2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray: Muscle Shoals and Memphis Soul
October 21, 2013
Light rain is falling this morning in Nashville. Guess the Stingray is getting wet today.
Sleepy surf troubadour Jack Johnson's tour buses are parked outside our hotel, so we pull the Corvette in front for some photos in the drizzle, then set a destination for Alabama in the nav system. I've convinced Kurt to make a 65-mile detour between here and Memphis to let me geek on a couple of legendary recording studios: Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and Fame. I promise great photo backgrounds.
These two studios birthed the "Muscle Shoals sound," a different take on 1960s-'70s Southern soul music than what came from neighbors to the north in Memphis. Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Stones, and Bob Dylan were among hundreds of artists who came to work with a small group of mostly white musicians, steeped in soul and R&B, who formed the studio house bands. It's easy to forget that in Civil Rights-era Alabama, this kind of artistic integration could yield heavy consequences.
We stop at the original Muscle Shoals Sound Studios building first. The studio moved to a larger facility in 1978 before changing hands and names, but the decrepit brown building still stands, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We have to drive around the back and up on the scrubby lot to get the Corvette in photo position. The Stones recorded "Brown Sugar" here, but the Vette has a better connection with Detroit son Bob Seger, whose backseat classic "Night Moves" also went down here.
We also hit Fame Recording Studios just a couple of miles up the road for a photo op. Fame isn't as photogenic, just a fairly non-descript building next to a CVS drugstore, but it's got the same mojo. The Muscle Shoals Sound, and the musicians who created it, all started here.
Back on the road, we head northwest on Highway 72, crossing briefly through Mississippi, now again back into Tennessee. We make our first fuel stop about 30 minutes before Memphis, and a young guy working at the station, Marcus, can't believe he's seeing the new Corvette and out comes the smartphone. Marcus says he's a Chevy guy and points to his Cavalier parked in front of the mini-mart. Says he might do some work to the engine, maybe boost it.
Kurt resists the urge to shake some sense into the kid ("save your money to modify a better car!"), but realizes we all need to make our own mistakes in the pursuit of speed. But Marcus is great and his enthusiasm for the Corvette is infectious. Even we get psyched on the car all over again.
We've covered 362 miles so far and averaged 19.6 mpg on the first tank. The Stingray takes 16.8 gallons of 93 octane and as we pull out of the station, Marcus warns us of a speed trap a few miles ahead.
Nearing Memphis, we head to Payne's Bar-B-Q, one of three lunch places our Nashville bar friend suggested. The nav system has done a commendable job getting us in and through rural Alabama, but its processing delay is frustrating. Each input, each number and letter, must be slow, firm and deliberate. Our long-term Cadillac ATS is also like this, and it's a reminder that GM needs to find a supplier with a better grip on smartphone and tablet interfaces. At least the graphics are crisp and clear.
The navi leads us along Lamar Avenue to where Payne's has operated for 41 years as a family-run business. We park in front of what we think is a window, but it's hard to tell behind a concrete facade that I assume helps diffuse the midday sun. Before we're out of the car, the Stingray has a new fan and out comes a smartphone.
Even in the late afternoon, Payne's is dim inside. This place would fail any Los Angeles County health inspector's standards, more a large home kitchen than a restaurant. Two refrigerators sit side by side and a pot of beans cooks on a single four-burner range. Kurt notes that the high ceilings look like a converted bank.
But the food lives up to our friend's hype, just delicious home cooking with tangy sauces and slow-cooking techniques refined over a couple of generations. Today, the founder's granddaughter and grandson run the place. Kurt and I sit and eat, but most people order a smoked sausage or sandwich to go. An older lady waiting for her order asks us about the car and compliments the color.
A black C5 Corvette pulls up as we walk back out to the lot. The driver, a fit, barrel-chested man gets out, excited, and makes a beeline for the Stingray. We open the doors and hood for him to check it out, and he says he may have to bypass the C6 he wants and instead wait for a used C7.
With the Corvette fully exposed, a crowd gathers. A few guys come over from the tire shop next door. An SUV pulls up along the sidewalk and a few people pour out. Everyone's popping photos on smartphones. I'm convinced ours is now the most widely photographed C7 on the road. Chevy's marketing people couldn't orchestrate this any better.
With his track pants and Iowa State t-shirt, the C5 owner looks like a high school football coach. He says he's a Memphis motorcycle cop. Then he asks, "How you boys find this place?" I tell him that a Memphis local we met in Nashville recommended it. He nods and agrees that Payne's is the best barbecue in town. Then he leans in close and asks "You boys know you're in the 'hood, right?"
I say we had a pretty good idea while driving up Lamar, but nothing that looked much different from some of L.A.'s areas. He says that we're indeed in the real 'hood and just warns not to get too comfortable with our new friends, lest we end up with a gun in our back and taking a bus back to Los Angeles. We notice that the rest of the crowd gives this man a wide berth when he circles the Corvette.
Duly noted, we pack up when our cop friend disappears into Payne's. Kurt makes the Stingray squeal as he pulls back onto Lamar Avenue to some hoots and waves from the crowd still lingering in the parking lot. Later, Kurt posits that we may have received a very different welcome in, say, a 911. Instead, we pulled up in an exciting new Chevrolet which, judging by reaction, still earns plenty of respect in the real hood.
Dan Frio, Automotive Editor