Regional Oddities: Bona Fide Day Trips to Arkansas & Alabama

One of the perks of living in Memphis is the proximity to so many charming and historic Southern towns for weekend adventures. Within a few hours’ drive you can be either in Mississippi eating Kool-ickles and gearing up to hear the best Hill Country Blues of your life; in the valleys of the gorgeous Arkansas Ozarks seeing a folk singer at a rustic barn show in a nature preserve; in East Tennessee drinking moonshine before riding a rollercoaster or in Alabama touring a grotto built by Monks, any of which can also include side quests to unassuming dairy bars, thrift shops, BBQ junts, drive-ins, regional oddities, and gas stations with spicy tater logs that you’ll be craving for months afterward.

One of my favorite recent day trips was a jaunt into the Arkansas Ozarks for the Meadowcreek Concerts in the Barn series. When I saw that poet and folk singer Willi Carlisle, who put out my favorite album of 2022, was playing a Saturday show in a barn on a nature preserve just a few hours away in my home state, there was no question that I had to go.

My boyfriend and I left Memphis mid-morning, and our first stop was just over an hour away at Kennon’s Dairy Bar in Wynne, Arkansas. With a menu that ranges from bologna sandwiches and cheeseburgers to Frito pies and bacon-wrapped Polish sausages, it’s a lowbrow cuisine lover’s dream restaurant. We got milkshakes and tater tots, perusing the bulletin board for upcoming events while we waited, which included a weekly country dance that I made a mental note to check out later.

After acquiring the necessary fuel for a rural Arkansas road trip (sugar, grease, salt, caffeine), we choogled on for a scenic loop through the Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge, where depending on the season, you may see some of the hundreds of species of wildlife and birds that either live there or pass through the area during migration, including shorebirds, ducks, geese and even Bald Eagles. Like most people, the pandemic spurred new hobbies for us, one of which was birding – basically Pokemon GO but with real life creatures. On this trip we were on the lookout for a rarity, Roseate Spoonbills that had landed outside of their typical migration range. After creeping along the gravel roads of the refuge, hanging out the windows with binoculars and driving extra slow so as to not be a disturbance to any plants or wildlife, we spotted them! We updated our eBird logs, tried to identify some hawks in the distance, and then headed off for our next stop–lunch and people- watching at The Bulldog in Bald Knob. I’m a sucker for diners and tater tots, and Jeremy will try any barbeque he encounters, so this checked both our boxes.

After lunch, downtown Heber Springs was a good spot to look for coffee and stretch our legs. The Gem Theater is an adorable twin cinema that looks straight out of a Wes Anderson film if you need to take some travel selfies in a quiet, rural downtown.

We arrived in Fox about an hour later with time to kill, so we drove around until we found Brad and Dad’s Drive-in, a tiny diner in nearby Timbo, Arkansas, complete with wood-paneled walls and a camo decorated menu that’s made up of about 99% fried foods. Am I saying you need to have tater tots for every meal on this trip? No. Am I saying you can find perfectly fried and salted tots at every stop along this route? Absolutely.

Finally, it was time to head to Meadowcreek for the barn show. Meadowcreek is a not-for-profit located in a privately owned, protected 1600 acre nature preserve in a valley of the Ozarks near the unincorporated community of Fox, Arkansas, whose population is a quaint 237. Named after the creek that flows through the three- mile long valley, Meadowcreek develops land-based artist spaces and rural development projects, and as part of that mission hosts intimate concerts in a large barn on the property that used to house a horse rescue operation.

The Concerts in the Barn series event listing on Facebook has detailed instructions for city-folk unaccustomed to the rules of country driving (which we didn’t need – we both grew up driving on gravel in Arkansas), such as “Don’t go over 15 mph,” and “Wave with one finger or two,” and offers attendees who utilize the primitive camping area across from the barn access to the beloved Meadowcreek swimming holes. You really have to drive several miles down into the valley, so if you aren’t comfortable driving on gravel or navigating without GPS, this is a road trip where you should hit up your pal with the thickest southern drawl and/or most camping gear to accompany you. We encountered several country dogs running alongside the car, and a few ATVs, but we arrived with no problems using the directions posted. A nice Meadowcreek resident or volunteer took our money and instructed us to park in a large field where other attendees were already getting coolers, lawn chairs and mosquito spray out of their vehicles. The crowd was small, but the barn felt full, and the Ozark Old Time Fiddlers Association was there with a merch table. The barn truly felt like a magical space, with beautiful acoustics and homey string lights strung through the cathedral-like wood beams, and the Meadowcreek residents and neighbors were warm and welcoming. I’ve seen Willi Carlisle play in Memphis and Fayetteville, solo and with a band, at the Crosstown Green Room and at George’s Majestic Lounge in front of hundreds, and I can confidently say there’s no better place to see a folk singer play than at a BYOB show in a rustic barn, six miles down a narrow gravel road into an Ozark valley with no cell signal. If you search “Willi Carlisle Meadowcreek” you can see a YouTube video from this show of “Peculiar, Missouri,” the title track of his latest album. I will say, please don’t go to these special, intimate events if you plan to chat through it like it’s a 1am Memphis bar show – I have a feeling you’d be heading home quick with a tucked tail and hurt feelings.

