Don’t Quit Your Day Dream

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I (Sage) just graduated from my master’s program in Public Humanities from Brown, and Ben just returned from half a year traveling and writing in Chile. We’ve always dreamed of seeing America and realized this might be our best time to go for it. After months of preparation, we set out on the road September 8th, searching for music, history, literature, old and new friends, and adventure. We’ve already found so much, and we wanted to share some of our experiences with you, our friends and family.

So far, Ben and I have travelled through Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and we’re now writing from Mississippi.

Farewell to the Familiar

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After Ben flew in from Texas, we spent a few days preparing the car from my home in Annapolis, MD. To prepare our minds, we also took a trip to D.C., visiting the Smithsonian of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. King’s words sent us off thinking about how much personal inspiration we can find from learning about our country’s past.

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Into the Frontier

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Our first stop was the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, VA. The museum traces the path of America’s first settlers from the “Old” World (England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and Africa), and shows how their diverse traditions merged to form “American” culture from the 17th-19th century. It was the perfect place to start our own journey westward.

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This old German instrument was a precursor to the mountain Dulcimer, an “American” instrument we’d meet later on.

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From Day 1, we’ve been trying to learn about our surroundings, even when we’re just driving past them. Here’s some light reading about the abandoned sanitarian we found unmarked near the Frontier museum (READ THE POEM!!!).

Bristol: The Birthplace of Country Music

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We started our journey into American music history in Bristol, where the legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions first recorded Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter family. These recordings began a tradition that continues to shape American music.

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We began the day with our first Southern meal, with a side of American pop culture at the unhealthfully delicious Old Lighthouse Diner.

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The musical murals throughout Bristol reminded Ben of the eclectic street art in Valparaíso.

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I experienced my first of many moments of bewilderment with Southern life in a “gold, guns, and guitar pawn shop.”

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Ben started his education in real music with Jimmy Rodgers’ “extended yodel” in “Sleep Baby Sleep.”

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I demonstrated mandolin and fiddle for Ben. Be glad this “Bristol session” wasn’t recorded!

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For lunch we stopped at Burger Bar, the legendary restaurant outside of which Hank Williams supposedly died.

“They say Nashville is the home of country music

With this no doubt we’ll agree

But let’s don’t forget that the birthplace,

is Bristol, Virginia-Tennessee.”

–Poem Excerpt from Museum of Mountain Music

Ben found his first inspirational poetry in Bristol’s Museum of Mountain Music.

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Asheville: Where the Mountains Sing

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After driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains, Ben and I arrived in Hickory, NC. We weren’t the first to seek out this mountain paradise.

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In fact, the city of Asheville grew from pilgrims seeking physical and spiritual growth from the mountainous landscape and culture.

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To write a book that has any interest or value, he has got to write it out of the experience of life. A writer, like everybody else, must use what he has to use.” –You Can’t Go Home Again, a novel by Thomas Wolfe

Ben aspires to someday be as tall and talented as this renowned Asheville author.

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Ben often frustrates me with his ignorance of country music, and sometimes I can’t help but lash out.

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Just kidding (about the lashing out).

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Some old friends from fiddle camp treated us to the most spectacular Southern meal I’d ever had. Even Ben—a native Texan—concurred.

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After all that eating, we needed some exercise. So we visited the one National Park you mostly drive through—The Blue Ridge Parkway. We stretched our legs on a brief hike to a lookout.

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In the Southern Highland Craft Guild’s Folk Art Center, we learned about how Northerners’ pilgrimage in search of “mountain culture” has itself affected that culture—molding and funding traditions that confirm their own romantic ideals.

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Back in Asheville, we stumbled upon a huge Goombay festival, and our first BBQ.

For dessert, we enjoyed Asheville’s weekly drum circle.

In our third concert of the night, Ben and I had possibly our favorite surprise of the whole trip at the “Feed and Seed,” a small music venue/church 20 minutes out of Asheville.

Ben and I became the stars of the show when I taught Ben clogging and he taught me Texas two-stepping.

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We spent the next day driving through the Great Smoky Mountains. The grey mist made us feel like we were driving back in time—especially when we stopped at the Museum of Appalachia, in Clinton, TN.

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This was in fact not a historical reenactor, but a local espousing his strong attachment towards the Confederate flag.

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The museum itself, however, also made us feel like we stepped back into another era.

