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The Real Accent Project: USA Travel Blogs

Texas, Oklahoma, Nashville & Chicago

Day 1: London to Dallas
We pour ourselves onto the plane, literally. It’s been a manic few weeks: making some major changes to the app’s design and function, testing of the beta version with a group of actors, launching a brand new associated website and organising/setting up our third US trip. We’ve pulled a few all-nighters (including the night before the flight) but we’re feeling fairly pleased with all we’ve achieved. We end up talking ‘app business’ for most of the journey: clearly an adrenalin rush. Perhaps exhaustion enhances creativity.

There are twelve busy days ahead of us in Dallas, Oklahoma City, Nashville and Chicago. We’ve lined up recording appointments in all but Oklahoma City so we’re crossing our fingers that something extraordinary will turn up in the wash. We seem less fraught about this than on previous trips because we’ve always managed to find what we want in the end. Fingers and toes crossed.

On arrival, we pick up our hire car and head towards the familiar city skyline, which prompts a number of musical renditions of the ‘Dallas’ theme tune. Forgive us, we are tired.

Day 2: Dallas to Fort Worth (and back again)
Deanna, our first recording appointment, works at a packaging company in an industrial area just outside of Fort Worth (about 35 miles from Dallas). She’s taking an early (long) lunch so we can record in her office. We found Deanna through Rhonda Musak and her friend Tiffany in New York. Rhonda provided us with invaluable help on our last US trip, through twitter, which has been an incredible resource for all our trips to date.

We negotiate the roads successfully and find Deanna without too much trouble. She has a lovely, warm accent which is just what we need for the app. To give you some idea, Siri on iPhone refuses to recognise what she’s saying so she’s had to give up using it. We fall back easily into the routine we developed on the last recording trip. Gavin sets up the equipment while I chat with the subject to warm up/relax their accent and glean information for questions later on in the speech sample section. It’s an important part of the process otherwise there can be some tension throughout the reading section, particularly if there are unfamiliar words/phrases. Deanna moves through everything easily and we enjoy talking to her about work, life and family.

There’s a quick drive to the centre of Fort Worth for a late lunch after the recording session. As we’re looking for somewhere to eat we notice the Sid Richardson Museum and pop in to take a look. Actually, I noticed some Texan-style Christmas tree decorations in the museum shop window that I thought my eight year old son would like (cowboy hat, cowboy boots and cow skull). Inside we discover a fantastic exhibition of late nineteenth century/early twentieth century western paintings and sculptures. While I’m buying the decorations, the ladies at the front desk become interested in our project. One of them insists on us meeting Teresa, a cowgirl poet, who runs the Fort Worth Stockyards Museum and ‘sends’ us over there. We manage to squeeze in a quick (and it turns out later, dodgy) lunch before driving out to the Stockyards on the edge of town, which is classified as a National Historic District for the livestock industry in Texas. Teresa is charming and has already received a text about us from her friend at the Sid Richardson Museum. She agrees to record for us the following day and may bring another friend as well, Kristyn, who’s a cowgirl musician. It’ll make the recording sessions tight as we also have an appointment set up for tomorrow. Usually we like to do two recordings per day (just in case they need time) but this is too good an opportunity to miss. Teresa gives us a CD recording of her poetry, which we listen to in the car on the way back, giving us ideas for questions we might ask her during the speech sample section.

Day 3: Dallas to Fort Worth (and back again)
And back to Fort Worth. And back to the Stockyards. Teresa, true to her word, brings Kristyn, as well as another cowgirl musician, Devon. Even better, they’ve brought their guitars. Devon was the singing voice of Jessie the cowgirl doll on the Toy Story 2 CD, Woody’s Roundup. Once we’re through the bulk of the recordings with Teresa and Kristyn, all three sing for us. I’ve never been into this style of music before but I just love their ‘Western Yodel Swing’ which made it to the top of the Western music charts.

It’s a rush to get to Bill at the other side of Fort Worth but we make it. This appointment was set up by Rhonda and Tiffany as well. His accent is perfect and we love hearing about his experiences in the military as well as his passion for movies. Only a slight problem with his curious cat, who decides it might be nice to sit on some of the recording equipment at key moments.

We now have four Texan accents in the bag, much more than we expected and a great start to our trip. The only downside is that I picked up some food poisoning from our Fort Worth lunch the day before. Recording sessions and an upset, gurgling stomach just don’t go together.

Day 4: Dallas
We timed this trip to coincide with the Texas State Fair, where people from all over the state travel into Dallas. Now that we have more than we need recording-wise we decide to use our time at the fair for accent research. The fairgrounds seem to go on forever, presided over by a massive cowboy mascot called Big Tex. We start by hanging around the cattle sheds and watching some of the judged competitions. As expected, there’s a range of accents to listen to and learn from – perfect – plus we pick up a little bit of knowledge about cattle judging (actually that last bit is a lie, we’re absolutely clueless).

