Spring Break 2013: Nashville & Memphis

Spring Break 2013: Nashville & Memphis

Now that my girls, ages nine and 13, are in different schools, our options for spring break are more limited due to their differing schedules. We often look for a warm place to go, like Mexico or Hawaii, since we are just coming out of the chilly San Diego winter (I know, that sounds ridiculous, but it does get chilly). This year neither of those spots looked like they were going to work, so I started thinking of more offbeat places to go.

The South and Midwest are always tempting to me for a bunch of reasons, BBQ being one of them. Ever since my trip to Kansas City a few years ago I’ve had an interest and longing to explore more BBQ culture. So this year I offered the family a trip to Nashville and Memphis! Not really knowing what they were in for, everyone agreed. We would fly into Nashville on the Monday after Easter, spend three days there then drive to Memphis for another three day stay.

I’m writing this blog post not in chronological order, but according to three themes: music, history/culture, and food/BBQ.

After doing my full research, including some advice from friends that live in Nashville, our musical experiences started the night we arrived with a great show at the Station Inn. The Station Inn is known as one of the best bluegrass venues in the country. But, on this Monday night they had the Spaghetti Westerneers, a really fantastic band that does great old cowboy songs mixed with some other stuff. We bought a CD for the drive to Memphis and by the end of the trip the girls knew every song on that album. The lead singer is from Italy, but owns a club in Nashville now, and the musicianship of this band was just incredible. This was a great introduction for the girls to real country music. Nashville has a lot of places to hear singer-songwriter stuff, but girls their age need a bit more fire. We all left happy and tired.

Here are some links for your enjoyment:

The next day we visited the Country Music Hall of Fame – the definitive word on the subject – with exhibits that span from the very beginning to modern day, and a whole section on the Bakersfield sound. With instruments, costumes, stories, videos and more, I highly recommend it even if you’re not into country music. That night we had reservation at the Grande Ole Opry, which turned out to be a bit of a letdown after the Spaghetti Westerneers. It’s such a historic place and although the girls may not have enjoyed it much, it would come up several more times on our trip. As we drove to Memphis on Thursday, the girls played DJ, switching between their usual pop music on the radio to the CD we purchased. Our first stop was BB Kings Blues Club on Beale Street, which gave the girls a good exposure to live blues; Isabella even got up and danced a bit. The next day we spent the morning touring Graceland. Although Graceland is obviously about Elvis, it also explains his history and how all the music that came out at that time was influenced by country music. Next we stopped at Sun Records where the tour brought everything full circle, explaining the beginning of rock and roll. Rocket 88 by Ike Turner is credited as the first rock and roll song and was recorded by Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records. The tour, which included songs and history from Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and many more, really gives the story of the changeover from country to rock and roll, with the influence of the blues and gospel.

The next day we visited the Stax Museum of American Soul Music – what a fun museum! Again, the introduction video explains the importance of country music in the beginning of soul music and how they all used to put time aside on Sunday to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. These stories reinforced for the girls the path that music has taken in our country. From country, blues and gospel came rock, soul and pop, and from that came all the music we listen to today.

The girls also learned a bit about civil rights in our country on this trip. The Civil War, fought in part by the North and South’s disagreement over slavery, was part of our conversation as we drove through some of the battlefields on our way to Memphis. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is located at the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. The day we arrived happened to be the 45th anniversary of the shooting, so we walked to the museum from our hotel to witness a presentation by friends, reverends and members of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first black fraternity of which Dr. King was a member. We stood in the drizzle in front of the spot where he was shot and listened to all this. What better way to let the girls understand why they have that day off from school each year. We later took the full tour of the museum, which I suggest to anyone visiting Memphis. It covers the entire history of civil rights in our country.

What about the food you may be wondering? There was plenty of that. Here is a list of the places we checked out.

City House , Nashville A very cool restaurant in a very old building, with casual Italian fare including great pizzas, pastas, antipasti and entrees using some southern ingredients, like grits and catfish. It also has an excellent cocktail program. I highly recommend it.

Arnolds, Nashville With a James Beard Award for American Classics, this is a “Meat and 3” counter restaurant, which is essentially a buffet where you order a meat, in our case country ham and roast beef, and three sides – we tried the turnip greens, corn pudding, coleslaw and mashed potatoes. It’s a very fun and busy place with lots of locals, and the pies are good and sweet.

Princes Hot Chicken, Nashville In a rundown strip mall, this place is famous. We ordered mild and it was still very hot. It’s basically fried chicken coated in a spicy proprietary sauce served on sliced white bread with pickles. It’s a busy place, with lots of people waiting to take their lunches to go. Not for the faint of heart as far as spice or grease goes. 

Loveless Café, Nashville A bit touristy but still fun, this café serves good country-style food including great biscuits and fried chicken, breakfasts and a pulled pork sandwich (the best thing we ate here). They smoke all their own meats and hams.

Bar-B-Cutie, Nashville One of the older BBQ joints in Nashville, this place was suggested by our hotel and ended up being one of our better BBQ meals of the trip. Catbird Seat, Nashville This is a tasting menu only restaurant that has received a lot of press. It’s a u-shaped dining counter which seats 32 and you watch the chefs prepare and serve your meal that has many riffs on classic southern flavors in a modern style. The bar downstairs, The Patterson House, has one of the better cocktail programs in the city.

Jenis Splendid Ice Cream, Nashville This is a fantastic ice cream shop that started in Ohio. If you have a chance check it out, you’ll find fantastic flavors, texture and service.

Rolf and Daughters, Nashville Another great Italian spot, this place is similar in concept to City House. Best pasta of our trip and again a very good and serious cocktail program. Also highly recommended. Lockland Table, Nashville A casual neighborhood joint with good food, we had a quick bite on the way to The Grand Ole Opry. Scotts BBQ, Lexington TN This is a whole hog BBQ spot that we stopped at on the way to Memphis. It was a good pulled pork sandwich, but I’m not sure it was worth the detour.

Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous, Memphis One of the most famous BBQ joints in Memphis, this is a huge underground cavernous space. The food was mediocre, although the service and vibe make it worth the visit.

Cozy’s Corner, Memphis This very small, family run restaurant was one of the best BBQ spots we visited. The ribs were great, as was their famous Cornish hen. I tried BBQ spaghetti for the first time and that was…hmmm…interesting?

Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Memphis These guys just received the 2013 FOOD & WINE Best New Chef award so we wanted to check it out. It’s a nice restaurant built into an old home. The service was very professional and the food was good, but my expectations were high. It took us to a different part of Memphis and my girls commented on the lack of African Americans both in the dining room and on the staff.

Central BBQ, Memphis This was the best BBQ we had on the trip. A very clean modern operation right across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum, these were some of the best ribs I’ve tasted. We ordered them dry and they were juicy and seasoned perfectly. The BBQ chicken was great and they had plenty of beers on tap, as well as some great desserts like a caramel layer cake and a peanut butter pie.

This was one of the best trips we’ve been on as a family. Definitely not the relaxing, hanging at the beach type of vacation, but plenty of memories that will stay with us for a long time. Being able to show the girls in a real life way some of the history of our country made it a fantastic trip. I suggest it to anyone.