Like all the best ideas, the Southern Smackdown found its genesis at the bottom of a Champagne glass.
Back in September of last year, Peter LaMotte was in San Francisco for a wedding, and he, Sarah Lacy and I met up for a drink. Peter and Sarah both went to college in Memphis – Sarah’s home town – before Peter headed to business school in Nashville, and so it was somewhat inevitable that before long the two would be fighting about which town was better. That seems to be what Americans do. Particularly when Brits deliberately goad them, knowing how entertaining it will be.
I listened to the back and forth for maybe ten minutes – “Nashville has country music” “Memphis has amazing barbecue” “Nashville has Pottery Barn downtown” “Memphis tries to murder you” – before stepping in with a joke. “You know, this would actually make a great idea for a TV show. Two Americans from competing towns try to convince a Brit that theirs is better”
As is her wont, Sarah saw a ridiculous idea and ran with it. “We should totally do that,” she insisted, firing up the calendar on her Blackberry “let’s arrange it for the week after Christmas when I’m back home anyway.”
“Works for me,” I said – flexibility of plans being just one of the perks of living in hotels. “Peter?”
“Sure,” said Peter, with all the enthusiasm of a man who knew that the idea would be forgotten the moment we left the bar. Peter would soon learn that, when it comes to ridiculous ideas, Sarah and I don’t forget. Two months later – after recruiting Sarah’s husband Geoff as our official photographer – the smackdown was on.
After much dicking around with schedules (I had to fly in from London, while Peter was travelling from DC) we’d agreed on 26th – 30th December for the competition, with 26th and 27th spent in Nashville, 28th and 29th in Memphis and the morning of the 30th for my final judgment. It was the perfect plan, unless of course I found myself stranded in Chicago in the snow for the whole of the 26th.
Still, the competition began in earnest without me – Sarah, Peter and Geoff enjoying fried chicken at Princes before hitting up the The Station Inn where four men in overalls – including one playing a jug – provided the warm up for a sixteen year old crippled boy in a Fedora telling Walmart jokes. Oh, and John Prine did an unannounced set.
You had to be there, apparently and – thanks to the magic of Geoff’s photography and video – when I finally landed in town the next day, I felt like I had been. They’d even saved me some chicken which still tasted pretty damned amazing out of the minibar.
Our real breakfast was served at the Pancake Pantry, a restaurant which Peter proudly (and unnecessarily) boasted served pancakes with everything. The pigs in blankets were delicious but from the point of view of the smackdown, I was far more taken with the check which listed – in abbreviated form – all of the items on the menu. This might not sound like the most entertaining thing in the world and yet it kept Sarah and me captivated for at least twenty minutes by items like “Dr P. Sprite”, “Fruit C. Cheese” and the wonderfully understated “Pigs.” I asked for a blank one as a souvenir and with that, Nashville took an early lead.
Next up, Peter had planned a visit – via Music Row – to ‘the Parthenon‘. Remarkably this is an exact, full sized replica of the Parthenon in Greece, complete with full-sized statue of Athena inside. Apparently it was originally built in wood for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, before becoming so popular as a tourist attraction that they replaced it with a concrete version. A replica of the original replica, if you like. Unfortunately in what proved to be a foretaste of things to come, Nashville’s most ridiculous tourist attraction was closed. Also closed was the Country Music Hall Of Fame and the steak house that Peter had originally hoped to take us to for dinner.
Foiled in our attempts to be tourists, it was time to hit the bars, starting with one – I should have written down the name – which boasted Conway Twitty album covers on the wall and a guitar which, according to the accompanying sign, was signed by “George Hamilto IV”.
Sadly there was no jug player at the Station Inn on night two, but there was a jam session featuring a group of old men with banjos, and some kind of chocolate thing which – I gather – is called a ‘moon pie‘….
A quick break for dinner and then it was on to the bar crawl proper, with Peter having mapped out a comprehensive trail of venues, none of which – to our collective astonishment – turned out to be closed.
The thing that struck me most about Nashville bars is how much they reminded me of the bars in Austin. Obviously both towns love their music and there was nary a venue without some kind of live band playing. But, like Austin, they all somehow felt very generic – very hipster kids playing guitars – very edgy-but-not-too-edgy; very generic southern rather than in any way specifically Nashville-y. The bartender at our first stop proudly told us about his band and urged us to check them out on MySpace. “I’m kind of the creative force behind it,” he boasted. “What kind of music do you play?” asked Peter. “Some people say we sound like Jason Mraz or Maroon 5,” he replied, without a hint of shame. More interesting was his response when Sarah mentioned that we were heading to Memphis…
“You guys should check out Beale Street” said Jason Mraz, “it’s still pretty cool – but it’s gotten darker recently. That’s why they call it Mem-frica”
Wow. Did Maroon 5 mean what it sounded like he meant? And had he really said it to four complete strangers? Yes and yes. The next morning, on our way to brunch on the ourskirts of Nashville – at a place that, sure enough, turned out to be closed – we would discuss the differing attitudes to race in Nashville and Memphis. Peter argued – apparently reasonably – that Nashville’s attitude had come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, while Sarah – equally reasonably – pointed out that it still has a hell of a long way to go. And she’s right: if people are still comfortable describing places as having “gotten darker” just because they have an increased black population then you still have a serious problem with race. And if those people are 20-somethings trying to earn tips from people who are in town from San Francisco, then you haven’t even begun to address that problem.
After fried pickles and more live music at another bar, our night finished at one of two adjacent karaoke bars. For some reason Peter had opted not to take us to the one boasting “nude karaoke” but instead to one jam-packed with college kids belting out country songs that I’d never heard of.
It was the night of the Kentucky / Clemson game and fans from both teams packed every bar, and our hotel. Although not part of the overall competition, it’s worth reporting that – by a mile – the Clemson girls were hotter while the UK fans had more oversized cars with flags on their roofs. Also, the score was 21-13 to Clemson. Go – uh – Tigers!
The experience was saved though by Sarah’s impromptu rendition of Paradise By The Dashboard Light. To say it was a force of nature is to understate her Hurricane Katrina-like enthusiasm for the song. Fortunately Peter caught the start of it on video.
And with that, we headed back to our hotel, tired, still full of pigs and pickles and excited by what the second – and deciding – stage of the journey would hold. A three hour drive, for sure, to a city with an insanely high crime rate and a real possibility that one of us – probably me, knowing my luck – would be shot and killed. We agreed that if any of were killed in Memphis then the city would automatically be declared the winner…
…a rule that seemed slightly funnier before we arrived in Memphis and checked straight in to a hotel fire.
To be continued…
(All photography – except for Moon Pie and Racist Dolls – by Geoffrey Ellis)