10 Tips For A Southern Road Trip

On my trip through the new industrial South, I drove more than 4,000 miles, visiting 10 cities and nine factories in 10 days. The scenery ranged from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Gulf Coast, from live oaks to pines. Along the way, I sampled gourmet cuisine and boiled peanuts, gas station cuisine and outstanding fast food. Here are my top 10 tips for planning your Southern road trip.

1) Be ready for weather extremes. Southern heat is muggy and it continues into the fall. The cool air that marks a summer or fall morning in many parts of the country just isn’t there. It starts hot and gets hotter and danker until, crash! there’s an afternoon thunderstorm – or worse. My trip took place just two weeks before Hurricane Isaac, and as the storm hit, I checked the map to see how my towns made out. None of the factories were damaged, but there has been flooding, power outages, and plenty of downed trees. Isaac aside, you might want to front load your driving so you’re off the road by about 4 p.m., just so you won’t have to pull off and wait it out, the way I had to more than a few times. And keep an eye on radar: I was driving between Memphis and Tupelo in May when a thunderstorm rolled in out of nowhere (my flight from Detroit to Memphis had been smooth as silk).

2) Think about staying in a central spot. Since I was visiting the new industrial South, it made sense to use Birmingham, AL, as my home base for several nights during the trip. I took road trips of an hour, two hours, up to four hours from there, but it was nice to unpack once and sleep in the same place a few nights in a row. You might pick Atlanta or Mobile or Nashville, and go off on short trips from either place. Believe me, there’s plenty to see, and it’s nice to have a hotel staff welcome you back at the end of the day.3) Make a list of what you want to eat. The South isn’t just southern food these days – I found a fantastic penne bolognese in Birmingham, and exquisite sushi in Lexington, Kentucky. There is tons of Mexican food all over the south, including The Taco Truck in downtown Birmingham. But for the most part, you’re here and you’re going to want to eat southern food. So make yourself a list: barbecue, fried chicken, shrimp, grits, crab, gumbo, peach cobbler, whatever your heart fancies. Then, find it. And if you discover a restaurant you like, don’t hesitate to go back again. I did that with Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham and the Market By The Bay in Fairhope, Alabama, because I liked both menus so well. Likewise, you might find a fast food chain that appeals to you such as Zaxby’s, Backyard Burger or Krystal. Go ahead and indulge!

4) What do you want to do? Some people visit car plants, the way I did. Others want to see minor league baseball parks. Some folks like the beach, others want to play golf, still more like to shop. The variety is endless. You can plot a route around all those things, just do your research ahead of time. Southern states’ tourism websites are an amazing source of tips and routes. I particularly like 100 Dishes To Eat In Alabama.

5) Prepare for some challenging driving. Along with weather extremes, the South is much more hilly and even mountainous than people expect. Cities like Birmingham and Chattanooga are full of hills. Greenville sits not far from the mountains. Atlanta’s traffic is legendary. This isn’t like driving through the west, where you can put on cruise control and let your mind wander. You’ll have to pay attention.

6) Watch out for daredevil drivers. When I left Greenville for Atlanta, I noticed highway signs imploring motorists to allow more space when passing trucks. They might as well have said, “please don’t cut people off.” It’s startling to have a car pass you and wind up inches from your front bumper. It’s also a little disconcerting when you’re already going the speed limit and someone roars up and tailgates you. In New York City, they honk; in the South, they move.

7) Take time to go off the beaten path. Southern states do an admirable job of pointing out historic attractions; just look for the brown signs along the highways. And keep your eyes open for in-town signs, too. I found the delightful Ty Cobb Museum in Georgia that way, I discovered Hank Williams Sr.’s birthplace, and I discovered the sign for the F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald’s Montgomery, Alabama, home while I was looking for something else. Likewise, you can do a driving tour of sites from The Help near Greenwood, Missouri, and visit the state’s outstanding Blues Trail (there’s even an app). These places exemplify the richness of the Southern road.

8) Go ahead and be a tourist. I’ve been to Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, the Stax Museum of American Soul in Memphis, the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, and the beaches near Mobile. There is a reason why people visit these places: they’re part of American history and culture. Don’t turn up your nose because there are school buses parked outside. You might learn something you forgot from school.

10) You don’t have to give up Starbucks. In fact, I think there may be more Starbuck’s per highway exit across the South than in any other part of the country. There’s a branch of the Christmas Tree Shops in Birmingham, for homesick New Englanders, and college football loyalty is every bit as deep in Tuscaloosa and Auburn as in South Bend and Columbus. (When I showed up in navy, orange and white for a meeting, someone remarked, “You’re wearing your Clemson colors today.” That was news to me.) The South is more like America than the north, Midwest or West suspects – in fact, it is America, writ colorfully and large.

Top 10 travel-themed 50’s songs

When Jeremy took on top 10 travel-themed 80’s songs last week, I headed to the 1950’s. Partially influenced by seeing the 1958 movie version of South Pacific this summer, this choice turned up ten songs that range from show tunes to country to R&B.

Even though much attention was given by American mainstream culture to get Rosie the Riveter back in the kitchen after World War II, certain themes of 1950’s music indicated that Rosie still had dreams of heading elsewhere.