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This artist aspired to have his work erected on the moon and “9” planets by 2020. We have 5 years to prepare the citizens of Jupiter.

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Someday I hope to own this jawbone violin.

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We were particularly impressed with the museum’s sophisticated labeling.

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Actually, we were delighted with our free mountain dulcimer lessons.

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Nashville “Country Music: Three Chords and the Truth”

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Ben experienced his first taste of true bluegrass at the famous Station Inn with mandolin legend Roland White, who years earlier taught Sage her first ever mandolin lesson! White even played in the band of bluegrass founder Bill Monroe.

Ben liked it so much we went back the next night for a live bluegrass jam.

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I immediately felt at home in Nashville, the “Athens of the South,” when I saw their reproduction Parthenon in Centennial Park, made for the 1897 Expo.

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The TN State Museum was our perfect next stop on our journey westward. A total introduction to Tennessee history–covering culture, politics, art, technology, military, etc.,–we learned how the pioneers we’d met in Virginia continued into Tennessee: settling, developing cities, and often passing into Texas and beyond.

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After this introduction, it was music time. We started with RCA’s Studio B, where many iconic country artists recorded.

Charley Pride: “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone

Dolly Parton: “I Will Always Love You”

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Ben was not the first to sit at this bench. At 10pm one Sunday night, Elvis Presley arrived, but wasn’t quite ready to record. He talked with other musicians for a couple hours, ordered burgers and milkshakes at midnight, and began warming up at 2:00 am playing Southern gospel on this very piano. At 4am, with the room completely dark to create the right mood, he finally recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”

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I could barely contain myself at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which brought the story of country music full circle, connecting its roots with country today.

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We started back in Bristol, with Jimmy Rodgers “Waiting for a Train.”

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This is the famous Bill Monroe mandolin that basically invented bluegrass. The instrument, like many a country musician, made art from a difficult life.

According to the label, “In 1985, an intruder broke into Monroe’s home and smashed the treasured mandolin with a fireplace poker. The instrument was painstakingly reconstructed by Gibson from about 150 slivers of broken wood.”

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Immersed in the museum’s story of the people, places, and instruments that define country music, Ben and I were excited to discover it living in the city around us.

This is Vince Gill and the Time Jumpers performing at 3rd and Lindsley (you can never have too many fiddlers!)

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“The Mother Church of Country Music,” Ryman Auditorium has hosted everyone who’s anyone in country music (and housed the Grand Ole Opry 1943-74). But Ben and I were surprised to learn about the countless politicians, preachers, orchestras, educators, activists, lecturers, etc., who graced its stage before it was consecrated to country.

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Why did no one ever teach us the choreography for the finale? (See step #6). The Hokey Pokey was first recorded on the Ryman stage in 1952.

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Nearly every street (especially Broadway) was filled with country music history.

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Even the historic GOO GOO cluster candy store connects to the city’s musical roots. Many legendary Opry stars promoted the candy at the Grand Ole Opry.

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One of the first marketing slogans was “Say Goo Goo: A Nourishing Lunch for a Nickel.” According to the shop, some candy historians credit the clusters as America’s first fast food, “cheap, self-contained, and (in the short term at least) filling.”

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After so many recognizable country stars, we were excited to learn about some of the session musicians behind them and their hits in the Musicians Hall of Fame. We also got an introduction to how recording studios—especially the Stax and Sun studios in Memphis—have shaped various genres around the country.

After I shared some light criticism with a staff member, he—who turned out to be the museum’s founder!—graciously talked with us about the museum and our trip for an hour.

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In lieu of alcohol, we’ve altered our mental state with excessive sugar consumption. Exhibit A: Nashville’s famous Pancake Pantry.

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I learned only one thing on Ben’s sub-par tour of Vanderbilt’s campus. These trees are part of the campus-wide arboretum that contains over 6000 trees and shrubs native to the state. (Don’t ask me what any of them are).

Afterwards, we walked along Music Row, the hub of Nashville’s historic and contemporary recording studios. We even visited the studio of the talented Cindy Sinclair, who ran “Nashcamp” where I first fell in love with bluegrass.

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Nashville’s State house was one of the first buildings to mark the arrival of “trained” American architects in the frontier. We’ve come a long way from the one-room log cabins built by the earliest settlers in Virginia’s frontier!

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During our visit, we stayed with Ben’s twin brother and sister-in-law. Ben caught up on some much-needed “bro time.”