Other highlights at the fair include giant pumpkin carving and the world’s largest butter sculpture. Sadly, we were a little late for the hog racing, which sounds hilarious. Also a shame my stomach is in a nasty state or we could have tried out a few rides.

Afterwards we do a quick trip into Dallas proper to see the JFK memorial and the Texas School Book Depository where Lee Harvey Oswald ‘supposedly’ fired his shots. We’re not quite sure about the memorial, which seems to be two very large concrete blocks. Perhaps there’s inner meaning to it that we missed.

Day 5: Dallas to Oklahoma City
It’s a very, very early flight to Oklahoma City. We’re only staying one night so need to make the most of our time, particularly since we don’t have any actual recording appointments set up. We contacted an extraordinary amount of organisations, retail outlets, museums and tourist offices but nothing useful came from any of them. We head for Stockyards City, where we hope to find some locals with strong regional accents. There are a number of shops selling cowboy gear and, amazingly enough, we hit the jackpot in the first one we enter. The girl behind the counter points us in the direction of National Saddlery across the road. It’s a shop that sells Western-style clothing, leather goods, furniture, artwork and jewellery but also everything a cowboy/cowgirl could ever need, including saddles and ropes. We find nineteen year old Jessy working behind the counter, who says he’d be happy to record for us. Jessy is from a Native American family who live north of Oklahoma City. Not only that but we’re able to organise for nineteen year old Jessica to record for us as well. Both are scheduled for the following morning at the shop. In the meantime, Jessy invites us to a roping party that afternoon/evening in honour of his father’s birthday. We hesitate because it might mean crashing a family event but Jessy insists we should come. Of course, we don’t actually know what a roping party is but we feel it might involve horses, cows and a lasso or two.

So it’s a race back to the airport to hire a car so we can get to the party. For some reason we’re given a very dodgy Sat Nav but Jessy comes to our rescue and we follow him to the family property. There, we are welcomed with open arms by Luke and Jennifer, Jessy’s parents. While Jessy and his friends ‘rope’ all afternoon and evening until the light goes, we sit and talk with family and friends (although Gavin does make it onto a horse at one point). Luke tells us all about his tribe, the Kiowa, and how they ended up in Oklahoma. He gives us a CD of traditional music produced by one of his cousins and a map of Native American tribes across the country. Extraordinary generosity. We came to his birthday yet we were the ones who left with gifts.

Day 6: Oklahoma City to Nashville
In the morning, we record Jessy and Jessica at National Saddlery. Jessy talks us through roping, some cowboy ambitions and his Native American roots. Jessica tells us all about her triumphs as a barrel racer and how she won a first prize buckle at a competition yesterday. Sound levels prove a challenge however, with so much activity going on in the shop.

Before flying off we have time for a quick detour to the memorial that honours the victims, survivors and rescuers of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995. It’s a tranquil and beautiful space, designed with great care.

Oklahoma City has been an amazing adventure and we feel incredibly lucky for it to have worked out so well (and easily). Now it’s time for a flight to Nashville, the home of country music.

Day 7: Nashville
Our time in Nashville is spent nodding wisely every time a country music ‘star’ is mentioned. By the time we leave, our performance is near perfect. Yep, we know nothing about Nashville’s biggest industry (but don’t tell anyone).

We have two recordings lined up in Nashville for today. I was extraordinarily lucky to find Alex through the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. She in turn put a call out on Facebook and that led us to Zack, who works in government for the State of Tennessee.

They’re both coming to us at the hotel, which isn’t far away from their workplaces. We decide to record in Gavin’s room, which is much larger and quieter than mine (guess that’s payback for having the larger room in New Orleans). Alex is first and once she relaxes, her natural accent shines. However, we have a problem with the air conditioning which keeps turning on loudly, which means long pauses in between ‘takes’ before the hotel engineer can get to us. Finally it’s sorted and she tells us about work, home, family and how Patsy Cline’s plane crashed on her grandparents’ land.

Zack has a wonderful accent as well. Of course we can’t talk about his work as much, given that it’s in government but he’s a sports fanatic and his passion is infectious. Since we’re interested in history, he wants to show us around the State Capitol Building. We accept eagerly and make an appointment for the following day.

Day 8: Nashville
There’s a little bit of time before our appointment so we drop into the Nashville Public Library to take in a small but important exhibition about the city’s civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Apparently Nashville was the first southern city to desegregate public services and the exhibition tells the story of the men and women who made it happen. There’s a fascinating series of videos: my favourite was an activist class, where college students improvise what might happen during a restaurant sit-in. It’s a powerful and disturbing set of scenarios.

