The guy at the gas station in Jackson, Tennessee, had no interest in green travel. ‘It is,’ he declared, ‘every American’s patriotic duty to burn a few tanks of gas and explore this great country of ours.’
The road trip is an American ritual. Since the 1950s, when cars overtook trains as the way most Americans travelled, writers and filmmakers have turned the open road into a symbol of freedom and adventure. I, though, was not doing the Jack Kerouac thing: my 'wheels' were on a sensible shared minibus and, instead of Dean Moriarty ranting in my ear like a sideshow preacher, my driver was Art, a tour guide from New York State.
Art and the bus took the hassle out of travelling, and our little group stopped everywhere worth visiting between Tennessee and the Louisiana coast. With a few diversions, we followed Route 61, a road that meanders – like the Mississippi river beside it – through an area more sensuous and imbued with history than almost any other part of the US.
Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana were the cradle of the Civil War. All allowed slaveholding, the spectre of which still colours the land today. It lacks the reputation and easy repetition of Route 66, but Route 61 is the Blues Highway: in towns and plantations along its dusty length the music of protest and woe was born. And it was on this road that freed African-Americans moved after their emancipation, travelling north to the great industrial cities from which jazz and blues would conquer the world. Here's how my journey unfolded and the soundtrack it unfolded to.
The day before my trip began, I'd been standing on a tube platform, waiting for a dawn train to Heathrow and staring blearily at one of those monochrome Jack Daniel's posters. Now I was there, watching it being made, and I can tell you there is no marketing artifice – Lynchburg really is a quaint backwater; the distillery is all weather-beaten clapboard, duck ponds and laconic barrel men. Ricks of maple are burned to charcoal, through which every drop of the original rock 'n' roll liquor – Old No 7 (along with the Single Barrel and Gentleman Jack premium editions) – is filtered over a period of days. However, Moore County, in which Lynchburg is situated, is dry: drinking is discreetly done in the next town over.
The heat was furious. Crowds of cowboys and cowgirls were arriving in Music City for the Country Music Association festival. From wheeled coolboxes, sidewalk entrepreneurs sold bottles of water for a dollar: 'For five you can stick your head in the box. For ten you can stick someone else's in.' The highlight was a parade on Broadway of denim-vested crooners on floats, their drawling interrupted by the chirpy horn of the General Lee from 'The Dukes of Hazzard' as there's a themed museum nearby.
Nashville is a town that wears its heart on its sleeve, its lapels and its back, usually etched in rhinestone by tailor Nudie Cohn, who also blinged up Elvis's Cadillac. I duly admired the car – along with gee-tahs, gold discs and Hank Williams Jr's collection of antique weaponry – in the fascinating Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Despite country's multicultural roots in gospel, hillbilly and European folk, the modern version feels very white and – at the risk of never being made welcome in Nashville again – samey. But as soon as I hit Memphis, the music and the people changed. The urban epicentre of the blues is Beale Street, where in the early to mid-1900s musicians like WC Handy played in African-American-owned clubs. Nowadays, it's a rather garish tourist strip, but you can still hear good bands. Memphis is also the home of the Stax label, and a comprehensive Stax museum occupies the site of the famous recording studio where Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding laid down their genre-defining soul.
The other reason to visit the Deep South is to eat, although most menus read like someone has mixed up the mains and desserts (fried jalapeño cornbread with honey butter?). It makes the Scottish diet look macrobiotic. Fried corn, fried green tomatoes, fried pickles... You might ask, 'Why deep fry a pickle?' The answer down here is, 'Why the hayil not?'
Memphis – along with Kansas City, Texas, North Carolina and almost everywhere else south of the Mason-Dixon line – is Barbecue Capital of the USA and not a good place to be born a pig. I walked (not as much fun as Marc Cohn makes it sound) to midtown and the famous Bar-B-Q Shop ('Home of the Dancing Pigs'). The dry-spice-rubbed ribs were spectacular.
Leaving the city on my way south the next day, I caught my first sight of the shining Mississippi. But first, there's a pilgrimage every visitor to Tennessee should make...
