Family vacation to Nashville my favorite of all time

I don’t remember when the practice started, probably around the time my niece Josie turned 3, when she could more actively engage in our family outings and vacations. At the end of every one, she would ask each of us, “What was your favorite part of the day?”

Recently, after nine days and more than 1,700 miles together, driving to and from Nashville and Memphis for our family vacation, the rundown went like this:

My mom, a longtime Elvis Presley fan whose dream of seeing Graceland inspired the trip, checked off, as expected, our tour of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s home as her favorite memory.

I like Elvis, an appreciation passed on through osmosis as my mom’s been listening to him since she was a teen growing up in St. Lucia. But once I got over my giddiness at simply being in Graceland with her — really, it was hard for my brother Joachim and me not to be giddy the entire day seeing how happy she was — I couldn’t help but be impressed by how much he’d accomplished in his career. I had no idea he’d starred in 31 films or had more than 100 top 40 hits or that of the 14 Grammy nominations he’d received, his only three wins were for gospel recordings.

But I enjoyed even more gaining insight into his philanthropic and personal life, including raising more than $65,000 toward the construction of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. We heard snippets of his voice and recollections from wife Priscilla Presley and daughter Lisa Marie Presley as we traipsed through the boldly furnished rooms — some of them undeniably tacky by today’s standards — and toured the sprawling grounds before ending up at his graveside, where dozens of flowers, notes, mementos and more are still strewn in tribute to him and his parents.

Joachim and I agree sharing in my mom’s dream was one of the highlights of our trip.

But for him, the chance to record a song at Jack White’s studio, Third Man Records, on the outskirts of Nashville, was also a longing fulfilled. For $15, visitors get two minutes in a refurbished vintage Voice-o-Graph machine, which transfers whatever audio they record to a 6-inch phonograph disc. Armed with his guitar, and with all of us in tow, my brother arrived to the studio shaking and elated.

He was so excited, he missed the cue on his first take and had to do a second recording, which meant coming up with another spontaneous outpouring of lyrics.

Having taught himself to play the guitar, and with aspirations to one day take his inspirational poem-songs to the stage, the experience proved affirming — to know he could create his art in the moment lifted a weight he wasn’t aware he was carrying.

I do not play music or write songs, though I sometimes wish I could do both, but being in Nashville felt like drinking in creativity at every turn. The city invigorated me like few places I’ve been, with all its brassy allure — there is a reason it’s been dubbed “NashVegas” — easy geniality, countrified charm and fecund musicality. From the moment we arrived, exhausted and hungry after seven hours on the road (we broke the trip into two parts, overnighting in Roanoke, Virginia) to stumble into the Nashville Palace, I was captivated. I had no idea of the venue’s history in Music Valley, having been featured on TV shows and been home to many stars who performed on the radio broadcast “The Grand Ole Opry,” and I didn’t know what to expect.

But the minute the old-time country band started playing, I couldn’t stop smiling — and I’m not even a fan of country music! It was just enough to be there, with the gifted and earnest musicians onstage and the couples who took to the floor with their courtly, old-fashioned dancing. When my mom and I hit the Scoreboard Smokehouse — a bar just behind the Nashville Palace — the following night, we were treated to Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley covers from a man who’d just returned from touring as Cash with the musical “Million Dollar Quartet” and had written songs with artists like rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins.

With my family, I take in more music in one week than I do in an entire month in Philadelphia, from a bluegrass jam that feels like stepping back in time to an ASCAP Almost Famous rock showcase to a record-store performance by roots musician Cory Branan, on the same day he’s taped a segment for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

But it was our night at the Bluebird Cafe, the songwriter’s mecca, that stands out for me. My mom wanted to go to the Bluebird because she watches the TV show “Nashville,” where it’s regularly featured. But I’ve known about the venue, which has broken stars like Kathy Mattea and Garth Brooks, for years given my fascination with the process of writing songs and deep appreciation for a well-penned lyric. That night, we saw four up-and-coming songwriters in the round — a format launched by the Bluebird — and as I hung on their every note and listened to the stories that inspired their songs, the intimate space held a magic all its own.

Going to the Bluebird was not only my favorite part of our vacation but my sister-in-law Betsy’s, too, though it’s hard to discount how thrilled she was to find a T-shirt with the expression “Butter my butt and call me a biskit,” the very phrase she’d uttered when my mom first confirmed our trip.

As for Josie, she’s still a fan of passing endless hours in the pool anywhere we go. But the night we stood across from LP Field, on the banks of the Cumberland River in downtown Nashville, listening as songs and screams from the One Direction concert carried to us — never mind she’d just seen the concert in Philadelphia the night before we left — she was the picture of happiness.

We each came home with our favorite moment, but there was undeniable overlap. Watching Josie’s face light up on the waterfront, seeing my mom’s joy stepping off the bus at Graceland, knowing the high my brother experienced at Jack White’s studio, they all contributed to making Tennessee my favorite family vacation. During our first day of gallivanting downtown, my mom laughingly told me to calm down as I spun in all directions trying to take everything in. But I never really did. I woke up every day, excited to be there and grateful for a family that’s not only fun to travel with but whose company I immediately missed, even after all those hours on the road together, as soon as we went our separate ways upon returning home.

Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times