It’s REAL: Road Tripping

  • Post published:June 2, 2024
A wall cloud over northern Oklahoma, precursor to a tornado. We outran it.

A road trip puts you in your place. The sights and coincidences, the exhaustion, the revelations force you to expand your bubble of local understanding. The road, I-40 (ex-Route 66), is all big rigs going eighty, urgently connecting consumer products to their consumers. East of the Mojave, there’s also weather: Mere windshield wipers can’t keep up with the lashing rain; hail hammers the paint job, vehicles use each other’s taillights to find the yellow line, lightning flashes, and cell phone tornado-alerts squall. Semis swing in the wind too close for comfort in an imprecise tango of who-gets-there-first.

Mural in Memphis

The great, identical square-cornered boxes cram the freeway during the day and line up at elaborate rest stops in the night so that it seems the drivers all decided to go to sleep at once. But no…the nighttime roads are crammed too, eighteen-wheelers relentlessly trundling toward their destinations. It’s not just semis: trains zag and zing, with three, sometimes four engines dragging a hundred and more container-laden flatcars across the expanses.
Amazon’s arrowed smile bedecks the sides of a lot of them; others offer promises and one-sentence pep talks: “We deliver confidence,” “Delivering happiness and needs,” Somebody is out there making these slogans up. Somebody is overseeing these long-distance drivers, these cargos, transfers, routes, these sleep-deprived guys. They steer the behemoths for hours and weeks, smoking, eating truck stop food, driving till their bodies are stove up and minds assumedly addled by the country stations, the religious stations, the haranguing talk shows with their outraged MCs and their apoplectic callers-in.
In our local bubble, we are insulated from mingling with these ceaseless movements. Millions of gallons of diesel, potholes, danger, speed, Cheetos, burgers, boredom gets our stuff on the front porch in mere days. Seeing the actual immensity of shipping puts a person in her place.

STAX Studio churned out hundreds of indelible hits from the ‘fifties through the ‘seventies, creating a soundtrack for our youth, our hope, the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power.

There is so much—too much—to see on a cross-country road trip, but what can fit in the schedule, what you learn and partially understand, these put you in your place, too.
The high point for the tourism part of my trip was a visit to the sublime Stax Museum of American Soul Music. It’s in a part of Memphis most people wouldn’t be able to find easily, but if you are ever in that beautiful, deadly town, Stax is a feature that must not be missed. The density of raw talent in the Soulsville neighborhood where the studio began induces dizziness. In the converted movie theater, Stax churned out hits in the fifties through the seventies that wracked our souls and fixed into our muscles and bones. Only a few blocks from Aretha Franklin’s childhood home, almost across the street from where Isaac Hayes used to wipe down his Cadillac every morning wearing his gold chains, far from the neon of Beale Street’s blues bars, Stax artists stepped onto a creative merry-go-round of musical genius. Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Steve Cropper, BB King,

BB King’s golden note embedded in the sidewalk on Beale Street, Memphis, the Soul Music Capital of the World.

King Curtis, The Bar-Kays, Carla Thomas, and so many more artists got their breaks at Stax.

Booker T and the MGs was the house band at STAX for many years, playing backup on hundreds of award-winning albums.

Otis was a chauffeur for a celebrity whom he delivered there, then was given a chance at the mic: the rest is history. Booker T and the MGs was the house band there for years. Booker T. Jones, who lived for a time in Comptche, was born a couple of blocks from the Stax studio; his debut album, “Green Onions” became a worldwide hit, and his band backed up Soul Music’s greatest artists on hundreds of award-winning albums.

Aretha Franklin’s childhood home is blocks away from STAX Studio in Soulsville, Memphis, TN. Photo: Joe Bridgman.

Stax provided the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement. The history of the Black Power Movement, Black Pride, and Martin Luther King’s assassination, which occurred a few blocks away, the Memphis Massacre, all add sober texture to the museum’s exultant exhibits. The people in Memphis say, “This is my music.” And yes, you bet. But I, born and raised in a little agricultural town in the Sacramento Valley whose almond and peach orchards are about as far as you can get from inner-city Memphis, came to think it was mine, too. The first time I heard Aretha Franklin sing “Respect,” I felt like I had to lie down on the floor and DIE. The first time I heard Little Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, James Brown, same. The music was strong, worthy, so soulfully, deeply groovy, that it came to belong to several entire generations, regardless of race or place.

Isaac Hayes’ desk. The little sign says, “You have no business touching my desk.”

The musicians themselves were unaware that the art they were making was spilling across the country and the world—even to the Sacramento Valley. They were just making music with all their hearts. And when Jim Stewart, the founder of Stax, set up a tour of Europe in 1967 traveling with many stars from his roster, the musicians were stunned to be greeted at the London airport by hundreds of screaming fans. “It was like we were the Beatles!” one of them marveled.

Chaka Khan on Soul Train.

These bonds created by music that exploded from the modest building on McLemore Avenue connect me to people I will never meet, but whom I know at some level are with me, all in mad love with these artists and this form that is so full, deep, sophisticated, and at the same time, utterly elemental. There will never be anything like it again.
In my place I am put. Really.