In 1925, the Grand Ole Opry began riding the crackle of amplitude modulation (AM radio) into the foothills around Nashville. Not far west, in Memphis, the blues had long before cast its spell across the Mississippi Delta. But in the early 1950s, where the periphery of Appalachia finally merges with the fertile plains of Old Man River, the seeds of rock and roll were taking root.
It's a subtle transition from low mountains to river plain. The undulations passing beneath the wheels of the FJR1300 become smoother, the arcs of the already easy curves loosen even more, and the rivers and streams lose their ripple, proceeding in a more melancholy progression. Gliding west along these lonely back roads near Jackson, Tennessee, it's easy to slip back to pop music's golden era…
Easy to remember how, when the volume was cranked up to surmount the noise of the wind rushing through the open window, the imperfect timbre of the car's AM radio would distort the dash-mounted speaker. And as the Nashville signal of twang-laden vocals and fiddles faded, a spin of the dial initiated a tenuous contact with the bluesy, slide-guitar strains beaming from downtown Memphis. Although neither playlist was received with perfect clarity, the "little too far, not quite near" proximity always provided a tempting taste of both.
For today's ride, the mind, the road, and maybe a lingering DJ or two all conspire to spin a few of the tunes that once blared in the local juke joints and roadhouses - a hot-rockin' amalgamation of hillbilly music and blues that set all the shoes (blue suede and otherwise) a-tappin' and kept the beer flowing all night long. It became known as Rockabilly, and its master was Jackson's favorite son, the legendary Carl Perkins.
Motorcycle & Gear
One For the Money
After taking full, and I do mean full, advantage of our host's complimentary continental breakfast, I attempt the transition from rockabilly rover to responsible writer. But it seems that the catchy chord progression of "Honey Don't" has taken firm hold of my subconscious. I motor east on historic Route 70 with the radio still playing… "Everything about you is so doggone sweet. You got that sand all over your feet."
As I bear right on Route 424, the rocking continues, but this time the FJR sets the tempo. A narrow meter of tarmac has us swaying in unison beneath shady hardwoods and dancing past small farms. The hint of coolness in the morning air is gone, and the day promises to be hotter than a honky-tonk dance floor. Traveling in Tennessee in August isn't so bad. You just have to keep on movin'.
But sometimes you do have to stop. Radio has inspired so much boundless joy, yet it remains a sad fact that some of the music's finest artists leave us much too soon. Just west of Camden, on a stormy night in March of 1963, a small airplane crashed into the woods not far from Route 70. Three passengers and the pilot perished. Most notable of the four was singer and Grand Ole Opry star Patsy Cline. She "left the building" at the zenith of a remarkable career that included hits on both the country and pop charts. Many would argue that her voice is one of the greatest of all time. I had to enlist some local help to find the exact roads to the small memorial that marks the crash site, but the friendly folks in Camden were more than happy to set me in the right direction.
The road north toward Big Sandy quickly becomes a study in quiet desolation and understated beauty. Aged, sagging barns and rustic fence lines punctuate wide green pastures; and all around this route, ponds mirror the puffy clouds and blue above. For now, the smoking licks of the morning's ride have taken a back seat to a more relaxing ramble, and soon enough, I'm focusing on another kind of smoke. Because, when a carnivore is this close to Memphis, sitting down for barbecue is a must. In these parts, the art of slow-cooking pigs is a religion, and there's a temple at nearly every crossroads. One whiff of the burning hickory at Laird's Barbecue is all it takes to rope me into parking in tiny Puryear and sliding into an outdoor pew with my plate at a table under a shade tree.
With a full belly to blame, I drop the tempo yet another tick. The ridgelines along the Tennessee River have softened, rounding to a gentle tuck and roll, as Routes 140 and 190 lope along toward Greenfield. At a gas and water stop, a fellow rider tells me about an interesting venue nearby: the settlement of Skullbone, the capital of the "Kingdom of Skullbonia." Okay, I'm game. And when I arrive there, the shopkeeper at Hampton's Store, the "city hall," says that the town's name was derived from a form of bare-knuckle boxing called fist and skullbone. This once popular form of pugilism apparently consisted of two combatants whacking each other's head until one of them fell out. Not really wanting to learn too much more and perhaps discover that modern-day adherents are still staggering about, I thank her and move on along down Route 105.