New York, LA, Vegas, Route 66… forget about it. Y’all need to get on down to the Deep South for a real US driving experience. WORDS: Phil Lutton
Another morning, another stack of buttermilk hotcakes. Boy, do I love Tennessee.
Exactly why my body is craving food, I have no idea. I only ate a few hours ago, for God’s sake – a cheese-whizzed burger with more oil than Iran, on the way home from a blues bar in Nashville. Actually, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. After three weeks here, my food intake has reached staggering levels. I’m trying to supersize myself.
As we set out on a chilly southern morning, the car just seemed to drive itself into Cracker Barrel, a chain of good ol’ family restaurants that’s a telltale sign you’re on the arse-end of the Mason-Dixon Line.
A waitress, who has conquered any shyness issues that having no front teeth may bring, fills up my coffee, making a mockery of my polite protests. Oh, no thanks, really. No warm shit in a cup for me this morning,” I say in my head, despite nodding and offering her cheery thanks. She gums back.
Across the table, my brother polishes off the remains of his three-in-one mega breakfast, hoeing down his bacon and eggs after assaulting some pancakes and grits, a corn-porridge that’s the south’s signature dish.
It’s a breathtaking feat in itself – but enough time sitting around getting obese. It’s time to get back on the road in the Deep South, a region of America that demands a fast car (or a Ford Focus, in this case), a good map and an even better appetite.
The Deep what? No, not the South. The Deep South. Technically, the mythical American cultural creature that is ‘The South’ starts at the Mason-Dixon Line, a pre-Civil War boundary that borders Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The Deep South is generally segregated from the southern states again, mostly defined as Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana. It’s a region famous for its vast cotton fields, antebellum plantation mansions, the Delta Blues and being the birthplace of a little musical genre I like to call rock ‘n’ roll.
America is stacked with good road trips. Hitting the open highway in a fuel-guzzling T-Bird, fill ‘er-up gas stations, roadside juke joints, radio blaring – it’s the stuff of travel fantasy. The Deep South serves up the classic Americana road trip in spades – and more. Even better, the region is a country within a country, accessorised with unique customs, food and drink, scenery and style.
Where to start
Nashville, the capital of Tennessee, is justifiably known as a haven for country fans, with spurs that jangle into the wee hours. While the Grand Ol’ Opry and the country music bars colour perceptions, there’s much more to Music City USA. Nashville is to singer-songwriters what Hollywood is to actors. Blues, folk and rock are on tap every night and the nightlife is the best in Tennessee.
The real Beale Memphis has dined out on being the home of the Blues, but in recent years Nashville has eclipsed the musical vibe of its cross-state rival. Still, Memphis is a worthy stop on any Deep South sojourn.
Beale Street, the town’s musical epicentre, pumps out blues standards without pause, with plenty of soul food on hand. There’s also Graceland, the former residence of Elvis Presley, and Sun Studios, where the king first recorded. But there’s more to the city than music. Memphis was at the heart of the Civil Rights struggle and that history is encapsulated in the National Civil Rights Museum, in the Lorraine Motel. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated here while standing on the balcony outside his room in 1968.
What to eat
Yes, American food can be bad. Yes, American food can be fatty. But no, you don’t have to eat crap if you don’t want to. Besides all the burger joints and Cracker Barrels (must go, must go, must go!), food in the Deep South can be mouth-watering and not entirely bad for you. Memphis is famed for its barbecued ribs – huge slabs of murdered cattle dry-rubbed with spices or smothered in barbecue sauce. The Mississippi Delta offers catfish at every turn. Southern standards like grits and biscuits (savoury scones usually served with a thick gravy at breakfast) are an acquired taste but worth a nudge. The further south you get, the better the seafood is, with turtle soup a Louisiana specialty and divine restaurants lining the great waterway in towns like Vicksburg and Natchez, in southern Mississippi. When you hit New Orleans, crawfish and gumbo are scrumptious Creole fare.
Driving in the US is all about the interstates – fast, easy to navigate. But they are also stressful, dull and dreary. On the route down to New Orleans from Tennessee, the Natchez Trace Parkway is a welcome and beautiful detour. An old Indian trail, the Parkway runs from just below Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi, an old gambling and plantation town on the banks of the river (Jim Bowie made famous his big fuck-off knife here in 1827 by slicing up some folks in a brawl). There are no shops or advertising signs on the Parkway and traffic is at a minimum, allowing you to enjoy some of the Deep South’s finest rural scenes.
Where to stop
After Memphis, the road south doesn’t travel through any major cities until you reach Louisiana, letting you stop off at some smaller towns and get a feel for the locals, who are generally so polite you will want to start calling everyone ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’. Scan the Lonely Planet before you get driving but ask around – places like Clarksdale, where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil and spawned the blues – are great to stop and take a snap but not really worth an overnight visit. Refined Oxford (northern Mississippi) and pretty Vicksburg (southern Mississippi) are two towns that are worthy of a day or two and good bases to rest and rejuvenate. And don’t avoid New Orleans because of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Big Easy is perfectly safe and starting to party its way back to its former glory.