On a crisp Sunday morning, Greeneville TN is a small town straight from a Hollywood backlot. The red-brick-and-white churches and courthouse gleam in the November sun, and the only movement is a flutter of the Stars & Stripes and a rustle of russet leaves. Nothing’s open on main street.
The lull comes after the first show of the tour, a homecoming triumph for Greeneville girl Sara. The gig, and the brunch her family laid on for us beforehand (squash casserole, biscuits and gravy, sweet potato pie) are a mighty fine advertisement for Tennessean hospitality. For Sara, the day is presumably one of those dreams in which you’re suddenly in a room with everyone you’ve ever met.
The Southern welcome continues at the grand and supposedly haunted General Morgan Inn, our berth for the night and the only watering hole in town. As Tim (three syllables: Ti-ah-um) the barkeep fixes me an Old Fashioned, I chat to a PhD student specialising in the history of alcohol in America. Her thesis is that the Civil War changed everything, as it did with so much of American life – hard times making tangible reality out of the Temperance movement’s warnings on the demon drink. I’m surprised to find the Civil War still writ large on Greeneville, from the cannonball lodged in a church wall to the plaques marking a house that served as a refuge for both Union and Confederate soldiers. The town is apparently unique in having monuments to the fallen from both sides.
I sleep untroubled by the ghosts of jetlag or General Morgan.
Driving from Knoxville down to North Carolina, I wonder if those Temperance squares didn’t have a point. The Smoky Mountains are ravishing in their best fall frocks, but I’m fogged by an ugly hangover. The great group Chanticleer were in attendance at our Knoxville show, which called for a drink (everything on tour calls for a drink, which is one reason I didn’t touch the stuff last month). What began as wholesome fun – barbershop tags over plates of barbecue, making Chanticleer’s moustachioed bass-monster Eric sing Woofer charts – spirals, for me, into Chartreuse shots and deep dissections of Beach Boys rarities with Tennessee’s most beautiful mixologist, watched over by this terrifying picture.
He’s not impressed by my antics, and quite right too.
There’s a frisson to be had from some of this country’s more gruesome roadside dining options. I’m delighted and appalled by Sheetz (sheetz of what is unclear), in which almost every menu item is garnished with a final Z. Almost but not quite: so you get to choose from a range of “Smoothies and Coffeez”. The sign on the door says something to the effect of “Open 24/7, like your mouth”. This saddens me.
As we wait for our flight at Raleigh-Durham airport, an announcement comes on the tannoy: a US soldier’s body is being transported home on our flight, and an honour guard will see the coffin onto the plane. A crowd quickly gathers at the windows to watch, and in the air there’s that odd admixture of reverence and voyeurism as we look down at a flag-painted container with a little strapline about honouring our fallen heroes. I think about the graphic designer who got that commission, and how commonplace it makes the whole thing look. Those plaques and statues in Greeneville don’t seem so quaint in retrospect.
Before there’s anything to see, the gate opens for Chicago and we’re back to fiddling with boarding passes and jostling for position in the queue.
When we land, the guy across the aisle starts tunelessly whistling the song about that toddlin’ town. Chicago is one of those cities with its own full-grown mythology, and I’m jazzed to be here under any circumstances, but after two days of working with the Chicago Children’s Choir I’m inspired. The choir is a fabulous institution, born out of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s, bringing together children from all over the city and every kind of background to work hard and make music together. The kids have a great sound, an even better attitude, and it’s a blast singing with them to an audience full of proud parents.
The day after, we sing a lunchtime set at the offices of Leo Burnett, one of the big players in advertising. It’s the kind of pulsefingered tastemaking place where the account managers casually have multi-million-subscriber YouTube channels on the side. Which entitles anyone working there to be too cool for school, but the room is full and warmly attentive (the woman on reception even tells us she sang one of our fugue arrangements in high school) and we sing our little hearts out.
In between, I look at the misty skyline through the Cloud Gate, better known as the Bean, take in some O’Keeffes at the Art Institute, and am treated by our Children’s Choir hosts to one of those dinners. You know, the ones over whose memory you’ll weep for years to come. GT Fish & Oyster is the perfect balance of unstuffy but seriously foodie. The eponymous oysters (all eager for the treat), clam chowder, scallop carpaccio, squash gnocchi with chanterelles, the most beautifully presented salted caramel creation you’ll ever see.
I’m still whistling.