It's not every day that DiS gets invited to a birthday party half way across the world in honour of someone we've never met. That's exactly what happened last week though when those nice people at Jack Daniel's offered us the chance to fly out to Nashville, Tennessee for a weekend of eating, drinking, sight-seeing and generally surreal activities we'd never experience in a lifetime of evenings in the city of Nottingham (or anywhere else in the UK you'd care to mention). Oh, and of course, there was the music. Lots of it.
Nashville, you see, is known worldwide as "Music City", it being the epicentre of America's huge Country & Western scene. Not to mention housing the famous RCA studios, where the likes of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison among many, many others laid down some of their best-known recordings. Interestingly, despite such a wealth of history, the music business isn't Nashville's biggest earner in terms of trade and industry; those honours go to medical health care and the publishing of religious materials, respectively. Useless facts out of the way, DiS spent five days compiling this diary in words and pictures, starting and finishing at Heathrow Airport. Bring on the jetlag...
Thursday 13th October
OK, so being from the middle of the country one isn't quite used to the sheer immensity in scale of Heathrow. This means that finding the correct car park becomes an exercise in itself, and we haven't even reached the check-in desk yet. A group of people surrounding a girl in a Jack Daniel's t-shirt are spotted. I guess that must be us then, and as names are ticked off and wristbands allocated accordingly, it's time for an aimless wander round Heathrow's shopping mall before boarding the plane.
Reading material purchased (Diary Of The Real Soul Crew on the recommendation of a friend who shall remain nameless...), the call to board BA Flight 227 to Atlanta, Georgia already seems like another world compared to the standard Ryanair fare to mainland Europe that yours truly is accustomed to. Complimentary wine and spirits quaffed, even the in-flight CD channel library contains such delights as Smother, The Suburbs and Bon Iver among its many titles, and after one too-many chapters of x punched y in Swansea town centre and vice versa, said book is quickly exchanged for something a little more engrossing.
Having touched down in Atlanta eight-and-a-half hours later, there's still the small matter of a further four-and-a-bit hour coach journey to go. And we haven't touched on the two mile walk through arrivals and baggage yet either, not to mention the overzealous customs where shoes, belt, watch, money, toiletries and just about everything else are removed from one's person and luggage before being allowed to pass. Sheesh.
Finally arriving at the Nashville Grand Union Hotel - a converted railway station that is arguably the most palatial building these feet have ever stepped in - the almost constant day's travelling forces DiS to retire to bed in an instant. How very rock and roll. Not.
Friday 14th October
Up bright and early, fully refreshed from Thursday's long haul through air and over land, DiS emerges for breakfast. Twenty minutes later, movement is at a minimum having easily consumed one's bodyweight and then some in eggs (I requested an omelette, the waitress came back with a whole refrigerator's worth stuffed with bacon, ham, sausage and a variety of other fillings you'd care to mention). Not previously used to such over-indulgent good living, there's time to explore the town before our first visit to Jack Daniel's distillery in the neighbouring town of Lynchburg.
Walking around the impressive array of record emporiums, such as the excellent Ernest Tubb Record Shop, we're simply spellbound by the colossal selection of rare vinyl and boxsets on offer. Sifting through the various stalls and racks there's even a cookery book section. And a signed photo of a bus. HMV this most definitely isn't, thank the Lord.
Wandering downtown along the main Broadway, our amusement is heightened as we peruse gift shops named 'Cotton Eyed Joes' selling t-shirts and merchandise emblazoned with slogans like "Viva Nash Vegas" and "Think Globally, Choose Hillbilly". There's even a Hooters on one of the side streets off the main drag, which creates a home-from-home vibe (Nottingham being one of only two cities in the UK boasting one of these delightfully tacky eateries).
Anyway, off to the town of Lynchburg where more food is consumed courtesy of Miss Mary Bobo's overwhelming soul food assortment that could probably feed half of Dalston in one afternoon rather than the fourteen journos, PRs and industry types assembled here.
Next up is the opportunity to taste the various stages (White Dog - i.e. pure ethanol being the first) and brands (Single Barrel - at 47% proof being the most lethal and ultimately unpalatable) followed by a guided tour around the distillery by Randy "Goose" Baxter, the Johnny Vegas lookalike from the television adverts. Turns out he's a treasure trove of information - a bonafide living legend even - and another reason to love the unbelievably hospitable southern Americans we seem to be encountering at every juncture. At this point anyone still reading is probably wondering whether or not we're going to review any music. It's coming. Soon.
Returning to Nashville where yet more copious amounts of food and drink are consumed - try the Peartini cocktail, a potent concoction of Apple Schnapps and pear flavoured Absolut vodka - it's off downtown to sample the local nightlife. Precisely eight hours later, having encountered live music in almost every bar, overwhelmingly polite locals queuing up to buy us drinks as they "Just love our accents", random meetings with old acquaintances from Chesterfield and an awesome late night bar playing old school hip hop 'til 6am, we just about make it back to the hotel in one piece. Just.
Saturday 15th October
Today is showtime, and after another huge breakfast of omelette and muffins, your soon-to-be heavyweight and rather hungover DiS scribe is rather excited at what lies in-store this evening. Talk in the hotel lobby before boarding the coach to Lynchburg centers around the rumourmill slowly gathering pace on Twitter et al about The Stone Roses impending reunion, which the whole group dismiss as one to be little more than a hoax. How wrong we're proven to be.
