September 16 2009 by Jason Fogelson
After a quick (free) hot breakfast in the lobby, we hightail it to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum so that we can be there when they open at 9:00 am. Neither Robin nor I are particular fans of country music, but we've heard that the museum is great, and we're eager to see it before we leave town. The Museum turns out to be fantastic. They've got a great collection of memorabilia, everything from Elvis' gold piano to Hank Williams' guitar to Porter Wagoner's Nudie suits. The whole place is intelligently laid-out, with sound and film clips illustrating the history and vitality of the music and culture. We get a chance to tour a special exhibit about Hank Williams and his progeny, "Family Tradition." After a $70 visit to the gift shop, we leave feeling inspired about country music.
We load up Melvis and check out of the Best Western Music Row, heading west out of Nashville on US 70. Interstate 40 is a direct route to Memphis, but we want to stay on the back roads as much as possible, while still making time. This is one of our longer days, 210 miles by the shortest route, and we've got a detour to make. We've heard that the world's greatest fried chicken is in Mason, Tennessee at a place called "Gus's." We can't let a claim like that go unexamined, so we plot a course for the tiny town.
Along the way, we're treated to some beautiful roads, and the continuing surprising diversity of Tennessee. Constant changes of elevation give way to beautiful, fertile plains, which give way to winding riverside paths. It's impossible to get bored with the scenery in Tennessee.
We finally arrive in Mason, a wide spot in the road about an hour northeast of Memphis, and we find Gus's Fried Chicken. The lunch rush is long over, and we're the only customers in the place when we stride in. Two televisions blare a true crime story overhead as we slide into our plastic booth and order our fried chicken from the friendly woman in the Gus's t-shirt. The food comes on Styrofoam plates on plastic trays, and we stare for a moment before we bite. A crunchy crust covers thick, juicy chicken meat, perfectly cooked and delicately spiced. A complex web of flavors unfolds in my mouth as I chew, and I realize that I am indeed eating the world's best fried chicken. I can tell from the look in her eyes that Robin agrees - neither one of us pauses to discuss the meal until we have finished. We sit back in wonder - we can't explain what just happened, but we both know that we've just had a great, great meal.
If we hurry, and traffic isn't too bad, we may just make it to Memphis in time to take a tour of Sun Studio before they close for the day. We bid a reluctant goodbye to Gus's, and jump on Melvis for the next push. We decide to break down and ride the interstate for the brief stretch into Memphis, so that we don't miss the tour. I-40 escorts us in to Memphis, and I-240 delivers us downtown. We pass the Peabody Hotel on Union Street, head into town and find the giant guitar at the corner of Sam Phillips Avenue.
Sun Studio is hailed as "The Birthplace of Rock N' Roll." Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash all recorded their first sides there, under the tutelage of Sam Phillips. Great blues artists, including Howling Wolf and B.B. King, also recorded important records at Sun, and the place is a Mecca for musicians and music fans from the world over. The Sun Studio tour takes about 45 minutes, and provides enough background information to send you on a lifelong exploration of the music that erupted from this humble building. The actual recording studio itself has survived unmolested since the golden days, and simply standing in the same spot that Elvis stood when he sang "That's All Right, Mama" back in 1954 is enough to send chills down my spine.
We leave Sun Studio and ride Melvis over to our hotel for the evening, the Best Western Suites. We are so tired and overwhelmed from our big day that we're delighted to find several stores and restaurants within walking distance of the hotel. We check in to our room, and wander over to the nearby Bass Pro Shop.
I'm not kidding when I say that the Bass Pro Shop was a great stop on our trip. Neither Robin nor I had ever been to one, and we'd always heard about them from our southern friends. Now we had a chance to see what all the fuss was about. The store is a monument to the outdoor lifestyle, but in a totally unpretentious fashion. It's about fishing lures and freeze-dried meat and camouflage, but mostly it's about ingenuity and American know-how. It's impossible to walk through a Bass Pro Shop and not be impressed with the people who think up and produce all of those products, and not to admire the people who are passionate about using them. I could easily get sucked in to many of the hobbies that the store caters to, if only I didn't already have motorcycling as a passion.
Robin's hunger drags us out of Bass Pro Shop to the restaurant across the parking lot, Tops Bar-B-Q. A small local chain since 1952, Tops regularly wins awards for its simple, hearty fare. A jumbo sandwich, fries and beans later, and I was ready for a good night's sleep.
Next: Tennessee, Day Three: Memphis to Lawrenceburg