Then we’re off to meet Zack at the State Capital Building. It’s a real privilege to be taken behind the scenes. We visit the Governor’s Office, meet the Secretary of State and waft around the House of Representatives and Senate. Hard to believe we were at a roping party and hanging out with cowboys in Oklahoma only a few days before.

Finally time to take in some music on Broadway, where there’s live music playing 24/7. We decide on a small bar with a Bluegrass band (vocals pushed up hard through the roof of the mouth to the nose, giving it a distinctive ‘twang’). Gavin samples the local moonshine.

Day 9: Nashville to Chicago
It’s time to leave Nashville. We’ve been amazed at the range of things to do and see here, even if you’re not into country music. Such a shame that we weren’t able to visit more of the historical places related to the Civil War though. Still, it’s easy to feel excited about visiting Chicago.

Something else positive: finally, I think the bout of food poisoning from Fort Worth is over. Six days of illness while on the road hasn’t been much fun. In the last App Travel Blogs I wrote about all the wonderful food we experienced. This trip has been about NOT eating for me. So, now that I’m feeling better, I’m looking forward to a few good restaurants in Chicago.

The flight is relatively easy but it takes us hours in traffic on an airport shuttle to get to the hotel. And it’s freezing, quite a few degrees below the monthly average and what we expected. We didn’t bring coats so need to invest in some winter clothes to carry us through the final days of our trip.

Day 10: Chicago
We gravitate towards Michigan Ave for shopping. I’m wearing seven layers of clothing and I’m still cold. A woman in a shop suggests I try something on. She must be joking; it’ll take me hours to get out of everything I have on.

It’s an interesting mix of accents in the downtown area. Putting the tourists to one side, most of the white locals are closer to General American, while most of the black locals use AAVE (African American Vernacular English). However, despite assurances from most people that a distinctive Chicago accent is dying out, I can still hear vowels associated with the Northern Cities Vowel Shift (meaning vowels associated with the dialect region of the Inland North) in those who claim they’re speaking a ‘standard’ accent.

In the early evening, we make a last minute decision to see a play: Noah Haidle’s Smokefall at the Goodman Theatre. I’m a huge fan of his writing and have included some excerpts from his early plays in my duologue book. Interestingly enough, Haidle is from Michigan and Smokefall is set in the Midwest. It’s a fantastic piece of writing: a contemporary (and slightly surreal) take on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. In fact, an early Variety review stated ‘If Thornton Wilder had dropped acid then he might have written Smokefall.’ Not only that but we love the Goodman: we only pay $12.00 each for fantastic seats, chat to the friendliest of staff and volunteer ushers plus there’s the fabulous Petterino’s attached next door. I wish the Goodman could immigrate to London.

Day 11: Chicago
Chicago recording day. If you remember, Rhonda in New York was incredibly helpful in finding us people in Texas. For Chicago she’s volunteered her family. Can’t get more helpful than that. We’re off to record her father, Walter, and sister, Amy. We’ll be working at Amy’s house in the Lakeview neighbourhood, while her mother looks after the children.

Walter has a textbook old school South Chicago accent. Plus he’s a wonderful storyteller so words and accent draw us in. We hear some emotional as well as humorous anecdotes, associated with his working life as a retired x-ray technologist.

Amy’s accent is a younger, professional Chicago accent with unmistakable vowels from the Inland North dialect region but with more general/standard consonants. We’re endlessly fascinated by her job as an interior designer for the hospitality industry. She talks us through the process of designing a hotel room which is much more complicated than we could ever have imagined.

Amy and Walter (Chicago)

Day 12: Chicago to London
It’s the last day so we take a little bit of time for sightseeing: the Bean (more officially known as Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate), the Art Institute of Chicago and Navy Pier. Then it’s time to pour ourselves back onto the plane to London.

Although the accents we’ve collected on this trip won’t be available on the app for a while, we need to hit the ground running on our return. Editing and processing the sound files takes time plus we need to launch the first stage of the app as soon as we can.

We’re sad to leave as this is our third and last US accent collecting trip. There are a couple of accents I’d love to add to the collection but they’ll have to wait. In the meantime, roll on England Trip 1.

Final Thoughts

Special thanks to our volunteers who gave of their time (and accents) so willingly: Deanna, Teresa, Kristyn, Bill, Jessy, Jessica, Alex, Zack, Walter and Amy. However, we couldn’t have found them without the help of: Rhonda Musak (Art & Soul Acting), Tiffany Hodges, Deborah Carl (Sid Richardson Museum), Jo Slama (National Saddlery, Oklahoma City) and Lindsay Chambers (Nashville Chamber of Commerce). Grateful, grateful thanks.