Rockabilly, Highways and Slugburgers

Selmer, Tenn., is a small town near the Mississippi border where former-major-highways U.S. 45 and  64 (a once-popular east-coast-to-west-coast route known as Lee Highway) intersect. This brought more than traffic to Selmer — in the 1940s and ’50s, it helped meld the meeting of country, rock, swing and bluegrass into  what’s known as rockabilly music.  In fact, Selmer folks probably would much rather you think “rockabilly” when you think of their town instead of thinking, for example, “Buford Pusser.” And who wouldn’t want that? Downtown Selmer is a great spot for wandering around and poking around and discovering treasures such as the Rockabilly Highway Murals by Tennessee artist Brian Tull. Tull’s second mural was dedicated this past Saturday during the annual Rockabilly Highway Festival, held downtown and featuring music, art and Selmer’s version of the deep-fried doughburger called a slugburger. Go ahead — you know you want to try it.

“The Hunger Games” and the Shoals

As soon as I re-remember how to download photos from my new iPhone to my laptop (stupid technology!), I’ll share photos of Grandson Nolan’s fourth birthday — because that’s what we proud grandmas do and we don’t really care how many adorable children you see today because we know our grandbabies are the adorablest. So there. In the meantime, though, I want to brag on my adopted home of the Shoals, in northwest Alabama. This little corner of the state has produced probably more Very Important Folks than any other two-county area anywhere. From Glencoe, the 1840s stallion from whom practically all thoroughbreds are descended, to politicians, musicians, writers, engineers, athletes, designers, actors, humanitarians and real-life heroes through the years, the Shoals is known for its talented, determined and creative people. Take the “The Hunger Games,” for instance. We’ve got four — count ‘em, four — connections to this blockbuster hit movie. Muscle Shoals’ favorite duo Secret Sisters sings one of the most haunting songs on the soundtrack; Grammy-winning duo The Civil Wars, half of which is Florence resident and University of North Alabama graduate John Paul White, has two tunes (one with Taylor Swift); UNA grad and middle Tennessean Jack White (no, not THAT Jack White) was the food stylist and UNA culinary student James Perini was the food-stylist assistant. Now, if only I’d been the one to figure out the next must-read young-adult fiction series, it would all be perfect. What about young wizards who are picked for a fight-to-the-death reality TV show? Or a mysterious castle that’s also a school for angsty teen vampires and a sullen but conflicted Alan Rickman? Or maybe …

R.I.P., REM … But At Least You Still Have Great Food in Your Town

Both my husband and Older Daughter are REM fans and were saddened to hear that the Athens, Ga., band was officially calling it quits. Husband JP has been a fan from practically REM’s very beginning, although of course Older Daughter wasn’t even born when future band members Michael Stipe and Peter Buck met in an Athens record store. (Historical note: “Record store” is an ancient term for the place in the olden days where teenagers would hang out and buy records, which were these sort of flat vinyl rounds that music came on back then. See also: “Antiques.”) So that tells you something about REM’s appeal and longevity. Coincidentally, Older Daughter and Son-in-Law recently spent a long weekend in REM’s hometown as a treat for themselves before Baby Boy No. 2 arrives in mid-November.  And why did they choose Athens, Ga.? “For the food, obviously,” Older Daughter said when I asked the same question. That’s my girl! While Athens long has been known as a hip music town and of course the University of Georgia is there — with its football team’s new eye-catching all-red uniforms — it also has a growing reputation as a food destination. Luckily, it did not disappoint the baby-mooners. And although they didn’t see any sign of REM folks that weekend, several of the eateries they tried did claim REM connections. Here’s their list, in case you want to indulge in some REM stalking research yourself (P.S. Older Daughter is a vegetarian who’s allergic to glycerin, Son-In-Law needs to eat lightly due to gall-bladder issues and they both tend toward gluten-free, sometimes ):

  • Big City Bread Cafe — a bakery and cafe that serves  breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. Highlights were the hummus, the roasted vegetable and tofu saute and the bakery’s cookies.
  • Grit — a vegetarian paradise that also serves burgers. Offers great salads and sandwiches as well as Italian, Mexican, Indian and Middle Eastern dishes.
  • Ike and Jane Normaltown Cafe and Bakery — a bakery/cafe  known for its yummy doughnuts. Need we say more?
  • Jittery Joe’s Coffee – a local roaster and wholesaler with several retail spots around town. I can smell it from here.
  • Last Resort Grill – named after a 1960s Athens music club, the Last Resort was the most upscale spot on the kids’ food tour. Plenty of good entrees with a vegetarian dish right smack on the menu, which always is a good sign.