Elvis's house is preserved in all its mid-'70s glory, with a firing range, family graves, Polynesian 'jungle room' and exhibits on almost every aspect of his life – although the pill-popping, jumpsuit-button-popping era is glossed over. Even if The King's music leaves you unshaken, it's a touching experience, but the astonishing range of branded shit in the endless shops leaves a bad taste. And the ghoulish will be disappointed to learn: no, you can't see that toilet, let alone sit on it for photo opportunities.
This little town is where it all began. The story goes that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at the town's crossroads in exchange for the secret of the blues, without which there would be no jazz, no hip hop, no rock 'n' roll. You can draw a line from that moment a hundred years ago to rock week on 'The X Factor'. The evil one knew what he was doing.
Morgan Freeman's pleasingly scruffy Ground Zero Blues Club is in the seen-better-days town centre, near the brilliant Delta Blues Museum. But on the night of my visit, there was a better offer: BB King was playing an outdoor gig at his own museum down the road in Indianola, MS. The steaming Southern night was threatening to boil into a storm and, as heat lightning flashed across the skies above the old plantations, I watched the blues legend preside over an impromptu (and very complicated) onstage children's dance contest. 'If you're drinking, don't drive,' he told the small crowd at the end. 'I want to see all your beautiful faces again.'
The next day, pressing south through the Land of Cotton on the shimmering 61, I stopped at the remote Hopson Plantation, a collection of farm buildings and former slave shacks now open as a unique B&B. On the wooden porch, beside the rusting cotton gins, there should have been an open-shirted old bluesman in a rocking chair, cradling a battered guitar. Instead, there was an overheated white man surrounded by a film crew. It was Rick Stein – the jolly chef was making one of his gastronomic travelogues (look out for 'Rick Stein Tastes the Blues' this autumn). He seemed surprised to be recognised by a British traveller in deepest Mississippi, but I must say he was as friendly as he appears on telly.
'The country had a history; now it is just a place,' says Greil Marcus. Maybe the history slid down to the Deep South and no one noticed.
A pocket of affluence in the poorest state in the USA, Natchez was an important Mississippi trading post, founded as a French fort in 1716. As well as a Disney-pretty town centre, it's famous for antebellum mansions: generously proportioned, elegant, pillared, pre-Civil War houses set among landscaped gardens. All were once plantation owners' residences – a dark past is never far from the surface down south. At the Forks of the Road market – marked by a pile of iron shackles set into concrete – more men, women and children were bought and sold than anywhere else in the state.
Natchez-Under-the-Hill is a former landing on the river, known in Mark Twain's times for its drinking, fighting and whoring. I found plenty of the first in what I'm sure is the best bar in America: the Saloon Under the Hill, an end-of-the-world wooden building with benches on the porch for watching the sun set over the river. The ancient bartender, ascertaining my Scottishness, told me he'd been to Bannockburn. I think he meant he'd fought there.
If 'Avery Island' sounds familiar, you're probably a Tabasco fan. The McIlhenny family has owned this private island and the hot sauce company that occupies it since 1868. I'd drink the stuff neat if I could, so I loved the tour around the bottling factory, deep in Cajun country, and went back for a second helping of Tabasco ice cream in the gift shop.
Route 61 speeds into the Crescent City, the Mississippi spills into the Gulf of Mexico and the Deep South explodes into a delirious hot mess of jazz, humidity, Sazeracs, late nights, heady romance and smoky clubs.
In St Louis's No 2 Cemetery lies the late Ernie K-Doe, R&B musician, legendary NOLA club owner and self-styled 'Emperor of the Universe'. He famously once said, 'I'm not sure, but I'm almost positive, that all music came from New Orleans.' If I hadn't just spent two weeks in the Mississippi Delta, I might have believed him.
Grand American Adventures runs a 'Deep South and Delta Blues' tour, from £1,329 per person, including accommodation, transportation and a professional tour leader. Flights from London to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport start at £475 per person with American Airlines.
Be prepared to do a lot of this. Among the best places to sample Southern food are Fox Bros Bar-B-Q (1238 Dekalb Avenue, Atlanta) for sensational pulled pork and ribs; Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken (310 South Front St, Memphis; the slogan reads, 'If you haven't eaten at Gus's, you haven't eaten fried chicken'); and Dooky Chase (2301 Orleans Avenue, New Orleans) in the Tremé district for definitive Cajun/Creole cooking – Barack Obama chose to eat here on a trip to the city.