Back to the distillery for yet more food (?!?), more drink (?!!!?) and an afternoon of press conferences, there's time between to visit the town centre of Lynchburg (population allegedly 361, although several folks inform us it's considerably higher). Now Lynchburg is what's known as a "dry town", meaning that it's illegal to purchase or publicly consume alcoholic beverages, somewhat ironic considering the Jack Daniel's distillery is situated there. Anyway, more friendly exchanges take place with the locals, including a sweet old guy carrying a poodle called Bamm Bamm after Barney Rubble's baby in The Flintstones. He tells us he's looking for a Pebbles to partner his pooch. After a round of "aaaahhhh"'s we head back to the distillery for the media inquisitions.
A couple of hours later, DiS can say that we've learnt very little about many of the artists set to appear on the specially constructed stage at the top of Barbecue Hill (honest!) other than A) K-Flay looked as bored as we did by the number of times she got asked what it must be like to be white (shock!) AND female (horror!) in the big bad world of hip hop; B), that Plan B is possibly one of the most paranoid popstars on the planet and isn't averse to using the word "cunt" at regular intervals. And C) Warpaint's Theresa Wayman and Emily Kokal give the impression they'd rather be somewhere else, anywhere in fact than sat here while assorted music hacks question them intently.
With a whole barbecue's worth of food waiting (No, I'm not kidding!) and a free bar serving all kinds of Jack Daniel's related beverages (Try the JD and apple juice "Applejack" - yummy), we're joined by approximately 250 competition winners for the birthday celebration gig that takes place in what looks like a rather large converted barn. First up is K-Flay, real name Kristin Flaherty whose SBTRKT inspired beats and machine-gun like rhymes have already got both the Beastie Boys and The Prodigy's Liam Howlett hot under the collar. Her four-song set consists of two originals ('Stop, Focus', 'Doctor Don't Know') which showcase her as a unique talent to look out for in the coming months, and two covers, the first of which (The Zombies 'Time Of The Season') we barely recognise until someone hands us a setlist after the gig. Backed throughout by the house band, the New Silver Cornet Band, which features legendary songwriter and musician Steve Cropper amongst its number, K-Flay oozes a crossover potential that veers between both underground and mainstream acceptance. Watch this space...
Next up are the two present members of Warpaint, who, in the absence of their usual rhythm section, find themselves ably backed by the house band. Having looked disinterested during the press conference earlier, it's a relief to report that they're back to form where it matters, on stage in front of a live audience. Re-worked versions of 'Undertow' and 'Elephants' stand out like sore thumbs head and shoulders above pretty much everything else on offer this evening, while sticking with the covers theme, they run through Dolly Parton's 'Jolene', Aretha Franklin's 'Do Right Man, Do Right Woman' and The Shirelles 'Dedicated' like giddy school girls at their first slumber party. Alternating lead vocals between the pair of them, their harmonies elevate them far and away above the mere "indie" band status many hastily tag them with. By the end, the radiant smiles beaming from both faces tell their own story. Simply captivating.
Without meaning to put a dampener on proceedings from the start, it's difficult to comprehend where an artist like Plan B would fit into the grand scheme of things Stateside. Performing in a nation blessed with the best soul and r'n'b singers on the planet, he's going to need more than just Essex boy bravado to pull off a show here. It's not surprising then that the first couple of numbers he plays from last year's million-plus seller The Defamation Of Strickland Banks encourage only a lukewarm response. Things pick up thanks to 'Prayin''s soulful melody but his limited vocal range is highlighted when he covers 'Knock On Wood' and 'Soul Man', joined by writer Cropper for both and the Warpaint girls for the latter on guitar and backing vocals respectively. Taking over lead vocals for '(Sittin' On The) Dock Of The Bay' and 'Midnight Hour', arguably his two best known compositions, Steve Cropper cuts a legendary shape that restores the room back to life, albeit after a momentary lapse where two-thirds of the audience seemingly failed to recognise the opening bars from each. Returning for the closing 'Big Bird', Plan B continues to both amuse and bemuse in equal measures, perhaps not quite sure himself what he's doing in such hallowed company.
With the show over, there's only one thing left to do; return to Nashville and head downtown, and that's exactly what happens. There, we come across an exciting trio named The Eskimo Brothers, whose mix of traditional rockabilly coupled with bluegrass takes on the Black Eyed Peas 'My Humps' and 'Wannabe' by the Spice Girls is complimented by possessing in their ranks one of the most brutal exponents to the art of drumming we've witnessed all year. It's also here where strange men proposition members of our party to sleep with their wives while enlightening all and sundry on the concept of "white supremacy" until solace is sought in the slightly more serene confines of the hotel.
Sunday 16th October
Adventure nearly over, there's just one more item on DiS' "to do list" before heading for Atlanta airport and home. The Country Music Hall Of Fame coupled with the famous RCA recording studios make for a fascinating Sunday morning jaunt, culminating in walking through the grounds of the Hilton Hotel where the Stars Of Country Music Walk of Fame is situated and we're eventually told rock'n'roll great Little Richard lives in the Penthouse Suite.
Tired and weary and desperately in need of sleep, not to mention a temperature that's soon to hit 28 degrees, an exhausted DiS finds itself in the land of slumber for the majority of the journey home upon Monday morning's arrival at Heathrow, safe in the knowledge that this most surreal excursion to the austere end of American culture has somehow conjured up a weird and wonderful assortment of memories far beyond anyone's wildest expectations.
Coming next week: Drownedinsound's interview from Lynchburg, Tennessee with Plan B