GRJ Customer Relations Manager, Nick Thompson, his wife and two friends take a musical pilgrimage on the 'Tracks of the Deep South' tour.
Of course, I know Great Rail Journeys tours off by heart - on paper at least. But every time I read the brochures there was one which always stood out and set my heart racing at the very thought. One day, I promised myself, I'll take the railroad to discover 'The Tracks of the Deep South'.
Perhaps I should come clean and confess that I'm a dyed-in-the-wool, dedicated rockabilly, country & western and Elvis fan. So when I finally got the opportunity to take my wife and a couple of good friends to the very heart of the USA's musical heritage, I saw it as the chance of a lifetime.
So, after a pleasant and uneventful flight to Atlanta, Georgia and a quick transfer to Tennessee we spent the first two nights at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel - a century-old landmark that is now a fantastic railway-themed hotel. Our room was decked out like an old railway carriage and there were 3 or 4 different restaurants. One thing that caused great amusement was the singing waiters, although this did tend to get a little annoying when the beer you ordered came with an inevitable rendition!
There were so many highlights on this tour that it would take pages to describe them all, so here I'll just mention the ones that made the biggest impression on me.
Well, let's start with the Tennessee Valley Railway & Incline Railway - the latter having the distinction of being the world's steepest passenger railway and 'America's Most Amazing Mile'. I've nothing to compare this claim to, but it was certainly spectacular, with vast open spaces and eagles flying overhead.
Now I'm not averse to the occasional tipple and in this part of the world that means Jack Daniels, so a trip to the distillery in Moore County was a great event, but somewhat ironic as this is a 'dry' county where sales of alcohol are prohibited! When the eponymous Jack bought it in 1866 for $45 he was just 13 at the time, which made me wonder what his liver was like by the time he passed away - mine, I have to say, needed a bit of a rest.
The three-hour coach trip to Nashville was made constantly amusing by a great driver. Here every bar has live music and on Music Row there's an amazing collection of recording studios and record labels. The Country Music Hall of Fame is the largest music museum in the world (as you'd expect - this is the States!).
On to Memphis via Tupelo and that, of course, meant my hero, Elvis. It was a real eye-opener to see where he grew up, in a tiny two-room shack known as The Shot Gun House because if the front and back doors are opened, you can fire a shot gun right through it. Continuing the rock 'n' roll theme, the next part of the trip was my favourite - Sun Studios and Graceland. You grow up listening to these musical phenomena and then you suddenly get the chance to connect with the artists and breathe in the atmosphere - here in the birthplace of rock 'n' roll where Elvis actually lived.
A couple of days later we boarded the famous train, The City of New Orleans, and followed the route of the Blues through the pretty towns of Brookhaven and McComb to New Orleans. I think that everything that could be said about this truly amazing city has already been said - all I can do is agree with it all.
The next part, however, was not really my best bit. Unfortunately, I'm not a great jazz fan so the dinner jazz cruise on a Mississippi paddle steamer didn't really impress me musically, although the mighty river itself and the incredible atmosphere of the boat certainly did.
My advice to anyone taking this amazing tour? Breathe in the atmosphere, forget about preconceptions and enjoy. We certainly did!