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DESTINATION: THE SOUTH

Southern--Fried Rock 'n' Roll

Wheeling through a region where music stirs the soul and food sticks to the ribs

April 04, 1999|SHIRLEY SLATER | Shirley Slater writes the Travel section's Cruise Views column with her husband, Harry Basch

Many people have heard about Cleveland's great Rock 'n' Roll Museum, set in a contemporary music temple designed by I. M. Pei. But my husband, Harry Basch, and I didn't know about the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia on the Tennessee River, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in Birmingham, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon and a whole raft of other tuneful discoveries until we ran across them all last summer on our RV trek back to my southern roots.

Now, those roots include country music, rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll and, incidentally, anything barbecued or deep-fried, while Harry's are in urban-most New York and New Jersey, tied up around any ballroom where big bands played or a spindly young Frank Sinatra sang--but that's another story.

Since we carry our own bedroom, bathroom and kitchen along with us in the RV (not to mention Harry's collection of Artie Shaw and Mel Torme tapes), we don't have to worry about No Vacancy signs or getting hunger pangs miles from a restaurant.

Last summer we took the RV on a southern route cross-country from Los Angeles to my parents' country cabin off Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway, returning to L.A. a slightly more northern way. A trip such as ours could, with serendipitous zigzags, last most or all of a summer.

If one had far less time, a good option would be to make a shorter circle out of New Orleans, following Interstate 55 north to Memphis; then east on I-40 to Nashville; south on I-24 and I-75 to Macon, Ga.; west on U.S. 80 to Montgomery, Ala.; north to Birmingham; then southwest on I-59 through Meridian, Miss., and back to New Orleans.

We ran across one of the highlights of our trip (about the 12th time Harry was playing "Frenesi") in the northwestern corner of Alabama. We were headed for Helen Keller's childhood home, Ivy Green, in Tuscumbia when we noticed the big music museum, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, on the outskirts of town and, across the road, the Rocking Chair Restaurant with a marquee advertising the daily special of roast turkey with corn bread dressing.

Since it was noon on Sunday and the museum wasn't open yet (Southern blue laws dictate that virtually everything but churches is closed Sunday mornings), we stopped first at the restaurant, where what looked like the entire town had come straight from church. Since there was a queue for tables, we got our meals to go, one turkey special with mashed potatoes and green beans and one four-vegetable plate with black-eyed peas, yams, white beans with ham, fried okra, hot biscuits and corn bread, all for about $10. (This was the day we learned that one Southern meal to go was, as my grandmother used to say, "a generous sufficiency" for the two of us. We had leftovers for days.)

The music museum was easily as evocative as lunch. Most of the new music halls of fame we found are interactive, and popular with school groups who don headsets to listen to performances. In my pre-Beatles years, a passion for Hank Williams gradually gave way to Nat King Cole, long before the rise of Elvis. Both Williams and Cole were Alabama natives, immortalized in the museum along with the 1920s father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, Margaritaville's Jimmy Buffett, Tammy Wynette, jazz innovator Sun Ra, Big Mama Thornton, Odetta, Lionel Richie, Toni Tennille and Wilson Pickett. In one room, we trooped through the first motor home used by the country/rock group Alabama on their early road tours and noted smugly that ours was much nicer.

Another display told us why the museum was located here in Colbert County, away from any major urban area--because in the 1960s and '70s nearby Muscle Shoals housed great recording studios where Percy Sledge recorded the rhythm and blues classic "When a Man Loves a Woman," Aretha Franklin cut early soul records and a young Duane Allman was a studio guitarist.

In still another room we were inspired to continue our museum tour with a drive a few miles north to Florence, and the two-room log cabin where blues legend W. C. Handy was born in 1873.

From Colbert County we headed due south along U.S. 43 to Tuscaloosa, home of Alabama's iconic "best barbecued ribs," the original Dreamland Bar-B-Que Drive-Inn. Located on a back-country lane called Jug Factory Road, the raffish spot looked like a Southern country roadhouse from the 1950s, which it is. The only thing they cook is ribs, with a choice of a rib sandwich, a rib plate or a rack of ribs. The meaty ribs are tender and delicious, especially dipped into Dreamland's thin, peppery, vinegary sauce free of any trace of sugar.

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