“Let’s go to Memphis in the meantime, Baby;
Let’s go to Memphis, in the meantime, Girl”
Johnny Never and I are back from an incredibly adventurous trip to Memphis, Tennessee and the experience of the International Blues Challenge. It was my first time to Memphis, and i had been looking so forward to the trip. We didn’t make it beyond the quarter finals of the competition, but we heard some great musicians from around the world, ate some good food, and saw and hung out at some of the iconic bars and clubs on Beale Street. The weather made it a somewhat difficult week, however: it was warmer here in Philly last week than it was in Memphis. That made for a memorable trip that put the “challenge” in the "Blues Challenge”. It provided great opportunities to practice tolerance, roll with the punches, improvise, and persevere. And all of that started before we reached Memphis.
We were supposed to catch a 7:56 AM flight last Tuesday, but the weather conditions meant there were flights held over that had been cancelled and delayed due to last Monday’s snowstorm. So our flight was delayed as some of those flights took off on Tuesday morning. Finally, we boarded and appeared to be ready to head down to Memphis. But we sat on the tarmac for quite a while-over 2 hours. Then we had to go to a de-icing station as ice was apparently building up on the plane. We waited to get there, and then ran low on fuel. So after several hours on the plane, the flight was eventually cancelled. We were very disappointed, but we were told we would be on the same flight Wednesday. So we felt a little better and were prepared to do that.
Only when we got to the airport the next day, that flight was cancelled as well. We had registration for the IBC due at 4PM, and we were scheduled to play on Wednesday evening at 8:30. And there was no other scheduled flight from Philly to Memphis until the evening. Needless to say, we were worried.
Johnny used to work on putting films and videos together for corporations, so he knew how to jump into “fix-it” action. He found a flight from Philly to La Guardia airport in New York, and then a flight from LaGuardia to Memphis. And he arranged through phone calls to the airline that there were no extra fees and that it would be a smooth transfer. So we were going to make Memphis after all, if a little late. (Other travelers to the Challenge also made that same trip, and we got to meet some of them as Johnny and I played in the airport as we waited for planes. Johnny talks about one such encounter in greater detail in the blog on his website)
Unfortunately, that was not the end of our challenges. We made it to Memphis on Wednesday late afternoon, but our luggage wound up in Charlotte. We had to play that night in the clothes we had worn all day. We played at The Pig on Beale, and we played well. There were some folks from DE and Philly that had come down to see us, and it was great to see them. So Wednesday eventually turned out to be OK.
But we had to spend part of the next day calling and hustling out to the airport trying to find our luggage. Fortunately, we hooked up with a wonderful husband and wife shuttle service that made things much nicer and smoother than they could have been otherwise. And the airport folks said our luggage would be delivered that evening. We ate some good food, visited a couple of clubs, heard some great music and prepared for our Thursday evening show.
Thursday turned out to be another difficult day. It started with our luggage not being delivered. Icy roads meant the delivery service cancelled deliveries! So we had to take the shuttle service to get back out to the airport to recover our luggage. We got the luggage, and then prepared for our Evening show. Unfortunately, there were three time changes as to when we were to perform, two of them after we were in the club. That, to say the least, was also frustrating. We did play, and we played well. But it had been a tiring, unsettling, and tough two days. I got back to the hotel, collapsed and went to sleep, vowing to myself to make the rest of the trip as wonderful as possible
Friday and Saturday found me visiting a couple of places I had long wanted to see. Stax Records, home of Otis Redding, Booker T and the MG’s, and more, has been rebuilt as a museum on the original site, and it is amazing. I spent 3 hours there Friday, reading about the founding and history of the label, touring the studios, reading about the history of soul and gospel music in Memphis, viewing some classic photos, and seeing several interviews with musicians about how certain songs were written and recorded. It was a pilgrimage for me, and I cried and had some great conversations with other tourists. I also spent a little time Saturday at the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum was closed from Monday until Saturday due to the icy roads in Memphis, and it closed early on Saturday as another ice storm was forecast. But I got to see a history of Black protest dating back to slavery times, see some rare photos of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and read and see a lot of behind and beneath the headlines things that added much more depth to what is generally presented in the media and history books. It was incredibly moving, and yes, I cried again several times. The museum is located on the site of The Divine Loraine Motel, the place where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and it is a masterful job of re-purposing. I need to and will come back to see the entire museum. It is another place of thoughtful pilgrimage for me.
Leaving and getting back to Philly on Sunday was easy by comparison to our trip down. It was good to be back in the warmth of the North-most days Memphis was in the teens. It was a, crazy, wonderful, frustrating, maddening, exciting, and memorable five days. I had some experiences I could not have had anywhere else. I look forward to going back to Memphis again sometime soon. It is indeed a very special place!
John Hiatt: Memphis in the Meantime:
Stax Records Musuem:
National Civil Rights Musuem: https://www.civilrightsmuseum.org