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Gracelands, Memphis
Ben singing

US Drive Part II

Thursday, May 6, 2004
Ben is back on the road heading to Nashville and Memphis on a mission to track down urban legends and sing a little country music.

From Kentucky, Ben steered his smart new Buick Riviera south to Nashville in the centre of Tennessee.

Nashville is headquarters to country music. Anyone who's ever twanged a guitar or banjo or sung a meaningful song has probably longed to sing at, or at least visit, the famous Grand Ole Opry.

The Ryman Auditorium opened in 1892 and in 1943 when the Grand Ole Opry show arrived, became the mother church of country music. When the Opry left in 1974, the Ryman remained vacant. In 1994, after full restoration, it re-opened as the national showplace it is today. Its stage has been graced by the world's most loved and famous country music performers, including many Australians, such as Reg Lindsay, Smoky Dawson, Slim Dusty, Diana Trask, the Kernaghans, Troy Cassar-Daley, Kasey Chambers, Tommy Emmanuel and Catherine Britt.

Keith Urban has been playing guitar since he was six. In his early 20s he made trips to Nashville to find songs and work with noted songwriters. After struggling for almost 10 years, he was recently awarded New Male Vocalist ACM and the CMA's Horizon Award. A long way from the farm town of Caboolture in Queensland!

After trying his luck in the business by singing the Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue and not being picked up by a recording agent, Ben got back in his Buick Riviera and headed southwest to Memphis.

A small detour takes you to the tiny town of Lynchburg, which for 150 years has been distilling one of America's most famous exports, Jack Daniels sour mash whiskey. A tour goes through the process and you can have a taste as well.

Memphis is on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and like its ancient Egyptian namesake, lies above the apex of the river delta. It is the gateway to two vastly different parts of the United States. To the south are the poverty-stricken farms of the delta, the swampy bayous of Louisiana and the European port city of New Orleans. To its north and west are the rich farms of the Midwestern plains and northern industrial cities of Chicago and Detroit.

Its genteel southern aristocracy has blended with the intensely spiritual soul of African-America. It is the birthplace of the blues and rock 'n' roll and was the home of the King, Elvis Presley.

At the southern end of town is Beale Street, which became the centre of a vibrant community of black businesspeople and professionals. It is wonderfully exciting, packed with blues clubs, restaurants and small bars.

One of the most infamous sites in the US is in Memphis. In April, 1968, Martin Luther King Jnr was in town trying to achieve equal rights for black sanitation workers. As he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, he was assassinated by a single bullet fired by James Earl Ray. The building has been preserved as a memorial to Martin Luther King and also serves as a National Civil Rights Museum.

A lighter place to visit is Sun Studios, where the greats of rock and blues recorded their hits in the 1950s. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins all found fame stemming from Sun. Tours are in two parts — the 30-minute tour is where you hear about the history and legends and the second part is a self-guided tour of the gallery of memorabilia.

The 14-storey Peabody Memphis Hotel has been offering southern hospitality since 1869. The Italian Renaissance grandeur combined with modern amenities is a Memphis legend. Each day a famous tradition is re-enacted — the Peabody Marching Ducks parade to the music of John Philip Sousa to the lobby's central fountain, where they spend the day. The mallards spend the night in the duck palace on the hotel's roof.

Check out Ben's US Drive Part One story here.


Nashville to Memphis in the south of the US


Peabody Memphis rooms start at around $400 a night.
Ryman Auditorium tours cost around $8 for adults and $3.50 for children. They run between 8.30am and 4pm. Show times vary.
Sun Studio tours run year round. Not in the best part of town, it is recommended you go there by taxi.

Qantas flies daily to Los Angeles with connections to Nashville operated by American Airlines. Return economy airfares start at $3164 from Sydney, $3248 from Melbourne, $3266 from Brisbane, $3561 from Adelaide, $3919 from Darwin and $4067 from Perth, per person. Prices include charges/taxes and are current at time of writing but may vary at time of booking. Seasonal surcharges and conditions apply.

More information

Ryman Auditorium
116 5th Avenue North
Nashville TN 37219
Ph: 615 254 1445

Peabody Memphis Hotel
149 Union Street
Memphis TN 38103
Ph: 901 529 4000

Sun Studio
706 Union Avenue
Memphis TN 38103
Ph: 901 521 0664

Qantas: 13 13 13

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