Thank you, John, Paul, George and Ringo — and Jason

I literally cannot draw a straight line. Even with a ruler. A box of crayons makes me nervous, and my art skills haven’t progressed much past kindergarten’s stick people (and kindergarten was a very long time ago). But, luckily, I had the good sense to have family members with an unbelievable amount of talent. Such as my son-in-law, an artist and a high-school art teacher. He and my daughter make these amazing cards for special people’s special days, and I scored big time with my birthday this year. Grandson 3-year-old Capt. Adorable said he wanted “hearts” for my card, so when my daughter left her two guys at the kitchen table to go to work, she thought they’d cut out a few hearts and glue them on and that would be that. She called them two hours later. The Captain had gone on to other projects (making a pirate ship out of pillows, rebuilding his train track, investigating the top bookshelf — you know, important 3-year-old things) but my son-in-law was still at the table, working. “I had a different idea about the card,” he told my daughter. This truly is a work of art, and he did it with scraps of paper, glue and an X-Acto knife. I shudder to think of the mayhem & chaos (not to mention emergency-room visits) I’d create with those simple tools. But in the skilled hands of a talented artist, we get something wonderful. And a cookie. And the Captain’s hearts were on the inside of the card, so everybody was happy.

Slugburger Festival in Corinth, Mississippi

This past Friday night, my husband and I took a romantic stroll through the carnival that’s part of the eagerly anticipated annual Slugburger Festival set up for the weekend just a couple of blocks from our house, in Corinth, Mississippi. We smooched on top of the ferris wheel and he won me a stuffed animal in the football toss and we walked arm-in-arm-in-cotton-candy and … aw, okay, you know that is all a big fat lie. I can’t fool you. Forget the romantic stuff. We did go to the festival, but naturally we bypassed the family fun and potentially romantic area and headed straight for the beer garden, where we loaded on Bud Light and rocked out to some great blues. But the carnival looked fun, in a scream-your-head-off-and-feel-your-stomach-do-flip-flops sort of way. And I know some of you are just now rejoining me after getting stuck at the words “Slugburger Festival” and wondering what, exactly, we and the good folks here in Corinth are doing and, more importantly, what we’re eating. I hope you read the link and learned that slugburgers are in fact an innovative and popular Corinth food item that people travel hundreds of miles for. And no slugs are harmed in the making of this sandwich, so it’s okay. But you’ve got to eat them hot and fast and please do not ask for catsup. That marks you as a non-slugburger connoisseur — or a Yankee. Not sure which is worse. Anyway, the festival continues tonight with country music, more carnival rides and all the beer and fried food your gall bladder will allow you to have you can eat.

The New Muscle Shoals Sound

Muscle Shoals music is back in the news as two young duos grab everybody’s attention. You know that in the 1960s and ’70s, my town of Muscle Shoals was famous for its Southern-gritty rock-‘n’-roll sound, with dozens of hits coming from local recording studios. (You still hear stories about what happened with the Stones came to town.) Today, the Shoals is claiming some of its own young people as performers-to-watch … watch take off into meteoric success, that is.  Such as The Secret Sisters, siblings Laura and Lydia Rogers, who are making waves as a 1950s-style new-age country-music duo. Their debut album, released this past fall, was produced by T-Bone Burnett. They’re touring and opening for folks such as Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn all over the country. Do not miss them if they come to your town. And don’t miss The Civil Wars, either. The duo of John Paul White, of the Shoals area, and Joy Williams, from California, is releasing its first full-length album this week. Known for a funky blend of Appalachian-folk and gospel and rock, Civil Wars first took off this past year when its “Poison and Wine” was featured on an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” Since then, they’ve been on Jay Leno, have collected accolades by the ton and are embarking on a nationwide tour with many venues already sold out. Give these two a listen and you’ll be able to say you knew them when.

Handy Festival

It’s Handy Week around here, which means that pretty much everybody’s walking around with “Sax in the City” T-shirts and portable chairs and saying things such as “If we go to the Listening Room in the afternoon and then Wilson Park for the Sundown concert, we can catch Handy Night at On the Rocks afterwards.” The W.C. Handy Music Festival honors Florence, Alabama’s favorite native son. Handy was born near the Tennessee River in 1873 and grew up to the rhythms of riverboats work crews and gospel music. And even though he left town as a young man, Florence was his home and he returned often before his death in 1958. Almost 30 years ago, jazz musician and Yale professor Willie Ruff, another Shoals native, helped form the Music Preservation Society to celebrate Handy’s legacy and worldwide influence and we’ve been partying ever since. The Handy Festival — everybody calls it “Handy Week” — is a 10-day bounty of music for all. While most music festivals are an intense two or three days of performances at a specific venue, Handy Fest is spread over dozens of locations in three counties. You’ll find music at restaurants, parks, churches, stores, libraries, museums, assisted-living and nursing-care facilities, law offices, coffee shops, courthouses, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, the mall, random street corners and the downtown Florence parking deck. Among other places. And that’s not counting the actual concerts in actual auditoriums. There’s food, too, and dancing and theater productions and races and a car show and all sorts of fun. And the best part? Most of it is free and family-friendly. You don’t need a ticket or a badge or anything for most Handy events — you just show up and enjoy. But the real best part is that Handy Week is a common gathering place for everybody. And I mean everybody. You’ll see all folks of all ages and background and cultures dancing and laughing and having fun, brought together by music. Mr. Handy would be proud. Check out http://www.wchandymusicfestival.org/ and  http://www.timesdaily.com/handyfest for details.

