I awake to the sound of rain outside on the hotel window. Breakfast is OK again. The hotel’s been good apart from the shuttle cock-up yesterday. This place labels itself as downtown but I’d consider it on the edge. There are more centrally located hotels nearer to the main attractions but they were even more expensive than this Holiday Inn.
I leave Nashville and drive on I-24 S but it’s pretty uninteresting. I can’t see that much anyway because of the rain and overcast sky. After about 30 miles I turn onto US-231 S, then TN-82 S. By which time the weather has got even worse. It’s very dark now. So dark in fact that the sat nav display in the car switches to night mode! The rain is really pouring down now and it’s just horrible driving conditions. Once off I-24 the scenery looks as if it might be good and the road has a few twists and small hills to make it interesting. But I can hardly see more than 200 yards down the road, never mind the landscape around me.
As I dash across the parking lot and into a waiting shuttle bus, I begin to wonder if the tour will even be on, the rain is that heavy. Luckily I’ve brought a waterproof jacket with me on the trip so that will offer some rain protection. The bus takes me the short distance across the road to the main Distillery entrance. I’m earlier than planned and I’m offered the Tour before ‘mine’, which I accept. I left Nashville early because I was concerned about the impact of the weather on the road conditions, but there were no delays. And despite the continuing heavy rain, the Tour is on.
We first get taken by a minibus to the Rickyard where they make the charcoal. This is an actual working distillery and the photos show the real place where this happens. From the Rickyard we walk for the rest of the Tour into various buildings as the whisky making process develops in sequence. We finish in the Tasting Rooms where we sample 5 different versions of JD, and not just standard black label.
Jack Daniels Tour ticket
I was disappointed in the Tour. It’s not very good. There’s an arrogance to how it’s presented, stemming I think from the fact that JD is the #1 selling whisky in the world. Their view appears to be that we don’t have to try too hard. This permeates what we see and are told on the Tour. You can’t take photos in about half of the places we go inside, whereas at Jim Beam you can take photos anywhere. Surely by now everyone knows how JD makes its whisky, so it’s hardly a state secret? You can’t even take a photo inside the barrel warehouse! It’s a goddamn bunch of barrels FFS!
There’s also so much ‘story’ left out from how their whisky is made. There are scant explanations at most stops on the Tour. On the Jim Bean tour we were told so much more and I learnt a lot. For instance there was no description at JD of how they blend the barrels, so I asked during the tasting but the guide gave a vague and useless answer. At Jim Beam the guide gave a full explanation. The other problem was the guide himself. He was a local and had a very thick accent that was almost impossible to understand. Even as an English speaker I only made out about half of what he said. Who knows what the Dutch, Danes and Finns who were on my Tour could understand!
The tasting left me underwhelmed as well, as there was nothing in these ‘special’ brews that would persuade me to buy anything other than standard JD. Overall it was OK and I’m glad I went. It is my favourite whisky, so I had to go and pay ‘homage’. It was also kind-of on the way to my destination tonight, so it wasn’t a massive detour.
After the tour I walk into the centre of Lynchburg to the Lynchburg Hardware & General Store, which is basically a Jack Daniel’s Gift Shop. The Tour ticket entitles me to a free shot glass if spend $10 in the shop. But there’s nothing particularly exciting that I want to buy up to that value. However, as at Jim Beam, I buy a branded shot glass as a small memento. I do mention the free shot glass at checkout though, but nothing is said. As I walk out of the Store I check I’ve got what I paid for in my bag and, lo and behold, there are two shot glasses. For some reason the young chap assisting the checkout lady, who wrapped up my shot glass in paper as I was paying, obviously put the freebie in my bag as well. Thanks!
The town square is very cute, with all the original buildings and it’s a real throwback in time. Thankfully the rain had stopped by the time I left the Distillery and it’s warming up nicely now. The sky is clearing with bright blue patches and fluffy white clouds. Back to the car and it’s onward to Florence, Alabama, just stopping on the outskirts of Lynchburg at a general store to buy a sandwich for lunch.
Killen, Alabama, on the road to Florence
Clouds come and go on the drive, which is nice but nothing spectacular. There’s enough scenery to keep the interest, just: in other words it’s not flat and boring. By the time I get to Florence, the weather has completely cleared up. As I get out of the car at the Hampton Inn & Suites – Florence Downtown, the sky is pure blue and it’s hot, and very humid. It stays that way all evening and when I’m walking back to the hotel at 10.15 pm later, it’s still 74º F.
