Aside from being a music promoter and author, Oliver Gray is Americana UK’s very own version of Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent with his annual missives from Austin’s South By Southwest Festival. Surprisingly, for a man whose CV as a promoter is a veritable smorgasbord of vital Americana acts, Gray had never visited Nashville but on the occasion of his 70th year decided that it was time to attend the annual Nashville based Americanafest and follow that up with a road trip through the south taking in some essential sights and places. Banjo On My Knee is his equivalent of a “what I did on my holidays” report and is delivered in a fine, low key style, detailing his adventures but equally revealing on the foibles and phobias of this quintessential Englishman abroad.
A non driver and with no access to wifi other than when in a hotspot, Gray fails to master Uber and is reduced to using public transport in Nashville. This does afford him a somewhat unique opportunity to view the city and its inhabitants at eye level so that the Nashville portion of the book is not simply who played what and where. He does get to the gigs, enjoying sets by Alejandro Escovedo, Courtney Marie Andrews and Tony Joe White among others and encountering one musician who, as Gray recalls, “behaved in a really obnoxious manner,” when he put on one of his shows some years ago – you’ll need to read the book to find out who that was . There are brief encounters with folk, famous and not so famous, whom he knows personally, but some of the best sections are when he has to deal with mundane tasks such as getting to a venue. Random encounters at bus stops, the search for decent food and the best way to deal with a free hotel breakfast when one has been up half the night before are all detailed in Gray’s deadpan manner.
Gray is then joined by his wife, Birgit, for their road trip, following the Natchez Trail Pathway that runs from Nashville to Missouri. A tourist trail with hardly any tourists on it, it avoids freeways (allowing the motorway phobic Gray to relax) but it has its own pitfalls. Their sat nav has a mind of its own while, seeking a nice cold beer, they find they are in a dry county where the only beverages available are water, cola or Dr. Pepper. At one point, quite lost, they ask for directions to their pre booked motel only to be told, “You won’t be staying there… drugs and guns…” Altogether however, aside from the ongoing search for decent food, it goes well with the pair visiting several musical shrines – Presley and Cash’s birthplaces, Stax and Muscle Shoals studios, The Delta Blues Museum, The Lorraine Hotel, scene of Martin Luther King’s assassination and, of course, Graceland. Gray offers potted histories of these landmarks and maintains his keen eye as he reports on many of the small towns they pass through, sometimes puncturing the myth of the ever helpful, “have a nice day” portrait that is commonly painted.
Described by Gray as, “Part travelogue, part guide book, part music memoir but mainly observational nonsense,” Banjo On My Knee is an enjoyable read and he even manages the impossible as he defines Americana in just two words. Again, you will need to read the book to find out what those two words are.