We go to ‘Cooters’ – the official Dukes of Hazzard museum.

Across Tennessee. By Kia.

“Your mother will explain,” I tell the Toddler, as I leap down from the Kia.

“Googoogoogoogoothemdukesthemdooookes,” I add.

‘Cooters’ – the official Dukes of Hazzard museum is probably the best tourist attraction in all America. It has a full-size General Lee, and a full-size Daisy Duke jeep, and a full-size Cooter pick-up, and a full-size Hazzard County police car. You can sit in them all for ten dollars, in order to have your picture taken, or just stand beside them for free, which is what I doCooters.

“GoogoogooooFlash!googoohotpursuithotpursuit!” I say, as I am standing beside the police car.

There are all sorts of original scripts, and publicity posters, and life-size cut-outs of the cast. It really is a most educational resource. I am a bit disturbed, however, that there is no mention at all of Coy and Vance, who were the cousins of the original Duke boys who took over for a couple of series, suspiciously looking and acting exactly like the two original actors. Coy and Vance weren’t very good, but they do not deserve to be treated this way. They have been completely written out of history, like stunt-driving, moonshine-running Iain Duncan Smiths.

I stand for ages, viewing the historical artifacts and doing good impressions of Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane (played by James Best).

“Can we go now?” asks the LTLP.

She is still a bit cross about me accidentally buying a bottle of wine for $70, because I am not much good at working out money even when it is English. But she has a point. We still have the Gibson guitar factory to visit, and time is getting on.

The famous ’01’ car with the welded-shut doors is parked outside. I allow one last longing look before climbing into the Kia.

It’s time to go.

We go to Chattanooga.

Across Tennessee. By Kia.

“It’s a train carriage!!!” I reveal in delight.

We look around our accommodation which is, indeed, a train carriage. I have always been very interested in railway history, and I can’t think of anything much better than staying in a real live train carriage, especially in Chattanooga, which has a long-established relationship with the choo-choo.

“Just like I showed you on the ‘what we are going to do on our holidays’ PowerPoint presentation,” I add.

The LTLP gives me a Look.

“And our itinerary for the day…” I leave a short teasing pause, like they do on the reality shows, “the International Tow Truck Museum and Hall of Fame!”

I pull out a leaflet. “It has loads of tow trucks on display,” I explain.

We have a short chat about the direction that our holiday is taking.

“There is also a special wall, where they commemorate the people who have lost their lives in the course of vehicle recovery,” I urge. “The Toddler will really be moved by it.”

We do not go to the International Tow Truck Museum and Hall of Fame.

Later on, we are walking around some enormous natural caves, featuring giant floodlit montages of dozens upon dozens of nursery rhymes and childrens’ stories. The Toddler pretends to be excited and delighted, so as not to make us feel bad. But I am sorry that she has missed her chance to see the vintage tow trucks.

It is a shame. But the following day we plan to go to Nashville. It is a challenge to find tourist attractions that are suitable for the whole family, but I know that there is one there that everybody will love.

We dine at the historic original Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.

Across Tennessee. By Kia.

“Three hundred miles?!?” says the LTLP.

“Chill out. It will be worth the journey, for food like this,” I reply.

“Three hundred miles?!?!?!?”

“I will go in ahead, and see if I can get a table.”

It is amazing being in such a historic place from the dawn of the universe of food. Colonel Sanders’ original restaurant is like a Stonehenge for the peckish man. I stride in, feeling the aura, soaking in the atmosphere of this place; the convergence of hundreds of strands of catering, of thousands of carefully-breaded ley lines.

“What would you like?” enquires the lady behind the counter (I assume she is Colonel Sanders’ great great granddaughter or something, but I do not like to ask.)

I order some chicken. She asks me if I would like a side order with it, and I choose a side order. She asks me what I would like to drink, and I choose my drink. I then go to collect some serviettes and a straw.

Truly, it is a unique experience.

“Three hundred miles?!?!???!” chants the LTLP as we begin the drive to our next destination back in Tennessee.

But I do not care. I am happy. I have a belly full of chicken, and a photograph of the Toddler sitting on a bench next to a life-size fibreglass model of Colonel Sanders.

“Could we perhaps do some normal holiday things now?” she asks.