The hotel looks good and yet again I get breakfast. There’s a fridge also. Maybe folks listened to my previous rants… I check out a local website that has local live music listed but the only place near me tonight is a place called FloBama. There is a band called Fathers & Sons playing, about whom I can find little info on beforehand. May as well give it a go as it’s the only joint in town tonight…
Rolling Stones marker in Florence outside the Hampton Inn, the old Holiday Inn
Later on I walk up N Court St and find FloBama. It’s a reasonable size inside, a stage dead ahead and a bar to the left. There’s a sparse crowd and the band are already on stage in full flow. Within minutes it hits me that this band is shit-hot. The playing and musicianship is out of this world. Who are these guys?
Fathers & Sons at FloBama
I sit at the bar and order beer plus wings and fries. The food, when it arrives, is below average unfortunately. The bar service is not particularly good all night either. There’s only one bar person on and she is doing everything, from serving drinks to fetching food to clearing tables. It’s not her fault, the bar is simply under-staffed for the number of customers. At times there’s no-one behind the bar for ages and lots of people, including me, wait to get served. Get some more staff!
After one song the lead singer says, “We’re all session musicians and this is the night when we get to play what we want, not what we get told to play.” A-ha… During their set break I go up to this guy and in the nicest possible way, ask him who he is. He’s Will McFarlane – sorry Will, but it meant nothing to me at the time – who just happens to be one of the most respected session musicians EVER. I find this out when I return to the bar and start Googling him during the rest of the set break. He’s attached to The Swampers and is in the Musicians Hall of Fame. F*** me.
His lead guitar buddy is Kelvin Holly and equally well respected. The rest of the band are also stellar session musicians. Will’s son Jamie plays bass, his wife Janet does some vocals and Justin Holder is on drums.
They were joined on stage for three songs during the first set by Donnie Fritts, who just happened to be sitting at a table in the bar watching them. Will shouted for him to join them on stage. He’s another legendary session musician, songwriter and a recording artist in his own right. He was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2008.
They start up again after the break and these guys can play. And rock. They’re brilliant! They play Cream’s White Room, which is prefaced by Will saying “We’ve not practiced this” but it’s note perfect and a blistering rendition. Chuck Berry’s Nadineis equally brilliant, and there’s a superb version of Clapton’s Crossroads, complete with a coda of Led Zeppelin’s Heartbreaker, during which some other guy they know got up on stage to play mini-congas. They finish quite early at just gone 9.30 pm, but while they were playing they were great. Absolutely A-1.
Some other folks had come and sat down at the bar during the evening and after the band finish, a male nurse in scrubs, who’s with his girlfriend, also a nurse, leans across to me and ask me if I want to buy some drugs. At least that’s what I think he said because this guy was so stoned he could hardly talk. I put on my stern face and ignored him. To which he loudly announced – slurred more like – to his girlfriend that, “This guy doesn’t like me. I’m only trying to be friendly.” She then got up and dragged him out of bar, and I watched as he stumbled and weaved his way to the door.
Amanda Page Cornett (left) & manager
Some other folks were there by now and we introduced ourselves. Hence I met Amanda Page Cornett, an aspiring singer cutting an album at NuttHouse Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals. Remember her name, I met her before she was famous… She lives in Nashville but came down to record here because of the “vibe”. This intangible ‘thing’ is something musicians who play and record in Muscle Shoals always talk about. Amanda was with her band and manager. I chatted to Amanda and her manager for quite a while about her, what I was doing and other stuff as well. Really nice lady, I wish her well. She had more recording to do tomorrow and left just before 10 pm to get some sleep and rest her voice.
Now if you didn’t understand why I’m staying in Florence, Alabama it’s because across the Tennessee River – and literally about 5 minutes from the hotel – there is a city called Muscle Shoals. As Wikipedia says, “Since the 1960s, the city has been known for music – developing the ‘Muscle Shoals Sound’, as local recording studios (including FAME Studios in the late 1950s and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1969) produced hit records that shaped the history of popular music.” I visit tomorrow.
I left FloBama soon after Amanda and her band, and headed back to the hotel. They were setting up for a karaoke… 😯 The street is deserted as I walk, and it’s still very warm. I arrive at the hotel lobby around 10.20 pm. What a great day: Jack Daniel Distillery, the weather’s better, a nice drive and I saw an awesome band play some great music. To bed, content.