USA Road Trip 2017 – Part One

It wasn’t the easiest sell in the world but I think the promise of some NASCAR swung it: against all the odds, I’d secured an Indy 500 honeymoon. While the Maldives or Bora Bora might be more traditional, there’s nothing like the prospect of 40 snarling stock cars to convince your bride-to-be of the merits of a US road trip to celebrate permanent legal union.

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Our starting point is Atlanta, the capital of Georgia – a buzzing Southern town with a history of extreme commerce and one of the most important cities in the civil rights movement during the last century.

The hospitality is superb from the moment we arrive at our hotel. Apparently a British accent goes a long way in these parts but being conscientious and polite is a way of life in this part of the world. The effervescent lady working the late shift on our hotel bar implores every guest to, “have a blessed day, y’all.” It’s disconcerting at first, but this is the bible belt and the gesture is sincere. Her banter is strong too.

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We make a relaxed schedule for day one, electing not to take the car but instead to just explore the city on foot. Our first destination is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site; a couple of blocks dedicated to the life of the civil rights movement’s most noted peaceful proponent, who spent much of his life in Atlanta.

The skyline of midtown and downtown looms over much of the city but the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site is in a peaceful, mostly residential, neighbourhood with kids playing basketball and residents of all ages quietly going about their business. In spite of this, the area is imbued with a soft, almost reverential tone. While the site might be named after King, it does much to promote peace and civil rights generally.

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The National Centre for Civil and Human Rights lays bare the best and worst of humanity. From slavery to defiance, it provides a stark reminder for privileged Middle England how far the Western world has progressed in the last 60 years. The centre is free to enter but welcomes donations. It’s moving but essential. The Ebenezer Baptist Church where Kings Jr. and Snr. were pastors sits to one side of the museum, and further up is King’s boyhood home.

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We keep on walking, exploring Inman Park and up to Krog Street Market, a hipster street food joint based out of an old industrial unit. It’s similar in concept to PapirØen in Copenhagen, if a little slicker in execution. It’s hard to resist delving into the outrageous selection of cask beers, even though it’s barely lunchtime. But what else are holidays for?

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This pretty much sets the tone for our day in Atlanta and we waste no time in sampling a few dive bars and burger joints in the company of a fellow local mosher we befriend in Little Five Points, Atlanta’s equivalent to Camden; albeit with a grittier edge. We quickly learn to heed the advice issued to us by our hosts in one bar: a glass of water with every beer. It’s so hot and sticky here that hydration is of paramount importance during drinking. It always pays to sit at the bar and get to know one’s hosts.

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Atlanta is super-cool and we could easily have stopped another few days but this is a road trip and we need to get rollin’.

We had identified that a trip around the Deep South would require a properly American car – six cylinders being the bare minimum and eight preferred. Our number one target is the Dodge Challenger: an awesome throwback to the land Donald Trump remembers, with eight offbeat cylinders, hemispherical heads and an earnest devotion to turning fuel into noise. We managed to snare the last one in the rental lot. At a price.

It doesn’t take long to escape Atlanta’s urban sprawl and we are soon cruising the archetypical roads we’ve seen in Smokey and the Bandit: two carriages ways a mile wide, separated by a broad, inviting strip of grass. I have to fight the urge to launch from the asphalt and tear across the grass while evading Smokey.

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Our first target is Senoia, Georgia, about an hour south of Atlanta. This little homestead has become famous as a location for TV and movie filming – and today is best known as the home of The Walking Dead. In preparation for the trip, I’ve spent many hours watching Andrew Lincoln slay zombies while deploying a semi-convincing southern accent.

Senoia is small town and it feels it. The streets are hushed, the buildings unspoilt and there’s no litter anywhere. The locals evidently take pride in their environment. They also drive everywhere in golf buggies. The little electric bolides sit outside every house and they appear from all directions loaded with children, pets and provisions, like mopeds in Thailand. I query our tour guide and she appears bemused that I have to ask: the golf buggy is simply the best way to get around. Well, amen to that.