I smile. I have some really good plans coming up, that she will really love.

I take the LTLP to a posh restaurant, bowling her over with my extravagance.

Across Tennessee. By Kia.

As all food critics know, sometimes it is worth doing a big round trip for the sake of a good meal.

I gun the Kia into life, the massive supercharged beast under the hood exploding in a throaty roar. We pootle off at a steady 40mph, heading out on the highway, looking for adventure and whatever comes our way – in this case being a gastronomic experience that Jay Rayner, Michael Winner etc would die for.

The USA is a bit funny about food. Its restaurants are about a grillion times better than ours in every respect, if you are looking for any type of unpretentious family dining experience, preferably including steak, chicken or ribs. But they have this bizarre concept called ‘fine dining’, which essentially means ‘anything not steak, chicken or ribs – but could be steak, chicken or ribs, just cooked by a chef with a name.’ The idea that adding some broccoli means that a restaurant is now ‘fine dining’ is not a concept that I’ve got to grips with yet.

But it is time that I showed the LTLP some culinary flair. We head north and cross the state line.

I am a bit disappointed in the state line. I know about the state line from the Dukes of Hazzard, and as far as I was concerned it was this sort of magical thing that made you invulnerable once you crossed it. You could do a bank robbery and blow up the sheriff and insult his dog, but as long as you got across the state line in a car chase accompanied by banjo music before he caught you, you could basically just stand there and blow raspberries and there was nothing that he could do about it except go ‘gooogeeegooogoothemdukesthemduuukes.’

There is just a small sign as you enter Kentucky. I thought they would have made a bit more of it.

As we leave the big interstate road and head across country, the area becomes more poor and run down, sometimes quite depressingly so. The rural poor are a forgotten people. We pass old derelict shacks and abandoned cars. ‘TV is the Gateway to Hell’ informs a sign outside the local church, reassuringly.

“Wasn’t that the motel?” asks the LTLP, as we speed past a motelly-looking building.

“Ooops,” I say. “I’ll turn round. Didn’t it seem to have a couple of broken windows? Or was that just me?”

I turn the car around and we retrace our steps.

“Yes. It has broken windows. And somebody has set it on fire,” I confirm.

We head off to a different motel.

I hope Mr Obama is able to help rural America a bit, as the people – especially in the South – are just so damn nice. I chat to the man in the gas station, who switches the pump on especially for me, as I am English. I chat to the lady in the news store, who sells me a copy of ‘Backwoods Home’ magazine as a gift for Mrs Short Tony, and ‘People Waving Guns About Monthly’ for Short Tony. I chat to the girl at the motel desk, who confirms that business has picked up immensely since the other one mysteriously burnt down.

We eat simply, and get an early night. Tomorrow will be the culmination of our 300-mile round-trip for lunch.

Continued tomorrow…

I meet Sonny Smith, US banjo champion.

Across Tennessee. By Kia.

He takes my hand in a bear-like grip and shakes it warmly.

I am relieved that he has a bear-like grip. Having just watched him play the most amazing banjo music in the world, I had worried that there might be something a bit odd about his hands, to allow him to play so fast, so casually. But he has normal hands, if a bit bear-like. I will not have to deform my own hands in order to play like him.

Sonny Smith is a national banjo champion of the USA, and you don’t get much more accomplished in the banjo world than that. Like many true greats, he is also a very modest man, and has no airs about him. He stops shaking my hand and there is an awkward pause.

The problem is that I am not very cool around celebrities, especially musicians. I sort of go in awe and stuff. I am not name-dropping or anything, but I have met the likes of Peter Andre and Tony Hadley and stuff, PLUS supported the Sultans of Ping on one date of their UK tour. So you would think that I would be a bit more comfortable around legends.

“I’m pleased to meet you,” says Sonny Smith, US banjo champion.

There is another short pause.

“Iamthatwasimeanthatwasbrilliantbanjogreatreallyamazedhowyougetthatwow,” I reply.

“Oh – well, you know,” says Sonny Smith, modestly.

There is another pause. This one is a bit longer.

“I play the banjo as well!!!” I blurt, after a while.

