I just spent most of the week in Memphis at a conference dedicated to furthering my professional development. When we arrived, the city still had 6” of snow from a weekend storm, the existence of which made most residents feel violated since it had hung around for 3 days rather than melting immediately as it was supposed to. One of the conference activities was a tour of the massive Federal Express central hub, an activity that cost thirty bucks, required a background check, and was eagerly anticipated by several colleagues. I tried to imagine what might be interesting about watching boxes fly around on computer controlled conveyers, being scanned, routed, and processed, but my imagination failed me. A couple other folks were headed for Graceland but apparently they don’t let you see the toilet that Elvis toppled off so I passed on that as well. I finally decided to stroll over to the Sun Records recording studio and conned one of my associates into joining me.
I’ve always been a history nut and that’s what I received my degree in, even though my current job is about as far from history as it possibly could be. Some places are so saturated with history that when I traveled there I could feel it, places like Gettysburg, Winter Palace square in St Petersburg, and the Cabinet War Rooms in London. Sun Records was one of those spots. With a major assist from the blues (Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf recorded there in the early days), this was where rock n roll was born. We took the tour, looked at the old concert posters and memorabilia, watched video clips, and listened to some vintage audio. Then we went down to the studio, a very tiny store front. The big moment at Sun was when a young Elvis Presley strolled in, recorded a song for his mother, and took off into rock n roll history. Johnny Cash recorded there and part of the recent movie, Walk the Line, was set there. Carl Perkins, the only true songwriter in the bunch, was one of the early artists as was the Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis. The music was clean and the instrumentation was basic. None of that Phil Spector wall of sound crap, just a guitar, stand up bass, and drums. And a piano of course, when the Killer was in the room. One of the classic pictures was the one of the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’, a December afternoon in 1956 when Carl Perkins, Elvis, Jerry Lee, and Johnny Cash all happened to be in the studio at the same time. They jammed, bs’ed, and generally had a good time. Sam Phillips happened to have the tape rolling and the very unpolished and raw recording is now available on CD.
I got back to the hotel and listened to the wondrous tales of packages, fleets of aircraft, and computer precision that awed the FedX tourists. A number of folks were planning on hitting a couple of the hyped Memphis rib joints but I had a few friends from the area, guys that know my aversion to chain restaurants and ‘tasteful presentation’, tell me that I needed to hit Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. We did and it was great. Dingy, dive type of joint with Styrofoam plates and a plastic spork to eat with, but the spicy fried chicken, beans, slaw, and homemade pies were otherworldly. I left a message for another buddy to meet us there and he picked it up while riding on the trolley. When he told his companions, “Olson wants us to meet him at some crazy dive joint called Gus’s”, the trolley drivers head spun around and he announced, “Now that’s some damn good fried chicken!”. He dropped them off right at the front door.
I guess the food experience as well as the music experience can be either be clean and basic or overproduced. There is certainly a market for both and a number of people at this event had a wonderful time at both the FedX tour and the tourist rib joints. And if I recall, Phil Spector does have a music award or two. But I can’t help wonder if folks would listen, taste, and process the information going to their brains with a bit more care and thought, that we might not be stuck with some of the crap that we are stuck with. In a number of different fields besides food and music as well.