Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Northern Louisiana: Music Legends, Hot Biscuits And Colorful Characters!

By: Anne M. Raso

Most tourists visiting Louisiana don’t venture outside of the New Orleans area but there is so much to see and do in Northern Louisiana that we can barely put its uniqueness into words. There are music museums and other landmarks plus some down home eats along the way—and you’re never short of a neighborhood hang with original music in it.

My recent trip was sponsored by Explore Louisiana North (www.explorelouisiananorth.org) and our PR “host with the most” Johnny Wessler had us visiting at least six landmarks per day. We don’t have enough room here to talk about everything, but if you wanted to add a trip to Northern Louisiana based out of Shreveport, the drive is 5 ½ hours and a distance of about 450 miles. We promise you will have enough to do and see without going to New Orleans, but the bad news is not too many cities have direct flights to Shreveport (we only know of Dallas and Atlanta and our route was from LaGuardia to Dallas and then took a quick hour-long flight to Shreveport).
Muffaletta at Noble Savage Tavern
I stayed at the fabulous Eldorado Hotel & Casino in Shreveport (www.eldoradoshreveport.com). The Queen rooms appear to be about 700 square feet with divine marble bathrooms (complete with jet tubs) the size of most Manhattan studio apartments. Breakfast is included in the price, which ranges from $100 to $200 per night and you are very close to great restaurants, and bars like the Noble Savage Tavern at 417 Texas Street (ww.myspace.com/noblesavagetavern). They are famous for the high quality of their shrimp dishes using shrimp caught locally, but their muffaletta is the piece de resistance and big enough to serve at least four! Original local talent is served up nightly and we caught the wonderful “alt folk” quartet Airheart while we were there.
James Burton and Anne Raso
The two “must see” musical history sites in Shreveport are just a five to ten minute drive from The Eldorado. The Shreveport Municipal Auditorium at 705 Elvis Presley Boulevard (was the musical home to Elvis for 18 months from 1954 to 1956 before he became a megastar (www.municipalauditorium.homestead.com) he performed there every Friday on the legendary Louisiana Hayride). The building is Louisiana’s top architectural example of art deco, and tours take you to Elvis’ dressing room (left pretty much intact), right on the stage (where tour guides will make you sing the Louisiana Hayride theme song) and then to the front and side lobbies where you will see some memorabilia from Elvis and his contemporaries. We were lucky enough to have the honor of meeting Elvis’ longtime guitar player, the incomparable James Burton at the auditorium—he’s got a bronze statue outside right next to the one of Elvis, as well as his own showcase of memorabilia in the auditorium’s front lobby.

Directly across the street at 714 Elvis Presley Boulevards is the James Burton’s Foundation and Studios (www.jamesburtonfoundation.org)—going here is like going like visiting a music history landmine. Burton has at least 250 of the 360-plus albums he played on as a session musician hanging up on the walls, and visitors get to see his memorabilia-lined offices and if they’re lucky, get to meet the man himself. His stories of being in both Ricky Nelson’s and Elvis’ bands are endless and amusing, and we’re happy to say that Burton seems like a “regular guy” who just happens to be a musician’s musician. All proceeds from items sold at the Foundation go to putting guitars in the hands of kids who want to play but can’t afford an axed; hundreds of kids have already gotten (with a little bit of help from Fender, who make Burton’s signature flame-detailed signature Telecaster). In the future, Burton will be opening a Cars And Guitars Museum.
Tex Ritter Statue
Also while visiting Shreveport, make the effort to drive over the nearby border of Texas to the Tex Ritter And Texas Country Hall Of Fame at 10 West Pamela Street in Carthage (www.carthagetexas.com/halloffame) to see wonderful memorabilia displays on the likes of Tex Ritter, Dale Rogers, Conway Twitty, Willie Nelson and more. The Nudie Rodeo Tailor stage clothes are enough to make this museum worth going to. It is run by the knowledgeable Tommie Ritter Smith, nice of Tex Ritter and a new star in inducted into the hall of fame each year with much fanfare.