We drove back that night, despite having offers from kind old friends and new Meadowcreek acquaintances willing to put us up in various cabins and converted buses, and going home on those dark and winding mountain roads with no tater tot stops was a different and more dangerous beast than the lackadaisical meandering that got us there. Next time we’ll definitely take a tent and stay the night next to the barn.

Tots and cheese sticks from Brad and Dad’s Drive-in in Timbo, AR

Another fun road trip full of southern culture and charm you can do in a day is a loop through Alabama to see Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and/or Fame Recording Studio, the Frank Lloyd Wright Rosenbaum House, Ave Marie Grotto and the Coon Dog Cemetery. We recently did this round during a trip to Birmingham, which you could also include if you had an extra day! On our trip we toured Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and standing in that tiny carpeted studio and hearing stories from the incredibly knowledgeable tour guide about The Swampers and the artists who recorded there (Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, The Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Bob Seger, Bob Dylan!) that had such a massive influence across multiple genres of music worldwide was a mind-boggling experience. Whether you’re a fan of R&B, country, rock, it doesn’t matter – this studio touched it and helped create
it. Fans of Sun Records and Stax Records tours should especially make the pilgrimage – it’s only 2.5 hours away and well worth the experience!

Across the river in Florence, Alabama, the Frank Lloyd Wright Rosenbaum House offers guided tours. When we arrived, they had just started a 45 minute tour so it would have been a wait, and honestly another guided tour would have been a stretch for my attention span anyway, so we wandered around the outside area of the house for some photos while we read the wiki page, then stopped by the Shoals Theater to ogle the unique marquee sign and get coffee from a nearby cafe. Next, we headed to Wildwood Tavern for pizza, beer and pinball. Who doesn’t love a tavern? There was also an impressive Betty White mural in the alley across the street, and after leaving we found Antiques Unlimited—a huge, two story thrift shop with records, Pyrex, weird moose paintings, and all the other dusty collectibles that make my heart flutter.

Our next stop, the Ave Marie Grotto in Cullman, Alabama, is about 69 miles from Muscle Shoals, and something that lovers of Memphis’ Crystal Shrine Grotto and outsider art have to experience in person. Photos can’t do it justice. Built in Alabama’s only monastery, the St. Bernard Abbey, by a Benedictine monk, the grotto is a two block pathway that winds through hundreds of meticulously hand-constructed, miniature versions of buildings and worlds in a park-like setting. The miniatures were built from costume jewelry, ceramic tile, seashells, marbles, and rocks by Brother Joseph Zoettl starting in 1912, and by 1934 were attracting so many visitors they were moved to the present site. Most of the buildings
he had only read about, and he built them based on descriptions and photos from books out of scrap materials that he found or that were donated for the cause. It’s a self-guided tour, so you can spend as long as you’d like marveling at the tiny sculptures and the huge impact they have when collected into a permanent outdoor exhibit. While we toured, a friendly Abbey cat accompanied us, and as we left, we bought a “Monk’s Ration” of white bread and fresh Pfeffernusse cookies baked by the monks from the large gift shop, which also features rocking chairs and other woodworks made by Abbey residents.

On your way back to Memphis, you can stop back in the Muscle Shoals area if you missed anything, or if you just need some Champy’s Fried Chicken. Make sure to screenshot directions to the Coon Dog Cemetery in Cherokee, Alabama, just in case you lose signal going up the mountain. Started in 1937 when Key Underwood buried his beloved hunting dog, Troop, in their favorite hunting spot, the cemetery is now the resting place of more than 300 dogs – each and every one a certified Coon Hound that has passed a list of entry requirements more lengthy than what I submitted to get into college, including up to three letters of reference from witnesses who have seen the dog in question actually tree a raccoon. As a lifelong dog obsessive and an enthusiast of a particular breed myself (although pug cemetery qualifications would probably involve things like “must have begged for snacks at least 6 hours of each day and suffered 2 scratched corneas during their lifetime”), the cemetery feels both sacred and celebratory. Upkept better than most human cemeteries I’ve visited, each gravesite has some kind of adornment, with flowers or flags adding pops of color throughout the otherwise greens and browns of the natural wooded area. There’s a small pavilion, a few signs explaining the origins, and rows upon rows of wooden or granite gravestones, both humble and elaborate, with the names of the good boys and girls who passed the stringent entry requirements for a final resting place where their earthly hunting prowess and loyalty will always be venerated. There were no other people when we visited, but you could hear hunters’ gunshots in the distance.

Coon Dog Cemetery in Cherokee, AL

When you’re finished paying your respects and making note of all the quintessentially Coon Hound names (Bobo, Mustang Sally), I suggest blaring Tyler Childers’ “Can I Take my Hounds to Heaven” with the windows down while you head down the mountain wiping tears from your eyes, then stopping at the first gas station you see that looks like it may have spicy tater logs. You’ll need some salty carbs for the rest of the ride home.