From what I’ve discovered, this theme of escapism–the desire for an exit from the hum drum of everyday life seems to be a predominent expression in song lyrics throughout that decade.

Perhaps with the Cold War giving Joe McCarthy the green light to seek out Communists among creative folks in Hollywood, people had good reason for wanting a mental hiatus from reality. It’s a thought.

Interestingly, some songs, like choice # 9, a song from South Pacific, hold dreams that are as true today as they were back then.

Arranged in chronolgical order according to their release date, here are the top ten travel-themed ’50’s songs, plus a bit of information about each. This is indeed a mixed bag.

[This photo of a woman gazing fondly at the Hi-Fi in her kitchen was hard to resist. I wonder which song she’s listening to?]

Travel 50’s Song # 1. “Jambalya on the Bayou by Hank Williams. Released in 1952, this song captures the need to add a bit of excitement and spice to life. The song topped the charts at # 1 for good reason. How can you not want to head to a Louisiana bayou for a dose of Cajun culture after hearing this one?

As an interesting note about cross-cultural exchange: The original melody of “Jambalaya” was inspired from the French Cajun song, “Big Texas.” After Williams’ version was released, Cajun musicians reworked their version to include Williams’ lyrics paired with Cajun instruments. This helped bring Cajun music into mainstream American culture through its encounter with country music.

Travel 50’s Song # 2. Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier,” the theme song from the 1955 Walt Disney movie.

How many travelers haven’t been inspired by a thirst for the wild frontier? Davy Crockett’s travels helped change his mind when it came to what American politics and the quest for land were doing to American Indians. Crockett took on the establishment to help defeat a bill that would have cost Indians land that had been granted to them in treaties. In a last wild west move, Crockett fought and was killed at the Alamo in San Antonio in a battle to defend Texas.

Travel 50’s Song # 3. The title “Wayward Wind certainly evokes up an image of heading out to see where life will take you. Sung in 1956 by Gogi Grant, Tex Ritter and Jimmy Grant— and several others since then, the song pays tribute to the type of person who is “next of kin to the restless wind that yearns to wander.”

Gee, that sounds like me. This one is Gogi Grant’s rendition. I love, love, love her voice. Also, this song is the one that keeps playing in my head.

Travel 50’s Song # 4. Also in 1956, Connie Francis crooned “Around the World in 80 Days.” In this song, Paris, New York and London are backdrops for finding love. How many of you out there are traveling the world eyeing the crowds for Mr. or Ms. Right? This is a cornball song, but it does make a plug for travel and romance. Bing Crosby’s version was the theme song for the 1956 movie, Around the World in 80 Days.

Travel 50’s Song # 5. In 1957, the song “Over the Mountain and Across the Sea,” let people know that, although you may not have to travel around the world to find love, it may require traveling a distance over the horizon.

The duet Johnnie Louise Richardson and Joe Rivers sang this version that made it to # 3 on the R&B charts and #8 on the Billboard Top 100.

Travel 50’s Song #6. Even though “Day-O (The Banana Song)” isn’t a Harry Belafonte original, Belafonte shot the song to #5 on the music charts in 1957. The first recorded version of this Jamacian folk song was in 1952 when Edric Connor and the Caribbeans released their rendition. Connor, a Trinadian singer, titled the song “Day de Light” on his group’s album, Songs from Jamaica.

After reading about the various ways the song has been parodied, and the countries where it’s been recorded, it’s obvious that some songs have a way of transcending cultural boundaries.”Day-O” is surely an example of this.

Travel 50’s Song #7. In 1958, “Freight Train,” written in about 1906 by Elizabeth Cotton when she was eleven years old, was released in the album Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar (also then known as Negro Folksongs and Tunes). This song captures the essence of longing for points beyond the horizon. Here’s an older Cotton singing the song herself.

Inspired by the freight trains that passed by her house, Cotton wrote this song when she lived in Carrboro, North Carolina. When she was 13, her mother began working for the Seeger family, as in Pete Seeger. Thankfully, Cotton’s musical genius had a venue to be noticed and she went on to inspire others through her lyrics and signature guitar-playing technique dubbed “Cotton Picking.” Cotton lived to be 92 and kept singing and picking well into old age.

Travel 50’s Song # 8. Like the song about Davy Crocket, “Rawhide” evokes a sense of adventure through its depiction of life in the west. The song “Rawhide,” recorded by Frankie Lane in 1958, became the theme song for the TV show Rawhide that aired from 1959 to 1966. This is a great song to know if you’re planning a trip that involves major hiking or long distance driving.

Travel 50’s Song #9. “Bali Hai,” one of the songs in the 1958 movie version of the Broadway musical South Pacific, calls to the allure of island life that promises dreams come true and an escape from a troubled world. I’ve been to small islands in the South Pacific near the very spot where Sgt. Calley had his fleeting moments of love, happiness and peace. Who doesn’t have a Bali Hai in mind?

Travel 50’s Song “10. Frankie Ford sang Sea Cruise in 1959. This rollicking number became a top-20s hit and has been sung in various versions ever since. Whether it makes you want to take a cruise is questionable. There’s no question that it may inspire you to dance.