Thursday, October 31, 2013

Making the Music

In Memphis we stayed at the Tom Sawyer RV Park which is on the Arkansas side in West Memphis and sits right on the Mississippi. I mean Right On. This is the view out our windshield. That water in front of you is the Mississippi River, about a half-mile across at this point. We were supposed to have a back-in camp site in the woods a couple of hundred yards away from the river, but when Vicki signed in she could not control herself and upgraded us to a riverfront slot for an extra five bucks a day. It was nice. Barge traffic moseys past at a leisurely pace at all hours of the day and night. Generally the barges are spaced out at about 20-30 min. intervals but occasionally we would have them pass each other going opposite directions just outside our front window. We would take our chairs down to the river bank and read and relax in the evenings with the puppies, who seemed to enjoy it though I doubt it had the same aesthetic effect on them as it did on us.
Schnoodles lazily lounging at the river's edge.
Beale Street
Our first day in town we wandered down to Beale Street, which is the Memphis equivalent of Broadway in Nashville. But in Memphis, the musical style is the southern blues. Instead of honky-tonk bars, they have blues bars, caf├ęs and restaurants and the music doesn't usually start until about 6 PM. We wandered around the area to get a feel for the place but the truth is, neither of us is particularly enthralled with southern blues. I can appreciate Beale Street from a music history standpoint but as far as actually going in and listening, neither of us was that interested.

There was something nearby, however, that I was quite interested in. A large Gibson guitar factory sits just a block over from Beale Street. Gibson currently has five or six guitar factories scattered around the country. The big acoustic dreadnought style guitars are all made in Montana. What they make in Memphis are hollow body and semi-solid body electric guitars. The solid body electrics, like the standard Les Pauls, are made at several sites, the main one being in Nashville. But the Memphis factory is the only one you can get a tour of so I took what I could get.

No photographs are allowed inside the factory. In fact, they make you put your camera in an opaque plastic bag and if you take it out they will escort you off the premises. I couldn't really understand this given that they not only show you the entire process but explain it in great detail and will happily answer any questions you may have about how the guitars are made, so it can hardly be a proprietary information issue. Maybe it is an issue of privacy for their workers, I don't know. In any event, we saw the complete assembly line from the arrival of the wood at the factory door to the polishing and testing of the completed instruments at the far end of the line. There is no robotic equipment involved, nor a mechanized assembly-line like you would see an auto plant. The guitars are hand carried from station to station and the most interesting thing about the whole process is what a huge percentage of it is still done free hand by people who simply know what they are doing. The tour takes about an hour but making a guitar takes 2-3 weeks. The factory covers about 1.5-2 acres and looked like it had 50 or 60 people working which resulted in a production rate of about 50-60 guitars a day.

The last station in the production process is where they install the electrical pickups, string the instrument and take it for a test drive. This is the only place in the factory where you have to actually be able to play guitar in order to work there. The guy that puts the strings on plays the instrument for five or 10 min., then it goes to a second level of inspection in some quieter room where they can get a better feel for the guitar's performance. If either of these guys is not completely happy with the instrument, it gets tossed. They said this applies to about 8% of the guitars that they produce. The problem may be fairly minor but if a guitar is not up to their standards, they don't want it appearing on the street where it may damage their reputation. So they don't sell "seconds". A guitar that doesn't come up to snuff goes into the shredder.

Pretty maids all in a row
I don't know if there is anywhere else in the country you can take this kind of tour, so if you have $10 to spare, any interest at all in guitars and you are anywhere in the area then by all means go by the Gibson factory. And if you have another $3000 burning a hole in your pocket, they will happily sell you a guitar while you are there. Reservations are recommended and we had called and gotten a reservation a couple days ahead of time. But we got stuck in traffic trying to get across the Mississippi had to call and reschedule for the next tour which turned out to be a non-issue so I would say that, at least in October, signing up at the last minute is not a huge problem.

Officially a dive
After the tour, we went to eat at another "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" place, a BBQ joint just outside of the downtown area. It was not a diner, nor was it a drive in but it definitely qualified in the dive category. This is a place where, just driving by, you would not even consider stopping to eat. In fact, once you get inside there is still a fairly strong temptation to turn around and walk out again. But the food was pretty good. I had a half a rack of ribs and they were delicious. The side items were good too. Vicki had a Cornish game hen but complained that it was a little dry. I took her word for it.
Good ribs on paper plates

Then it was back to Tom Sawyer's to relax by the riverside and enjoy the stately progression of commerce. I ordered Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi" for my Kindle since the copyright is expired and it's free. Christopher didn't particularly like it when he read it for school but I have rather enjoyed it and it's fun to read about the places that we are visiting from the vantage point of 140 years ago. So while there are no stern wheelers to be seen, we did sit out and watch the river traffic while I read my book and had a nice cold beer. Life is good.
Moonlight on the Mississippi


  1. That picture of your Schnoodle babies is priceless. Jim would love that guitar tour. It has definitely gone our list. I just read another blog of folks who stayed at that campground and they had a header picture a lot like a couple of the pictures you have. We also went to a place on the Diners, Dives and Drive-Ins list - a Mexican restaurant in a suburb of Phoenix but I wasn't impressed at all.

    1. Yes, unfortunately we've discovered that DD&D is kinda hit and miss.

  2. Ugh, Life on the Mississippi. Essentially it's preliminary research notes for Huckleberry Finn, and I thought it read much more like research notes than Clemens' usual biting wit. I suppose actually visiting the setting would improve the experience, in the same sense that disinfectant would probably improve having one's toenails removed with pliers. I think I'd have opted for the blues bars, but I suppose there's just no accounting for taste.

    -The Kid

  3. Oh also, keep a reading journal with entries every 20 pages or so, and discuss themes on rural Mississippi lifestyle. It will help you understand my experience.

    -The Kid