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The Walking Dead tour is pretty cool. It transpires that the fictional town of Alexandria is an existent town in Senoia. All the buildings are real, many of them occupied and all behind a battered hoarding line, as seen in the show. Something of a surprise is a barbecue joint on the main strip which features a tribute to Top Gear USA presenter, Rutledge Wood. Now a NASCAR commentator, it transpires that Wood is a hometown boy and his family owns Katie Lou’s, which serves a wicked mac n cheese.USA 2017.012 USA 2017.016

As with all good road trips, we’ve enlivened proceedings with a little jeopardy. We have tickets for a must-see gig in Nashville this evening. We’re tight on time but a clear run should get us there in time for the second band at least. We make good running and the roads are clear. There is more of the same, with broad, open highways disappearing on for miles. The terrain is green and lush, with coniferous trees lining much of the route. Small towns appear and disappear. I’m pleased to note that the margins are less cluttered with ephemera than we experienced in Texas three years ago. There are only so many different burger chains you can patronise, after all.

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The advertising we do find is alien and fascinating. As we skirt the border with Alabama, we find a vast proliferation of fireworks shops – one proclaiming to be the largest in the world. I’ve no idea whether this bold claim has been independently verified but it looks bloody massive.

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Compared to the quiet dignity of a British ecclesiastical building, it takes some acclimatising to the rather more forward approach that the church adopts in this part of the world. Vast roadside signs implore the motorist to visit each church in turn – or remind one of the good work of Jesus. Barely a handful of miles will pass without a star spangled banner proudly waving in the breeze. The trucks are suitably vast, with towering, shiny stack exhausts exiting high above the cabs.

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As with everything in North America, the highway and its periphery are huge. Giant railway bridges periodically bisect our path – lumpen steel structures suitable for heavy goods wagons travelling long distances. Periodically, we pass painlessly through monstrous rock formations, where the scars of dynamite explosions are still exposed on each face. It’s clear to see where deep holes have been drilled before the rock was blown apart to permit the easiest possible passage for the road. While it may feel natural and unobtrusive, there has clearly been a huge amount of civil engineering work undertaken to make the road flow so easily.

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As we make our way through Tennessee and into the outskirts of Nashville, the peripheral signs become more plentiful. There are several opportunities to visit whiskey distilleries and some of Broadway’s famous honky tonk bars are advertising up to 20 miles outside of town. It’s a good way of increasing the tension: will we make first band?

Our hotel would be a pretty unprepossessing place, were it not for a dramatic lobby, with chains of spherical light fittings reaching 20 storeys into the rafters. Glass-fronted elevators whisk occupants to their rooms in a journey I can only imagine is ten times better under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.

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By now we realise we’re definitely running late for the gig and walk as fast as our ageing legs will permit to the Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman is a red brick tabernacle dating back to the late-19th century and is one of Nashville’s most famed live music venues – quite an accolade for Music City. Tonight is the first time the Ryman has played host to metal bands: Mastodon is in town. It’s only once we’ve bought our $9 pints of craft beer that a helpful staff member is able to get through to us that we’ve traversed a time zone. Instead of being 15 minutes late for the gig, we’re actually 45 minutes early. In fact, I believe this is the first time in my life when I’ve ever actually been early for anything.

It gives us time to explore the venue and check out the merch. The Ryman is a shell-shaped theatre, all seated, with the balcony seating gently tiered and constructed from beautifully wrought timber pews. Directly opposite the stage, behind the balcony, is a set of tall stained-glass windows through which the early evening light bathes the congregation. It makes a notable change from our usual dingy pub gig venues.

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First on is Russian Circles, a band which has managed to escape the shackles of a crowded post-metal genre. They’re equal parts dense brutality and ethereal ambience. It’s a mega show and drummer Dave Turncrantz is out of this world – a blur of technicality and ferocity. They close with a wall of noise; perhaps the most pummelling sonic abuse the Ryman has suffered in its 125 years.

Second on the storied stage is Eagles of Death Metal. Attracting headlines for all the wrong reasons when its show at the Bataclan in Paris was chosen for a terror attack, the band’s name is misleading. This is really a bluesy rock band and supremely pro. Singer Jesse Hughes is a ball of energy, an ordained pastor and his stage persona bears this out. The music isn’t totally my bag but it’s perfectly executed and there’s evidence of a crowd which clearly hangs on every word. Sometimes you need to step back and remember where you are.

