star-spangled banner at Iwo Jima in 1945, for nobody had ever noticed he was a Native.

Johnny Cash's relationships with the music industry, publishers, radio station managers, agents, critics, and so on, have always been quite complex, due to the artist's personality, who never bothered with nuance or compromise. He most notably slammed Columbia's door after almost 30 years of contract, because he did not feel he was treated according to his merits. In his memoir "Cash : The Autobiography", he writes that, during the 1980s, he was invisible.

AT&T "Batman" Building, Nashville
AT&T "Batman" Building, Nashville

After visiting the Johnny Cash Museum, we complete the afternoon with a walk thru downtown Nashville. The building on the picture is the AT&T Building, with the offices of the famous telecom operator. Considering his less-than-usual shape, the locals quickly nicknamed it the "Batman Building".

Vertical Nashville
Vertical Nashville

Walking back up to our parking lot, Marie attempts to capture the reflection of the sky against the steel and glass panels of this downtown Nashville building.

Country Music Hall of Fame
Country Music Hall of Fame

We walk by the Country Music Hall of Fame. It's getting kind of late for a decent visit, we will be back tomorrow. We decide to drive to our hotel, a few miles east of the city. Our room is not quite ready, we are asked to wait a short moment.

At this very second, panic hits me. Where the heck is my credit card ? I obviously need it, and I need it now, for the hotel and many other items. Fearing that I may have lost it, I drive back to the parking lot downtown, conducting a thorough search. Wasted time, no card. Really put off, I drive back to the hotel. Meanwhile, Marie eventually got our room. A moment later, having sort of gotten my senses back, I end up finding my card again, in its cardholder, stuck in the mess of electric cables under our car's passenger seat. More fear than harm ! Conclusion : when travelling, always carry more than one card ... you never know !

We climb in our car again and drive back to Broadway to have dinner, and if possible listen to some music, a must in Nashville. We find a parking lot in the beating heart of the city.

Music is everywhere
Music is everywhere

We walk for a while on Broadway, looking less for a restaurant (there are many of them !) than for inspiration. We end up finding a place we like, grilled meat, beer and deafening rock'n roll. We are seated on the mezzanine, most likely the loudest place in the house, just above a band that plays really loud and really well Southern rock'n roll classics, Lynyrd Skynrd, Marshall Tucker Band, and so forth. Between songs, the lead singer finds nothing better than delivering speech after speech about America at long last given back to itself, aliens for whom we have absolutely no need, and other highly fashionable themes of the moment, under the thunderous applause of an audience of hard-core believers in his cause. True enough, it's September 2017, a few months after the inauguration of a President with rather clear-cut opinions. Out of caution, I decide not to disclose our French citizenship.

After dinner, we continue to walk up and down Broadway, looking for a country bar. In Nashville, that's not supposed to be hard to find. We finish the night at the Margaritaville. While doing the research for this article, I found out that the place belongs to Jimmy Buffett, a rather famous country singer, who has no other relationship whatsoever with investor Warren Buffett than their shared family name.

Beer having predictable physiological side effects, I start looking for the restrooms. I find them in the corridor, right behind the stairs of this picture. Nashville is probably the only place where you can you think of a curved, piano-shaped stairway.

Country night
Country night

In Nashville, entering music bars is free, only drinks are charged. The duet on the picture is actually only paid by the money collected in the bucket between them. As I drop my contribution, I notice it is rather full. It seems that the night has been quite decent for them. Good thing, they deserve it, for their nice, quite classical, country melodies and the young lady's crystal voice.

As a matter of fact, this is exactly the country night we meant to spend in Nashville.

Best things always coming to an end, at a moment, we have to leave. When we get back to our car in the parking lot, I find a ticket under the wiper. True enough, we have exceeded the alloted time by ... eight minutes, all in all ! At $44, those are not even the most expensive eight minutes in my life, but ... law is pretty harsh, at times ! However, everything is meant to make paying for the ticket as straightforward as possible. There is even the Nashville Police Department website address. Even for parking tickets, Americans always think in practical terms.