FOR their latest collaboration the Hairy Bikers are on a culinary tour of America’s deep South, served with a side of rock ’n’ roll
The Hairy Bikers are in Nashville – a city whose very walls seem to vibrate with musical heritage – and they’re loving it.
Dave Myers, who is from Barrow-in-Furness, is sporting a fine pair of hand-tooled cowboy boots. He has just bought them on Nashville’s Broadway, which goes by the splendid nickname of The Honky Tonk Highway.
A gleeful look on his face, Myers rolls up his trousers to show off his new purchase. “Let’s face it,” laughs one half of the Bikers, “you can’t come to Nashville and not buy a pair of cowboy boots.” A beat. “But I’m going to look an idiot wearing these in Barrow-in-Furness, aren’t I?”
The line sums up the mixture of wit and warmth that has made the Hairy Bikers one of the most popular double acts on television. Since making their debut on BBC2 eight years ago with The Hairy Bikers’ Cookbook, the food-loving pair have produced such successful shows as The Hairy Bikers’ Food Tour of Britain, The Hairy Bakers, The Hairy Bikers: Mums Know Best, The Hairy Bikers’ Meals on Wheels, The Hairy Bikers’ Best of British, and The Hairy Bikers’ Bakeation.
Myers and his on screen partner Si King met more than 20 years ago when they were both working on a Catherine Cookson television adaptation in the north east of England – Myers was a make-up designer, King a locations manager. They immediately formed a firm friendship over a mutual love of curry and motorbikes – and that close bond remains to this day.
Their secret is that on TV they come across as your mates, a couple of really good blokes who would be tremendous fun on a night out. You imagine they would be a great laugh if you accompanied them for a pie and a pint. I have to say, that impression is not false.
King and Myers are in Nashville shooting their new series, The Hairy Bikers’ Mississippi Adventure. They characterise the show as “The ultimate food and music pilgrimage”.
During the course of the series, they cover more than 3000 miles on Harley Davidson motorbikes. Myers explains the choice of transport: “Harleys are part of the American dream. You can’t have an American road trip without sitting on a Harley. The first time I rode along the highway on a Harley in cruise control with a Hawaiian shirt on and all this music going through my head, it was quite an epiphany.”
King and Myers rev their engines through Memphis, New Orleans and Lafayette, as well as Nashville. Along the way, they tune in to different Deep South music genres, such as jazz, blues, cajun, bluegrass, country and western and rock ’n’ roll, and prepare the dishes that encapsulate each region.
King, who comes from Newcastle, where he lives with his partner Jane and three sons, outlines the connection between tunes and tucker. “Food and music are inextricably linked here because they both run through the soul of every community. Rock ’n’ roll has had a huge impact on food, and vice versa. American music and food cultures go hand-in-hand. It’s a match made in heaven.”
En route, the Bikers munch on such local delicacies as the Cajun speciality of deep-fried whole frog, which underscores the local dictum that, “As long as you can catch it, a Cajun will eat it.”
King and Myers also swelter over a hot stove making such mouth-watering local dishes as corn dogs, monkfish with sweet bourbon glaze, fried chicken with waffles, crayfish macaroni cheese, country ham with redeye gravy, peaches and cream milkshake, peach and blueberry cobbler and, of course, the inevitable Mississippi mud pie. The series plays to the Bikers’ strengths. It underlines that they are both first-class cooks and first-class company.
Back to Nashville, also known as “Music City USA”. This is a place where every waiter and taxi driver you bump into is a wannabe country and western superstar. Everywhere you turn in this party town, which is nicknamed “Nash Vegas”, you see posters celebrating such iconic artists as Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton and Roy Orbison. On one wall, a peeling handbill declares: “Hank Williams and his Drifting Cowboys. If the Good Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise … I’ll see you at the Grand Ole Opry.”
As King puts it, “Music is alive and well and living in Nashville. It’s not just put away in a box here – it’s everywhere. It’s in the rivers, the trees, the ether. It’s the life and soul of this place, the heartbeat of the city. And the standard of musicianship is just mind-blowing.”
Hitting his rhetorical stride, he continues, “The music from this area has been at the centre of an explosion of popular culture across the world. It didn’t just stay here – it’s influenced everyone all over the globe. We still feel its shockwaves today. None of pop music today would exist without that total explosion of creativity and that wonderful eclectic mixture of cultures.”
Forty-five-year-old King, who was a professional drummer in his teens and early twenties, adds, “All the tracks we grew up with, all those great common reference points come from here. Any art form is a product of its environment and its time. That’s why when the people here were undergoing such hardship they produced music that was so rich. It’s a great privilege to have access to it in this series.”
Today the Hairy Bikers have a chance to demonstrate their love of music. King and Myers are all shook up – hardly crediting that they are inside one of popular music’s holiest of holies, RCA’s legendary Studio B in Nashville.
They are stationed nervously behind the microphone in the very spot where Elvis Presley laid down more than 200 tracks. The unadorned room, in which an astonishing 35,000 songs have been recorded, must have witnessed myriad seminal musical moments down the years. Not for nothing is Studio B known as “The House of the Hit-Makers.”