But we wanted more time, with them and the city. Hopefully we’ll be back soon, and for a longer stay…

Memphis: A musical jukebox

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At the Rock and Soul Museum, Ben and I learned about how country, as well as blues, grew into rock and roll, soul, and various other genres we listen to today. Memphis helped create many of these styles, (occasionally) overcoming powerful racial divides through musical mixing. Here’s a sample:

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Across the street, we toured a Gibson guitar factory. We were impressed by the intricate manufacturing process, but weren’t clear on what—besides history—preserved their status as the best instruments available. Admittedly, they were pretty.

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Although concerned by what appeared to be an empty café in an abandoned office building, Ben followed Sage into a magical museum filled with art, colors, music, and new friends. When a mysterious woman appeared, we were welcomed into the Center for Southern Folklore and she gave us a private screening of a documentary on Beale Street musicians and pigs praying before eating.

From this experience, Ben learned to trust Sage and her instincts in all situations and will keep his opinions to himself for the rest of the trip.

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Ben and I were a bit skeptical about making a pilgrimage to Graceland—particularly for $40 a person. But our eyes were opened to Elvis’ artistic genius when we spotted his two-tone pink golfing jeep, often used by security guards.

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These subtle stained glass peacocks—regal, ostentatious, and eccentric—seemed like an appropriate animal to welcome us into Elvis’ famous home.

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Every room was unique: from mirror-lined hallways to jungle-themed dens, the house was covered, floor-to-ceiling, in Elvis’ outrageous, albeit memorable, style.

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Elvis overwhelmed us with the extent of his influence and popularity. Did you know more people watched Elvis perform his Live Aloha from Hawaii concert than watched man first walk on the moon?

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Thoroughly indoctrinated, we were finally prepared to pay homage to this divine, musical “King.” Always remember, as John Lennon once said, “before Elvis there was nothing.”

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Elvis got his start at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios, so maybe we could too!

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Ben lends his talent to the “Million Dollar Quartet:” Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash.

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Our enthusiastic tour guide demonstrated how Johnny Cash created a percussive sound on “Walk the Line,” so he could play it at the Grand Ole Opry despite its prohibition on drums.

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Hopefully learning from these musical heroes will help us find our own artistic voices.

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Diverse musicians have long interacted on Beale Street—and it continues to attract the best blues, rock, and soul performers today. Ben and I heard saxophones, pianos, and trumpets blasting from every bar.

The street itself was filled with people and entertainment. I even saw my first street tap dancer!!!

“If you were black for one night on Beale Street, you’d never want to be white again.” – music documentary in the Southern Folklore Center

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But we can’t ignore the darker sides of Memphis’ racial diversity. We spent our final day at the National Civil Rights museum, located at the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

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The museum traced African Americans’ long fight for civil rights, beginning when Africans were first brought to America as slaves.

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The museum, even while showing us how far we’ve come, challenged us to recognize how far we still have to go. I found the educational segregation section particularly relevant.

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All the visitors were so engaged and passionate about this history that we couldn’t help but learn as much from their reactions as from the exhibits themselves.

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Ben, while watching the prophetic “Mountaintop” speech Dr. King gave mere hours before his death, was moved to tears at his intense faith that good was even now overcoming evil.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And I’m so happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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My college roommate Sharon and I finally reunited over blues and barbeque.

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Each day of this trip has been like a dream come true. Every few minutes we’re overwhelmed with gratitude.

However, we’ve been so wonderfully busy, we’ve hardly had a moment to reflect. Here’s Ben attempting to write while waiting for a concert in the famous BB King Blues Club. We’re currently taking a short rest in Mississippi, enjoying the opportunity to look back and look forward to the next chapter in our adventure!

2 thoughts on “Don’t Quit Your Day Dream

  1. Sage,
    I’m a neighbor and friend to your mom. I love this! Hey, I’m from Alabama originally so if you need any understanding of southern anything, I’ll try to help. I’d love to link your blog to mine, which I just started. If you can tell me how, I will. Enjoy!!! Miss those wandering days.

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  2. HI Sage (and Ben), your mom sent me this link and I must say I have really enjoyed reading it and looking at photos. Did you know that Jimmie Rodgers is one of my all time favorites? so glad you found his trail. I hope to follow you on your journey even tho I understand you won’t be coming here to Abq. oh well. continue to have fun carrying on the family tradition of cross-country trips. love, cp

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