Memphis to Baton Rouge: Dreary drives to mingle with local Memphis salt

Kerri O'Malley

Memphis

Our night in Chicago ends with a far too early wake-up call as we hit the road right behind a much-needed shot of caffeine to get to Memphis by eight for our last pre-Austin Imposition. On our way out of Chicago, we hit a rest stop in nowhere Illinois and run into Big Ups in the middle of the not-so-mini-mart, picking up roadside food and bolting down to play our Tennessee show too. The rain is relentless the entire way, slashing down any hope of staying awake (that no one except our trusty driver Derek had), and adding a significant slant of gloom to the frowned-down car ride that we defied with hours and hours of comedy radio.

Steven Wright mumbling in our ears, we hit Memphis and go straight to Murphy’s, an Irish pub in god knows what part of the city – where, hey, you can smoke inside! – – that’s packed with local yokels in busted-up baseball caps and worn leather vests, an unidentifiable cross-section of Memphis that won’t be totally happy when the show gets cooking. We take a quick break to check in to our hotel, a little run-down number six blocks away with a barely blinking Vacancy sign and a large number of tables. When we return to Murphy’s, the kids are rushing in as the bands take the stage and a few of us tear apart some much-needed fried chicken and catfish.

Flagland starts the show easy with a slowed-down, southern-style number to lull the crowd into momentary submission instead of diving straight into the fuzz and yelling. As a local goofy-danced in the open space in front of the stage, lead singer Kerry Kallberg shouted, “The old people are cooler than the young people here!” Ann Arbor’s Bad Indians follow Flagland, looking a little shifty eyed so far from home, and changing up who’s playing what so many times it was hard to blink. Big Ups singer Joe Galarraga crawled through the crowd during his set like release personified, a welcome dose consumed with Murphy’s double-sized shots in small plastic cups. By this point, the only person from the original crowd left was a welcoming older man dressed in black with hair to match who shouted words of encouragement to the stage and spoke his poetry in my ear.

But things got very Memphis again when laid-back locals Toxie stepped up, swaying between blonde hair and long plaid shirts, their pink-haired guitarist wailing like mad with his guitar draped across his knees. The show ended with Psychic Twin, switching up from the garage to synth dance music punctuated with huge, tribal drum hits. The space filled with fog as tiny green alien lights ran wild over the band’s bodies, encouraging a few of the less stiff-kneed in the crowd to shake back and forth. When Blake dared a drunk me to make out with as many people as I could (that asshole), I got through three unfortunate souls before he grabbed me away, laughing and shouting, “I was kidding!”

Back at the hotel, we passed out immediately, feeling sloshy after those deep shots, and woke up a little shaky. The next morning, we all plugged in and buckled down until the clock ran out on our room. An intended Sun Records drive-by photo-op turned into a free tour when Derek offered the cashier an Impose shirt, and soon our hungover asses were standing on what our tour guide, El Dorado, called “hallowed ground” – the place where Wolf, Elvis, Cash, Carl, and Jerry all did their thing with, yes, the real floor still intact. Overcoming urges to simply lie down on it, we were instead wrapped up in a crowd of earnest museum attendees — canned jokes, short song clips, and grandma and grandpa were all there!

Closer to the heart of music history and full of the well-earned knowledge that changing the words “Hound Dog” to “Bear Cat” doesn’t change the song (also, did you know Benicio Del Toro recorded at Sun?), we extricated ourselves from the mob and stopped by a more modern marvel, Goner Records. On our way, we passed through streets of abandoned houses and old 1950s-style buildings, signs beaten up and hardly anyone anywhere, train tracks running along the road and no idea which side is the wrong side of them. Memphis may have made its name in music, but apparently it’s also got a big stake in producing tires and rims.

Once we got to Goner, we flipped vinyl and chatted with the store co-owner until our lack of food got dangerous. Disappointed to hear that Payne’s isn’t open on a Monday, we instead took directions from Toxie guitarist Madison, who happens to be a vegan, and ended up at Central BBQ for some good Memphis dish. Ribs, brisket, pork, and greens filled the table as we slowly regained consciousness deep in barbeque sauce.

Then we were on the road again, this time in sunshine, with browned highways rolling underneath us and green stretching for miles on either side. Next stop: Baton Rouge to stay with Sang’s brother. More comedy blasts on the way down, and we debate dropping off at Jackson, Mississippi until it doesn’t seem worth it. Instead, we cruise through in a drive that feels short after the Chicago to Memphis stretch the day before, stopping only once to pick up cigarettes and sodas at a gas station that does and should not advertise its clean bathrooms, like others along the road down here do.

Nighttime in Baton Rouge and we’re all looking for a quiet moment to catch up and prep for the madness of Austin, computers in a circle in Sang’s brother’s big-ass house. Still packing Genesee, we pop tabs, eat Sang’s delicious Ramen and poached eggs, and enjoy the high def TV while we work – a little bit better than whistling. Tomorrow: a day off in New Orleans before the last drive down to Austin.

For more photos of our Memphis getdown go here.

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