Sonny Smith does look genuinely interested at this, as I don’t suppose he has met many other banjo players in his life. He gives me a broad grin, as I am part of the brotherhood.

“Are you any good?” he asks, in an interested (not challenging) way.

I consider this. I have just watched one of the best – if not the best – banjo players in America play, which makes him one of the best – if not the best – banjo players in the world. So his definition of ‘are you any good’ is probably a bit different than if, say, I had been asked by Eddie up at the Village Pub. I am a reasonable banjo player compared to some people, but I do not have – and never will have – the right hand technique to play proper Scruggsian bluegrass, and I’m frankly a little lost once I start wandering around the neck. But he seems genuinely interested, and I would really like to have a conversation with him about banjo playing as – let’s face it – it’s not that often that you meet somebody who is so eminent in your chosen field (apart from Peter Andre, Tony Hadley and the Sultans of Ping).

In the end I decide that the best course is be to be honest, but to also make a bit of a joke of it. Banjo playing is hardly an English thing – so I could be said to be better than many of my peers, most of whom wouldn’t know a banjo from a mandolin from a ukulele… but I am nothing like even a halfway-competent American professional exponent. So I try to encapsulate this in one sentence, getting across that I’m pretty average but that sometimes people think I am a bit better than I am as there aren’t a lot of other people dotted around the Village to measure my banjo playing ability against.

What I actually say is:

“I am the best banjo player in England.”

Sonny Smith, US banjo champion, is a bit taken aback by this – but being from the USA he is used to people telling it how it is. I, on the other hand, hear the words coming out of my mouth and want to hide inside a giant banjo.

“Hey, that’s great!” he says, and goes into a detailed conversation about banjo playing. I do not hear most of the conversation, as all I can hear is:

“I am the best banjo player in England.”

The rest of his band (who are also brilliant musicians) are still milling around. I have a horror that he will call them over and introduce me. So instead of having a nice conversation about banjo playing and perhaps getting some tips, I mumble something about the Toddler waiting for me, buy three CD’s and run for it. I might be really suave, cool, attractive etc on the page, but I am rubbish – rubbishy rubbish – at meeting people in the flesh. If Sonny Smith, US banjo champion, ever Googles this then it was really great to meet you and the CD’s are fantastic.

*

EDIT – Sonny has very kindly left a comment, which has chuffed me to bits. For readers who are interested, Sonny’s CD is available – contact him through his website at www.sonnysmithbanjo.com for information. It’s all-instrumental, with a mix of guaranteed favourites and some that were new to me – some bluegrass, some veering towards swing. I’m sure that he’d set you up with music from his colleagues in the Smoky Mountain String Band as well – I came back to the UK with some truly great stuff.

And for those who like reading – if my books share a theme then it’s the joy that a deep love of music brings you. You can get them in paperback or in e-format; try the links above, and thank you!

The Toddler plays on a roundabout with large plastic ducks.

Across Tennessee. By Kia.

There is a roundabout at Dollywood that is designed for little kiddies. They ride on large plastic ducks.

The Toddler climbs on to a duck. She has a look of utter delight on her face. Honestly, sometimes I could break down and weep at things like this. I would so like to be able to generate such utter delight just from sitting on a large plastic duck. If sitting on a large plastic duck was all it took, the world would be such a happy place. But at some point in everybody’s transition to adulthood the duck joy gets lost, and then there are wars and unemployment and the Daily Mail and stuff.

“Are you ready?” asks the lady who runs the duck ride.

She presses a button (or pulls a lever, or turns a key or something – I did not really get a close look, and it is immaterial to the story to be quite honest, although accuracy is always important to me, but sometimes you can be so keen to make something accurate that it will interrupt the flow), and the duck ride starts.

‘Quackquackquackquackquack!’ goes the ride, duck noises coming through small loudspeakers. ‘Quackquackquack!’

The Toddler waves as she goes past. ‘Quackquack!’

The ride is a simple concept. The roundabout goes round, with children on the ducks, and makes a quackquack noise. But it is enough. Even I am enchanted by the duck ride, so much so that I briefly stop looking at my watch to see when the next banjo music is due to begin.

