We were about an hour out of Nashville when a new sound made itself heard on the Tennessee Music Highway – the dull repetitive thud of a blown-out tyre.
Ninety minutes later and encamped behind the safety barrier on Interstate 40, I was waiting nervously for the repair man.
As the sun set, all sorts of things began to run through my mind. Were there bears? Snakes? Aliens? Corrupt cops? It was an American road trip after all. Surely something scary was going to happen, we’ve all seen those movies.
Reality turned out to be somewhat less exciting. A friendly traffic officer did check we were OK, our tyre was fixed, we continued our journey to Memphis, got a new rental car and lived happily ever after. No Hollywood drama in sight.
But the incident did highlight one thing – how surprisingly familiar Tennessee can be for a state that is far from the top of many tourists’ destination lists.
Going around it triggers what feels like a forgotten memory of an America you recognise from the movies.
It’s the state that became home to dozens of household name musicians – from Elvis and Dolly Parton to Jack White of the White Stripes. Not only does their music reflect the history and people of Tennessee, but their songs form a natural soundtrack to any visit.
Battles of both the Civil War and the later Civil Rights Movement were won and lost here, and one cannot fail to be moved by sacrifices made by those such as Martin Luther King.
Our trip began at Atlanta airport in neighbouring Georgia, where we rented a car and headed north to the majesty of the Smoky Mountains National Park.
We were fortunate to visit ‘the Smokies’ when the leaves were just turning autumnal red, but the view over the park is impressive at any time of year– just miles upon miles of undulating hills.
Next stop was Nashville. The Music City is home to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry, venues which hosted the likes of Johnny Cash, June Carter and Hank Williams.
Elvis’s gold piano, Carl Perkins’s famous blue suede shoes and Johnny Cash’s guitar are just some of the memorabilia on show at the Music Hall of Fame.
Today, music is as much a part of Nashville as ever, and Broadway is the place to go to catch some live tunes after hours.
And so to Memphis, heading south-west on the Music Highway, formally known as Interstate 40, where our tyre blew.
Nashville may be the home to country music but in Memphis they sing the blues. Perched on the banks of the Mississippi River, it’s a cultural and musical melting pot.
It’s a soulful and almost melancholic city, and nowhere is this more visible than at the Lorraine Motel, where civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968.
It’s now the National Civil Rights Museum, which charts the African-American struggle for human rights from before the Civil War until the present day.
Of course, no trip to Memphis would be complete without a visit to Elvis’s former abode, Graceland. The Sun Studio is another of Memphis’s music highlights.
Our road trip continued back east on Highway 64 to the state’s southern heartlands and the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg.
You can tour the distillery for free but don’t expect a sample – it’s a dry county.
· Natalie Marchant flew Delta direct to Atlanta, Georgia. Return direct flights are from around £470 including taxes (0871 221 1222 or visit delta.com).
· Car rental costs from £145 for a week booked online with Hertz (Hertz.co.uk) while stays at the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel, Nashville, start at £68 per night (millenniumhotels.com/millenniumnashville), and Holiday Inn Select Downtown Memphis, from £105 a night (holidayinn.com).
· Operators to Tennessee include Bon Voyage, which offers 7nts in March from £1,029, including flights into Memphis and ex-Nashville (indirect) from Heathrow, 4nts at Holiday Inn Downtown in Memphis, 3nts at Sheraton Downtown, Nashville, and one-day hire of full size Alamo car for Memphis-Nashville journey. Bon Voyage reservations: 0800 316 0194 and bon-voyage.co.uk.