Helen Keller and Tuscumbia, Alabama

I always forget that people come from all over the world to our little corner of northwest Alabama to see Helen Keller’s birthplace, Ivy Green, in Tuscumbia. I drive past the historic site practically every day and love seeing school buses and tour buses and license tags from All Those Other Places That Are Not Alabama.  If you’ve never been, you’ve got to schedule a visit. The birthplace is down-home and low-key and you will learn so much. Everyone’s always amazed to see how small the cabin is where Anne Sullivan took her wild-child charge for some intense one-on-one training — and how close the building is to the Keller’s actual house. And the famous water pump is there, too. Now is a good time to come. It’s the Helen Keller Festival, a week of music, art, history, Southern culture and deaf/blind awareness. You also can watch an outdoor performance of “The Miracle Worker” on the Ivy Green grounds — essentially watching the story unfold on the very spot where it happened. Learn more at http://www.helenkellerfestival.com and http://www.helenkellerbirthplace.org/. And while you’re there, be sure to wander around downtown Tuscumbia. You’ll find a cozy local bookstore with real nooks and crannies and comfortable reading spots, a chic women’s boutique, an authentic drugstore where you can get actual old-fashioned milkshakes and malts and my favorite spot of all: A prom- and wedding-dress shop smack dab next to a feed store. I didn’t realize how incongruous this was until one day I saw some Folks Not From Around Here taking a photo. I personally don’t see anything weird about it, but then I’m someone who knows that when you order “tea” in a restaurant, it’s supposed to come in a long tall icy glass and be sweet enough that the spoon stands by itself. So there you go.

Bonnaroo

When you see all the photos from Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival this weekend — the crowds of folks and tents and arm-swaying humanity — remember that this is what it looked like before the gates opened today. Bonnaroo home Manchester, Tennessee, also is my hometown. I was there earlier this week visiting my mom and dad and we drove out to look at the 700-acre site, just about four or five miles from my parents’ house. On one hand, it’s out in the country on one of those narrow winding two-lane rural roads that natives take at about 80 miles an hour and everybody else creeps along. On the other hand, Bonnaroo is only a few yards up a hill from an everyday residential neighborhood that in the course of normal events usually does not play host to the likes of Steve Martin and Dave Matthews. Except during Bonnaroo. Because then my normal and everyday Tennessee hometown goes suddenly crazy. But in a fun way. On the Tuesday night of our drive by, the muscley official Bonnaroo guys riding four-wheelers around to check out the generators and fences and all the million details of the Bonnaroo infrastructure — they’ve built a city there, people — far outnumbered the trickle of regular folks who were starting to congregate. And on our closeup view, I noticed that those who live adjacent to the Bonnaroo site adopt one of two strategies for the duration: They either 1) abandon all hope and rent their houses out to Bonnaroo people or 2) go all in and rent out their yard space to vendors, open their doors to anyone who needs a roof and join in the party. One enterprising woman set up an awning, tables, chairs and grill and declared it to be “Momaroo’s Kitchen.” Why not? This morning the long line of traffic from everywhere else made its way slowly but efficiently to the Bonnaroo gates, and the good times began. Learn more about Bonnaroo and follow along at http://www.bonnaroo.com/.

Music

I admit I’m not young and cool. I admit I think Lady Gaga should put some pants on. I admit I’m in that demographic of Super Bowl halftime-show viewers who said, “You know, Pete and Roger haven’t changed that much since I first saw them in ’75. When we had to walk 10 miles in the snow uphill both ways to get to the show.” But I was blown away by the great music I heard on the recent Grammy Award broadcast. I mean, despite Lady Gaga’s weird green Tinkerbell ensemble, her performance was powerfully awesome. Same with Beyonce and Pink. And Green Day and Kings of Leon. And I found myself tapping and clapping along with newcomer the Zac Brown Band. And Taylor Swift was intriguing — I mean, she knows she can’t sing but she’s so supremely confident that she does it anyway? Who is this kid??? So then I wanted to hear more from these folks — and of course classic favorites such as the Dave Matthews Band and even the Black-Eyed Peas. If I were music-savvy and had plenty of money, I’m sure I’d already have a Grammy-worthy CD and iTunes collection. But I’m not and I don’t. So, Wal-Mart to the rescue! Running past the electronics department — between office supplies and dairy — I spotted this $11 CD of Grammy nominees and I’ve been rocking out ever since. I promise you have to smile when you hear Fergie promising you a good night and Sugarland bemoaning that “It Happens.”  You can order it from http://www.grammy.com/, too. This is like bullet points for pop music of the past few months — your kids and friends will be impressed.