After a minute or so, I notice something. I had assumed that the quackquack thing was an automatic function, set to start when the ride went round. Except that it is not. It is the lady who runs the ride’s job to stand by a microphone, going ‘quackquackquack’ at periodic intervals.

For some reason, this fills me with warmth and happiness. I have already identified Tennessee folk as being some of the loveliest, most friendly people who I have ever met. But the fact that this nice lady is still quacking with such enthusiasm and warmth on what must be the hundredth ride of the day is wonderful to behold. This is her job – to start the ride (by whatever means) and to go ‘quackquack’ into a microphone. I expect she probably has to do some safety checks as well, but it is the quacking that does it for me. She should get some citizens’ award.

The ride winds down. The Toddler is happy, and wants to go on again. I let her, as I am so impressed with the quacking lady. Then we go to see some more banjo music. It really is a perfect day.

I see Dolly Parton’s uncle.

“This is Dolly Parton’s uncle,” comes the announcement. Dolly Parton’s uncle walks on to the stage.

He does not look much like Dolly Parton, but I take his ‘uncle’ claim at face value, as everybody else in the band is a relative of Dolly Parton as well, and they are playing at Dollywood, the theme park owned by Dolly Parton (nb the name comes from taking ‘Hollywood’ and replacing the first bit with ‘Dolly’ as in ‘Dolly Parton’.)

“Good morning,” says Dolly Parton’s uncle.

The band plays some hits by Dolly Parton. They are very good, and the main vocalist – Dolly Parton’s first cousin – has a startlingly similar voice to the star herself. It does make you realise what a brilliant songwriter Dolly Parton is – and that she most definitely knows her way around a good pop tune.

There is an intermission, whilst Dolly Parton’s uncle talks about his charity, dedicated to restoring the prominence of the original American chestnut tree. Apparently, the Chinese chestnut tree was brought over to the country some years back, carrying with it some sort of tree germs that started killing the native population. The crowd grows angry at this news, everybody looking round the audience to see if there are any Chinese people there to raise this issue with. But there is happy news, in that scientists have worked out a way of saving the American tree. This mollifies the audience, and the music is resumed with a new song, written by Dolly Parton and Dolly Parton’s uncle, about the chestnut tree.

It goes:

‘Oh chestnut tree,

Oh chestnut tree,

How lovely are your branches’

It is one of those great songs where immediately you feel a huge familiarity with the melody, and thus will probably last for centuries. The band finishes with that song that Whitney Houston did about always loving you, and ‘9-5’ which, let’s face it, are two of the best pop songs ever written, ever.

The band exits the stage to much deserved applause. The Toddler wants to play on the roundabout with large plastic ducks.

“If your erection lasts for longer than four hours then contact your doctor.”

Across Tennessee. By Kia.

I switch off the television set.

Then I switch it back on again, to double check what I am hearing. It is startling. We do not have advertisements like this in Britain, not even on Sky Sports 3.

Personally, if I have an erection that lasts for longer than four hours, then I will not contact my doctor. I will contact all my mates.

US television is utterly technically inept. The picture is rubbish, the graphics are Clive Sinclair-standard, they regularly cut away accidentally from the end of bits they shouldn’t cut away from, or leave long pauses where the producer presumably should have done something. This ineptitude partially explains why many people think the content itself is useless. Whereas we have stuff like Jeremy Kyle, and ‘Meanwhile, a man in Hull…’ local news.

I find it disconcerting, but I can appreciate that it is probably a Good Thing to maturely and openly address the medical condition concerned. I switch the television off once more and go down to breakfast.

“There is an ad about having a stiffy for four hours!!!” I hiss at the LTLP, over a bizarre parallel-universe type breakfast.

They do not have normal things like black pudding in Tennessee. Instead, they eat scones with their bacon and eggs, covering them with weak mushroom soup.

“Would you like to try some of my grits?”

“No.”

“That is the right answer.”

I accept the proffered free refill of coffee – the reason that America is such a great nation – and lean back in my chair. The tickets nestle safely in my pocket – the time approaches to take my family to the very heart and soul of the USA.

“Today,” I tell the Toddler importantly, drawing her grandly in to the conversation. “Is our big day. I hope you will remember this day for years to come. It is time to see the birthplace of a nation.”

We finish our breakfast and set off for Dollywood.