Brad's Big Adventure

The rhythm of the river

Editor’s note: Chronicle photographer Bradley Cook nears the end of his cross-country journey, now only a day away from Buddy Guy’s concert in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry’s Ryman Auditorium. On the drive from Mississippi to Tennessee, Brad and his traveling companion, Bob Calder, also visit Muscle Shoals, Ala., an area that spawned W.C. Handy, Sam Phillips, and Helen Keller.

March 24

We started the day at Gus’s Fried Chicken when it opened at 11. It was already packed and there was a line outside and we had to wait about a half hour. But I already had it in Austin, so my taste buds knew what to expect. Still, just so wonderful. And you know, I think back when I was first shown that place by Bobby Rush. They flew me in for a concert for the prostate awareness tour with him and Buddy Guy. We’re all kind of living together in this place for three days, and Bobby just asked me if I was hungry. And he said, ‘Well, I know where to go.’ And we got there and you know, it’s like the old cornball stories: A famous person shows up at the restaurant, and they have a table reserved just for them, everybody’s kind of like scorning because you’re being brought to the front of the line. But while everybody was really happy to see Bobby and, yeah, he’s a celebrity, it was more like, ‘OK, to the back of the line for you’ and he gets treated just like everybody else. We waited about 45 minutes that day. Of course, it was just the most amazing chicken; the best fried chicken I ever had. 

We went over to Sun Records in Memphis, and we took a few pictures outside but they wouldn’t let us take any pictures inside because of copyright issues with photos that are on the walls. It has the X’s on the floor where different artists stood. Those musicians have trained ears and know the certain parts of a room, whether they’re playing a guitar or they’re amplifying their vocals … what kind of effect they’re gonna get. And Elvis had a certain spot, and the person points down right to where I’m standing, and I looked down, there’s an X right there and you look around and it runs through your mind that you’re Elvis Presley, and you wonder what he saw or what he heard when he was in that fairly small room. 

From there we went right over to Stax. Stax isn’t that far away and we did the studio tour. They have all the records hanging on the walls when you walk through there. Isaac Hayes has Superfly cars and their gold plated car, which back then I think the new Caddy was about five grand, mid ’60s, and that would cost him $24,000 because of all the 24-karat gold all over. It must have been outrageous at the time. It had a TV in the car.

After that we went ahead and charged the Tesla one more time because we knew it was going to be kind of tricky getting to R.L. Burnside’s grave, Fat Possum Records, and Holly Springs. We got directions to this one cemetery, but can’t find it. A man tells us, ‘Oh yeah, everybody always gets this messed up. You go back down the road here half a mile to the Y and take it to the left and it’s not that far down at all and you’ll see the church.’

We backtracked and found the place and there were 50 to 100 tombstones in the first area and didn’t see R.L., or in the second area, but there were some other Burnsides in there and we knew we were getting close. 

When we found his grave we took some pictures, I gave R.L.’s tombstone a kiss on top and a nice little pat. And away we went. 

We were going to Fat Possum Records next down in Oxford, Miss. We didn’t know what to expect – if it was going to be like a record store, an office, a studio or what? And the office up in the front was closed. We just missed them by 10 minutes. But the guys in the shipping department who ship all the Fat Possum stuff all over the world let us in because they were expecting us. We got to chat with Chris and Dylan about the history and all of the material in the studio. They offered us an album, some R.L. Burnside swag … and they started filling up my bag. Brad’s ‘trick bag’ was getting a little heavier. He put 15 albums and two CDs in there. He then takes us down this one aisle in the back room and all that kind of stuff is there, but he was a little short on some of the sizes. So we ended up with some large or extra-extra large. They were just very nice about it. 

After we got done with those guys, we decided to stay that night in Tupelo, Miss. Bob Calder, my traveling partner, was hoping that we’d have enough time to go see Elvis’ home. And we had plenty of light. And so I think it was on the east side of the town. There’s this white building, nothing huge by any stretch, maybe 1,000 square feet and I assumed that was his house; it looked like a little matchbox. We got out and with our cameras and I saw there was a little steeple on the front of it. And it looked like a church. And I thought well it’s kind of weird. There is a plaque that explains this is the church where Elvis learned to sing. They moved his house onto that property so it wouldn’t be bulldozed.

It was kind of interesting, but getting late. They weren’t doing tours and it was kind of closed up for the day. But there’s still enough light to take a few pictures and it’s about as simple and as modest as you could ever imagine. 

We got a room for the night and prepared for the one last day on this vacation. We’ll be driving north to Nashville and we’re gonna meet up one more time with Buddy Guy and family. And we’re gonna photograph him in the Ryman Auditorium. And this is what the whole trip was built around – seeing Buddy at Austin City Limits and six days later, the Ryman Auditorium.