And so; with another $9 beer tearing its way through my beleaguered bank balance, Mastodon takes to the stage.

This is a band at the very top of its game and blessed with a back catalogue bulging with killer hooks, outrageous time signatures and an ability to drop the deadliest chugs with no prior warning. It’s an incendiary mix and they juggernaut their way through a greatest hits set, dropping hit after hit with barely a pause for breath. They open with Sultan’s Curse, the first track from latest album Emperor of Sand, taking in highlights from that record including the stand-out Show Yourself. They plunge through each record picking out the biggest riffs before closing with an epic triumvirate of Mother Puncher, Circle of Cisquatch and finally the mighty March of the Fire Ants, bringing the house down with it. It’s a display of pure power, mastery of melody and terrifying technicality. Best metal band in the world? Don’t doubt it.

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With the opening riff from March of the Fire Ants still swirling in the memory, drummer Brann Dailor delivers a heart-felt epilogue. His grandparents had played the Ryman Auditorium in the 1950s and he was clearly moved looking up to the same stained glass windows as they had, 60 years earlier. The first metal show at the Ryman was a triumph.

Nashville first came to my attention during the TV comedy Master of None, when Dev takes his new belle Rachel on a one-day date to Music City. This is the home of country music and it wears its heart on its sleeve. The downtown district bursts with high-rise blocks, including the AT&T tower, nicknamed The Batman Building due to its resemblance to Batman’s mask. It looms over the entire state of Tennessee as its tallest building.

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The city is heaving with construction activity and it’s fascinating to observe how things are done on the other side of the pond. The speed of construction is hugely impressive, with crazy back-propping to progress multiple floors of high-rise buildings. I’d hate to be undertaking the temporary works calculations on those. Elsewhere, it’s evident that health and safety is not up to the standards of the UK industry but this is a place where things get done.

By far the most impressive structure is Music City Centre. This is an enormous exhibition space sprawling over two full blocks and stretching high into the sky; large enough that a main road actually passes through it. Imagine dropping the Birmingham NEC into the middle of a busy city and cladding it in a flowing, trippy façade.

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We take a recommendation and dine at Martin’s BBQ – a bustling, traditional barbecue house which smells divine and serves the best brisket I’ve ever eaten. This kind of food might be a hipster staple in the UK, but here in the South, it’s a way of life and the proliferation of awesome eats is one of the highlights of the trip.

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We need a decent meal as our next stop is Broadway. This legendary neon strip is home to Nashville’s honky tonk bars. It’s as brash as it sounds, with live music in every joint but less forced and tacky than Bourbon Street in New Orleans. This is still the real deal.

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We settle at the bar in Nudie’s – home of the longest bar in Nashville; allegedly. As we have to squint to see its conclusion, it’s hard to disagree. There’s a band in full flow and for the two hours we stay, they don’t let up. It’s a mix of blues, rock and country – mostly covers and plenty of songs we know but many that we don’t. The guitarist makes frequent requests for tequila shots – at one stage being furnished with a huge shot by a very enthusiastic and apparently devoted middle-aged lady who hollers in response. We don’t stick around long enough to witness the conclusion of that burgeoning relationship.

Despite having no background in country music, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the whole atmosphere. People in cowboy boots dance in front of the stage and the guitarist intersperses his tequila shots with waltzes along the bar and, as a backdrop, Nudie’s own white Cadillac hangs from the wall behind the stage.

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Of course, this is just the warm-up act for the main event: we’re off to see hardcore’s craziest live band. Every Time I Die are playing a tiny dive bar called The End. Upon arrival in the early evening, it’s still sweltering but the beer is cheaper than most places and the venue is packed. The band is completely off the hook – as you would expect. The tiny venue has people hanging from every available rafter, with crowd surfers from beginning to end. As a static observer, it’s hellishly intense and sweaty; one cannot imagine how tough it must have been on stage. This is a special band, with massive, catchy, heavy songs played with unerring conviction. A totally different gig to Mastodon the night before but no less vital.

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Every Time I Die is the soundtrack to close our time in Nashville – it’s been short but sweet. We’ve got to get over the border and into North Carolina. Boogity boogity boogity – let’s go racing! Charlotte Motor Speedway beckons.

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