Dolly Parton’s Jolene and I Will Always Love You, Roy Orbison’s Only the Lonely, Jim Reeves’ He’ll Have to Go and the Everly Brothers’ All I Have To Do Is Dream were all recorded in Studio B. This ostensibly insignificant one-storey building was converted into a museum the day after Presley’s death in 1977. Now it is the epicentre of Nashville’s celebrated “Music Row”, which encompasses more than 1700 recording studios.
During his 21 years with RCA Records, Presley recorded such timeless numbers as Are You Lonesome Tonight? (recorded in total darkness in just two takes at 4am), Stuck on You, Surrender, Little Sister and How Great Thou Art at Studio B. An outsized guitar by the entrance commemorates another of Elvis’s iconic songs, Heartbreak Hotel.
The Bikers are standing beside the Steinway grand piano where Elvis would warm up by performing old gospel numbers. A keen amateur musician, Myers is lost in reverence for this place. “It is such an honour to be here. I can’t resist standing where Elvis stood. Earlier, I indulged myself and sang a chorus of Heartbreak Hotel. I was living my mum’s dream. I just texted a friend I used to be in a band with to tell him I was in Nashville. He texted back, ‘Where did my career go wrong?’”
The duo clear their throats as they prepare to record their own song for posterity. With a grin, King goes on to introduce, “The song what we wrote.” The melodious pair then croon their own country and western composition, Up the Mississippi (Without a Paddle). The song is unlikely to trouble the charts, however, it contains the very apt line: “We’re just two good ol’ boys havin’ fun.”
The Bikers’ fun continues as they then roar off on their Harleys from Studio B to a picture postcard barn outside Nashville. There we are serenaded by Janis Oliver and Kristine Arnold, singing sisters who go by the stage name of The Sweethearts of the Rodeo.
After being treated to a number of glorious close harmony country numbers, the Bikers top off a memorable evening by making us a sumptuous Nashville feast of pulled pork, three-meat meatloaf, Mississippi mud pie and pecan and Jack Daniels biscuits. Any belts that have been bought on The Honky Tonk Highway soon have to be loosened.
Fifty-four-year-old Myers, who lives with his wife, Lily, and two stepchildren, says that through this new series the Bikers are hoping to change the image of American cooking in this country. “A lot of British people are prejudiced about US food. They imagine it’s all junk and of little value, but it’s not. America has a very rich culinary heritage, and the whole story flows down the Mississippi. It has freshness and imagination.
“There is a huge yum factor. Look at soul food. It’s so sinful, but when it’s right, there’s nothing better. You have to try this amazing food when you’re here. If you didn’t, it would be like going to a honky-tonk bar in Nashville and wearing earplugs.”
The hirsute pair have just completed another series, The Hairy Dieters: How to Love Food and Lose Weight. In this four-part BBC2 documentary, they attempted to deflate their spare tyres and lose three stone each.
Myers laughs that they had reached the stage where they were swapping blood-pressure pills rather than vodka bottles and jokes that the show could have been called Fat Blokes in Trouble.
He concedes the show was partially inspired by the fact that some critics’ comments were needling them. “We had been getting a bit fed up with being known as ‘the fat lads off the telly’. One critic saw me on a very slim and elegant Ducati motorbike and said I looked like a potbellied pig trying to mount an antelope.
“Inside, I thought I looked like the world motorcycling champion Valentino Rossi, but outside I obviously didn’t. That comment wasn’t hurtful – it made me laugh. And I knew it was true.”
He continues that, “We want to be able to enjoy eating pies, but to go on living while enjoying them. So the Mississippi mud pies are on temporary sabbatical.”
The pair confess to pining for certain things during the making of The Hairy Dieters. “I missed the social etiquette of alcohol,” sighs Myers. “That lovely pint when you finish work is so ingrained in what we do.” In the end, though, the Bikers set a great example to the most obese citizens in Europe; they succeeded in shedding three stone each.
Even though there is now considerably less of them, the Bikers are still in huge demand. They are currently making several more TV series, writing more cookery books and preparing for a live tour in the autumn.
Despite such success, however, they are anxious to stress that they will never take their popularity for granted. King says, “We never want to lose sight of the fact that we’re so lucky to be paid for doing something we love.”
Myers agrees. “The press have said that we are having far too good a time. But we think life is there for the living. If you get these opportunities and can share them with other people, it’s magic.”
In the past, the Bikers have said that they enjoy the closeness of brothers. Having met them many times over the past few years, I would judge that to be true. They are as tight off screen as on it.
According to King, “Our friendship precedes everything else. It’s about honesty. What’s important in our programmes is that we’re not actors. What you see on the screen is what you get off the screen. When we walk off the set, we’re no different. We rub along like two old slippers.” They’re entirely comfortable with each other and take the micky in a way that only really good friends can.
To prove the point, just before I take my leave, I ask them what they would like to do in the future. Myers laughs with unfeigned glee. “I’d love us to do panto.
“If anyone was born to sit at the top of a beanstalk and say, ‘Fe fi fo fum,’ it’s Kingy.”
• The Hairy Bikers’ Mississippi Adventure continues at 9pm tomorrow night on The Good Food Channel (Sky/HD 247, Virgin 260). Recipes from the series can be found at www.uktv.co.uk/HairyBikers
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