"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Monday, July 03, 2006

Highway 61 Revisited

Blogging may be light in the next two weeks, as pre-departure planning and packing intensifies for the Toasted Tour 2006 Road Trip. If you look over in my sidebar, you'll note that the seconds are continuing to fall away from our countdown clock at an alarming rate, and it will be time to hit the highway before we know it.

As shown on the map to your left, the first phase of our travels on our way to New England will take us through the heart of the Mississippi delta to revisit some old stomping grounds from my wild n' crazy single days. For a time, I worked with a radio entrepreneur who contracted management and programming services to small stations throughout the mid-South. As such, part of my responsibilities was to spend as much time on-site at the local stations as necessary to get them up to speed, and for the better part of a year I traveled to such major metropolitan areas as Lake Providence, Louisiana (pop. 4,704) and Clarksdale, Mississippi.

While I don't expect much from Lake Providence -- merely a bend in the muddy river with little to distinguish itself -- I did live there for several months and it should be interesting to pass through it again. However, after crossing the Mississippi at Greenville and continuing north, I have much higher hopes for Clarksdale, a town with a solid reputation for its revered historical place in the uniquely American music form called the Blues.

Clarksdale is quite literally the birthplace of The Blues; the intersection of Highways 49 and 61 is the legendary "Crossroads" where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the blues. It's also the home of the internationally-known Delta Blues Museum and was the former residence of musicians and celebrities like Sam Cooke, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner and Tennessee Williams. Its most well-known current resident is actor Morgan Freeman, who is a partner in a 5-star restaurant and entertainment venue called the Ground Zero Blues Club. Fortunately, our road trip plans put us in Clarksdale on Saturday night (July 15), so with any luck we'll be able to catch a live performance at Ground Zero and enjoy a tasty pulled-pork "Sammich". Details and photos will be posted here afterwards.

From there, we'll be heading up the road known as the "Blues Highway" -- Route 61 -- to Memphis, another town famous for it's contribution to the American music scene. Before the Interstate system was in place, Highway 61 was the major north-south route from New Orleans to the Canadian border, and has a near-mythical status similar to Route 66. Many musicians have composed tributes to this road; Bob Dylan's classic album is considered by many to be his best, and other music legends such as Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley took the blues to Chicago along the highway's path. When I lived in Clarksdale, there wasn't much to do at the time; on weekends I would drive Highway 61 up to Memphis to party at the many clubs there, so this trip will nostalgically retrace my steps from those days. Memphis is a fine city, and I can't wait to see how it's changed and grown since I was last there over twenty years ago. We will certainly spend some time on Sunday checking out the shops, clubs, and restaurants on Beale Street, and if you look at the live Beal-cam, you may possibly see me mugging for the camera at some point during that day.

The name "Memphis" brings a number of names in American music history to mind, such as W.C. Handy and B.B. King, but most folks associate only one "king" with the town, and that of course is Elvis. I am not really a fan, but I did visit Graceland many years ago out of curiosity. Mrs. Toast is not a fan either, so we'll likely skip the tour this time around. However, if any of my loyal blog readers have a serious affection for Mr. Presley, please let me know and I'll try to pick up some sort of tacky souvenir item for you while we're in the vicinity. I can't promise much, but I'll try.

After Memphis, our next stop will be the Country Music capital of the world, Nashville. (Oddly, I'm not much of a country music fan either so I'm not sure why I'm quite so excited by our itinerary so far.) Although we don't plan on spending eighty bucks on tickets to see Porter Wagoner at the Grand Ole Opry, if possible I would like to tour the concert hall from my engineer's perspective to check out its impressive recording and broadcasting facilities. Mrs. Toast will no doubt be interested in Opry Mills Mall, the former Opryland theme park which has been converted into one of the finest shopping centers in the USA. And we have decided to splurge and spend a few extra bucks to stay one night at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, a world-class resort and conference center which is part of the Opryland complex. Hey, we're on vacation, so why not do something different?

Well, that's what we have planned so far; I think it will be a fun kick-off to our trip. Once we leave Nashville, it will be roughly another thousand miles to our final destination, so there's lots more to come. Stay tuned!

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