While in Shreveport, you might also want to visit the Centenary College Choir, Radio and Music departments (www.centenarycollege.edu) at 2911 Centenary or visit the funky Cotton Boll Grill (see their Facebook fan page since they do not have an official site) at 1964 Airline Drive where you can catch local original music artists and to catch up on classic Creole food as well as BBQ. Techie fans that want to check out the latest in music and animation studio technology can check out the Blade Studios (www.bladestudios.com) and Moonbot Studios (www.moonbootstudios.com, both located at 2031 Kings Highway. Blade Studios is owned by Dave Matthews Band drummer Brady Blade and the Moonbot Studios are famous as being the creators of the Emmy-winning Roly Poly Oly animated series. Not far from there is the Leadbelly gravesite in the yard of the Shiloh Baptist Church (at 10395 Blanchard-Latex Road); famed rocker Robert Plant was a recent visitor.
Bonnie and Clyde Museum
Be sure to make the effort to take the 3 ½ hour trip to Ferriday, most well-known for being the home of rockabilly king Jerry Lee Lewis and on the way stop in Gibsland to take in the Bonnie & Clyde Ambush Museum at 2419 South Main (www.bonnieandclydemuseum.com) and see the monument “in the middle of nowhere” that marks their death site a few miles away (the staff will give you directions. To the granite marker in Bienville Parish eight miles away.)
Lewis House and Museum
Be sure to visit the Lewis House And Museum at 712 Louisiana Avenue (www.home.no/thelewismuseum/). Jerry Lee’s sister Frankie Jean Lewis Terrell lives there and Jerry Lee himself comes back and visits this house that he spent much of his adult life in. The drive through liquor store attached to the house is being renovated at the moment, but it’s gotten as much publicity as the museum which is literally filled with thousands of pieces of Jerry Lee memorabilia including the piano that Frankie Jean claims is the one used the afternoon the famous “Million Dollar Quarter” got together at Sun Studios in 1960. One of the bedroom closets features all six of the gowns worn by Jerry Lee’s brides plus the tiny bridal gown that Frankie Jean wore for her first marriage which she tells us took place when she was just 11 ¾. Frankie Jean is full of “truth is stranger than fiction” tales about her brother, and she does primitive art that is scattered in with the Jerry Lee memorabilia. This is a place I cannot recommend enough—it’s a rock and roll goldmine and Frankie Jean is one of the greatest “characters” you will ever meet in your life!
Delta Museum
Also in Ferriday is the wonderful Delta Music Museum (and it’s right around the bend from the Lewis House). Included are tributes to all of Louisiana’s biggest stars of country, blues and rock including Percy Sledge, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley, Percy Sledge and Conway Twitty. There are a couple of displays dedicated to non-musical personalities as well: Ann Boyar Warner (second wife of the movie mogul Jack Warner) and TV news commentator Howard K. Smith. (For more info on the museum, go to www.louisianatravel.com/delta-music-mueum.)
Jim Bowie Relay Station
While in the Ferriday area be sure to heck out the wonderful steaks and hush puppies at the Jim Bowie Relay Station at 3642 Highway 124 in Enterprise. The Relay Station includes some funky old buildings at the back of the property creating an “historical village” like a wooden shack full of pig curios called Uncle Earl’s Pig Palace). The restaurant and attached gift shop is full of (you guessed it) Bowie knives and campaign signs from around the state. (www.jimbowierelaystation.com.)

While in the Ferriday area, a great place to stay in the Comfort Suites at 100 Front Street in Vidalia because all the rear rooms have a close-up view of the Mississippi Bridge and rooms are about 700 square feet (standard rooms range from $150 to $200 per night and include breakfast, book at www.comfortsuites.com).
The Landing
You can fly out of the nearby Alexandra Airport (which looks more like an outlet mall than an airport) or drive back to Shreveport. On the way, be sure to drive through the classic Southern town of Natchitoches where Steel Magnolias was filmed. The famed house at 320 Jefferson Street is now a bed and breakfast simply called the Steel Magnolia House (www.steelmagnoliahouse.com) Our top culinary pick there is The Landing at 530 Front Street (www.thelandingrestaurantandbar.com) that has a huge “gourmet comfort food” spread for weekend brunch including seafood bar and carving tables for only $20 a head. We chatted with flamboyant former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards and his wife Trina while filling our plates, proving that the quality of the food is high enough for a native Louisianan who could eat anywhere they darn please!
Steel Magnolia House
Northern Louisiana is one of the friendliest places to visit, and we only touched on a few of the musical and other pop culture sites. For more info, we strongly suggest you check out explorelouisiananorth.org as well as Louisiana-tourism.com. If we had to sum up Northern Louisiana in one sentence, we would have to say that there are curiosities and good eats at every twist and turn!

[Photos: Anne M. Raso]

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