Sunday, April 29, 2012
We've been to Nashville twice before, always for a long weekend only, and we've enjoyed ourselves immensely. So we decided to spend more time there than any other spot on our trip so far, three whole weeks. We had reserved an Army Corps of Engineers campground sited on a lake only about 10 miles from downtown Nashville. Due to the two-week stay limit, we had to move for the last week to another COE campground on another lake a little further from town. All-in-all during the three weeks we were there, we probably spent two evenings at home. For anyone who likes music of any kind, but especially country music, Nashville is a city like no other--nothing is even close! Nashville is a mecca for songwriters, musicians, singers and various players in the music industry. All these people are trying to get discovered and love to play music, so the number of live music venues here is hard to estimate. Downtown on "lower Broadway" there are at least a dozen honky tonks with live music from noon to past midnight every day, all with no cover charge. Then there are several "songwriter clubs" around town, like the Bluebird Cafe, Douglas Corner, Third and Lindsley and several more, where song writers play their music to small audiences in an atmosphere that is more like a poetry reading than a concert. One night at the Bluebird we saw four songwriters gathered in a circle in the center of an audience of about 100 taking turns singing their songs that were recorded by the likes of Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw and other big stars. There was something authentic and moving about this kind of show, especially all the stories the writers told about how they came to write the songs and the challenge of getting their songs picked up by artists. Another great venue is the Station Inn, pretty much the Mecca of bluegrass music. The first time we visited the Station Inn back around 6 years ago, it was a cinder block hut with no windows in the shadow of a freeway surrounded by vacant lots and warehouses. Now, it is a cinder block hut with no windows surrounded by condos, valet-parking restaurants and boutiques in the newly-gentrified "Gulch" area of Nashville. But inside it is still the place it was when Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs played here in the 50s. Never more than about 20 feet from the stage, you can see the best of bluegrass music in an awesome atmosphere, lubricated with root beer and "things" of popcorn, sitting on garage sale kitchen chairs around mismatched tables, elbow to elbow with other lovers of bluegrass. We went to the SI three nights and saw three awesome bands (Caroline, Steeldrivers and Special Consensus), two of whom were having CD release parties so some of the song writers were there, literally sitting across from us. Even if one doesn't care for bluegrass, the musicianship and singing of these top acts is a moving experience when you are close enough to be in your living room! Of course we spent several evenings on lower Broadway, wandering from club to club and sampling the music. You get a lot of cover bands, doing everything from old Johnny Cash and Hank Williams to newer hits, but also a lot of original music. We saw bands that have opened for Kenny Rogers on tour around the world (Savannah Jack) and musicians that have played in the studio or on tour with the best. The quality of music in all the clubs of Nashville is amazing. Many famous acts have gotten their start playing on Broadway for tips from Willie Nelson to Rascal Flatts. And because there are so many clubs, there is often room to dance, so we loved that a lot and were often the only ones on the dance floor. To be continued...
Saturday, April 28, 2012
Well, I have to confess to being a negligent blogger. We've had a great time since we left Florida we've had a terrific time and seen some wonderful places. I'll try to catch up on this post, which might be kind of long. When last we checked in, we had decided on a whim to travel to Dauphin Island Alabama for a two-day bluegrass festival. We planned to keep our options open and either stay longer in Dauphin Island or move on to Gulf State Park, which we had heard great things about. After traveling the three-hour drive to Dauphin Island, some of it through a driving thunder storm, past Mobile (Mo-BEEL as they say here) and down the western shore of Mobile Bay, we crossed the 3-mile-long bridge (built in 1952, the year I was born) to the island. We quickly found our campground on the Eastern tip of the island and walked to Fort Gaines for the festival. Mobile Bay was the site of a major civil war naval battle ("Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead", which of course it doesn't seem Admiral Farragut actually really said) and there are two forts on either side of the wide entrance. Fort Gaines was a very cool venue for a festival, with high brick walls and a large grass expanse inside. This festival, the first annual "Seagrass Festival" was partially supported by BP in their efforts to restore Gulf tourism in the wake of the oil spill. We saw some great acts, highlighted by Sara Watkins and her brother (two thirds of the extraordinary and groundbreaking band Nickel Creek) and one of the heavies of all time, Ricky Skaggs. The moon was brilliant, the weather was pleasant and the music floated out to sea and up to the stars. The next day, we explored the length (8 miles) of Dauphin Island and walked to the beach near our campground. It was a really interesting place, with most of the houses up on stilts and half of the island basically just sand dunes, but we decided to move on to the Alabama gulf coast for two weeks, where the water and beaches were nicer and there was more to do. Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Alabama, was hit with a double whammy this decade. First hurricane Ivan in 2004 flattened much of the park and closed it for quite a while, then last year a forest fire destroyed 1000 acres of forest. We weren't sure what we would find in this state park that was so highly-rated by online reviewers, but we weren't disappointed. Yes, there were a lot of areas where the trees were broken and burnt, but there was also a lot of renewal and bright green shoots covering the landscape. The vistas were more clear and the swamp areas were more visible now and we saw some of the most amazing sunsets of our trip so far. Gulf State Park has miles and miles of paved bike trails, over a mile of unspoiled beaches and very well-developed campsites. We met a lot of people who had wintered here--the park is much more "snowbird-friendly" than the Florida state parks where stays are limited to two weeks max. We did a lot of bike-riding, exploring the coast and historic sites of the area. Fort Morgan is directly across the bay from Fort Gaines and is a much more extensive site, with many gun placements and a lot of informative exhibits about the Civil War battle fought in the area. I have to say something about the people we met in the Alabama gulf coast area. Alabamians (yes, that's what they are called) are very nice people (except for the occasional redneck truck emblazoned with Confederate flags and gun racks!) and have a simple outlook and lifestyle that is appealing. The Alabama accent is so pure and melodic and their sense of humor is humble and self-deprecating. We felt very comfortable here--and of course LOVED the seafood, especially the shrimp. We found a type of shrimp called Royal Reds that were so sweet and buttery that they reminded us of lobster (I know, a heresy for New Englanders). One thing we didn't appreciate before is how French southern Alabama is. The early settlers were the French and Mobile was actually the capital of the Louisiana Territory at one time. The only smudge on the area are the oil and gas rigs visible offshore from some areas, but we didn't see any sign of beach damage, two-headed shrimp or oil slicks. We'd definitely go back to this area as a less-developed alternative to the Destin-Ft. Walton Beach area. Our next destination was Nashville, where we had concert tickets for April 10th featuring our favorite musician, Keith Urban, but first we had to get there, almost 500 miles and 8 hours drive due north through Alabama. We decided to break it into two days and stop in Birmingham to see the Civil Rights Institute museum there. THAT was an experience. Through an immersive combination of photographs, tv news stories on 60s-style sets, recordings, newspaper accounts and artifacts, we heard the story of the civil rights movement--of which Alabama was in so many ways the epicenter. We had to fight back tears at some of the amazing events that we were only barely aware of at the time--school children being attacked with fire hoses and dogs or being blown up by bombs. All of the self-justifying talk of the leaders at the time sounds ridiculous today. The Institute itself is across the street from the Baptist church that was bombed, killing 4 little girls. Sitting in the park across the street from that was an incredible experience.
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Our drive from Cedar Key to Niceville (yes, that's really a place!) Florida was long--7+ hours and 400 miles. Florida is really a big state! We had tried to book one of the Florida state parks that are on the beach, but they fill up fast and we had to settle for Rocky Bayou State Park, about 5 miles from the beach, but a nice park and campground on the water. Our plan was to stay in this area for a couple weeks, for a few days of which our friend Lallie was planning to fly down and stay with us. The nearest beach town to us is Destin, FL which is near Ft. Walton Beach. These towns have the most beautiful beaches--white soft fine sand beaches and clear green water. There are also extensive bays, harbors, canals and other water features in this area, so it is extremely scenic. We enjoyed watching the great sunsets from Destin Harbor, Blueharbor Marina (only a 5 minute drive from our campground) and of course the beaches. Topsail State Park is one we'd love to try to stay in next year. It's a lovely, spacious campground with grassy sites and a short bike ride from the gorgeous beach. We also went to Richardson Beach State Park one weekend and it's beach was also great. I did a little diving while here, which wasn't a tropical coral reef like the Keys, but was interesting in it's own way. The visibility was about 40 feet and we did two dives, one on a natural limestone reef with soft corals and sponges, the other on an artificial reef composed of the demolition debris from an old bridge that was replaced. Both had a lot of interesting fish and other marine life. It was fun to get back down underwater and I felt a lot more comfortable having just done some diving a month before in Key Largo. We did some great eating in Destin and one Sunday while Lallie was here, we took advantage of her nautical experience to rent a pontoon boat and explore the bay and bayous around Destin. Very nice and we saw some dolphins too! We'd love to come back the the Emerald Coast some day and hopefully camp right near the beach. It's funny how serendipity works on a trip like this. Case in point: I happened to pick up a "Snowbirders" tabloid newspaper one night at a restaurant and read in the calendar section that there was a bluegrass festival the coming weekend on Dauphin Island, Alabama. I'd never heard of Dauphin Island, but we love bluegrass and had no firm plans other than to drift over to the Alabama coast for a while. On further research, Dauphin Island sounded great, so we booked a couple nights at a campground there and headed off late on a Friday to catch a couple days of bluegrass. Read on to find out about it!