From the Gulch to the Delta-
On Pawn~ in Asheville, N.C.
We are down in the Gulch, Nashville’s newest “hot” urban enclave, bubbling with fashionable boutiques and trendy nightspots. Our trip from Virginia was uneventful, if wet; the views along the higher ridges were hampered by fog. With a brief stay-over in Winston-Salem, a quiet town of old architectural gems (and one of the best café lattes ever, at a place called “The Hive”), we landed in Asheville. This is a vibrant city nestled into the Blue Ridge Mountains with the charm of the south but a distinct culture all its own. Long known as a haven for artists, we took a deep breath here and put our feet up for a few days, taking refuge in a boutique hotel in the art district called the “Windsor.” We had an amazing, and entirely unconventional, Italian meal at Cucina 24 that could best be described as a fusion between regional Italian heartiness and Asian delicacy. I’m not much for high concept or gimmicks when it comes to food— but this worked.
From Asheville to Nashville
Heading south into the Great Smoky Mountain region, Nashville beckoned. We arrived late in the afternoon, with enough time for a nap, a quick meal and a jaunt around town with our friend Jim Hoke.
The Great Jim Hoke
Jim, who always travels with an instrument of some sort, stopped into Acme Feed to sit in with Guthrie Trapp and his band. (Guthrie is a Telecaster-wielding monster whose range far exceeds typical twang territory; he deftly ran jazzy excursions into hard rock terrain and brought it back into the groove without breaking a sweat). Jim wove in and out on a tenor sax that added richness and a smooth urbane sound to the proceedings to the considerable delight of the audience.
Jim is a musician’s musician- sideman extraordinaire, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and longtime “Nashville cat.” The last time we visited, Jim popped into Robert’s Western World where a Bob Wills’-style swing band was on stage; there, Jim whipped out a soprano sax and they all dove into Ellington, country fiddler included. Jim’s son Austin, who studied cello under the great Janos Starker in Indiana, occasionally gets together with his father to create a sort of faux classical jazz improvisational thing. This is proof positive that there is a connection between musical talent and genetics.
Jim’s studio is a short hop from the Vanderbilt campus. We spent a delightful afternoon with Jim and his wife, Lisa, trading stories and songs. Jim also gave us a virtuoso demonstration of his latest pedal steel guitar, pulling out some sweet countrified licks along with some old school Hawaiian guitar sounds.
There’s a reason why pedal steel players are a rare breed—it isn’t an easy instrument to tackle, and an even more difficult one to master. Jim figured it out himself, but has taken a few lessons from some of the legendary players around Nashville.
On the studio wall hung a poster of two of the many bands Jim has worked with over the years-NRBQ and Los Straightjackets. Although he started working the gospel scene while still in college, and worked with artists as diverse as Townes Van Zandt, Big Joe Williams and Emmy Lou Harris, Jim is a restless creative force. He brings out the best in others, and it shows in the music and good humor that seems to flow whenever he is in the room. More on Jim Hoke in a later piece.
After a few days in Nashville, we head south, into the famed Delta.
We lay up for the night at an elegant small inn and restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi called The Alluvian. The restaurant consists of a series of private curtained booths reminiscent of the Prohibition era. We ate well, mostly local seafood delicacies and retired to a large opulent hotel room above for the night.
Private Dining Booths at the Alluvian
I thought about the drive that brought us here: past endless miles of flat open fields in all directions, some time on Highway 61 and a turn toward Clarksdale, on Route 49.
The “crossroads,” at least the one memorialized by a sign on the road, is better served by imagination than reality. The road leading to Parchman was clearly marked on Route 49 but one could see virtually nothing from the highway. Perhaps it is better than way; the place still operates as a prison, as far as I know, and is remembered as a kingdom of misery. It is part of the sad, dark history of the Delta blues but travelling in the Delta today, you’ll see little evidence of that history. Yes, there are some museums and markers along the road, conjuring up famous waypoints along the Blues Highway. Yet what captured my fancy weren’t sepia toned images of the old blues players but the vitality of the place today. There’s life here—food, people, music, shops, endless unspoiled vistas, architecture, old towns, thriving businesses and a gentle country charm, as deeply and as heartfelt, as any in the South. By all means go for the history and the legends of the blues, but stay for the people—there’s magic here, and it isn’t just what’s lost to the past.
from the road
January 29, 2017