Memphis: Visit One of Music's Melting Pots - Blues, Country & Soul Keep on Rockin'
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Heading up the Mississippi from New Orleans takes you along the western edge of an area touted as the Americana Music Triangle. A “can’t miss” stop is Memphis, Tennessee, if not the place where the blues were born, then a locale where they flourished and began reaching broader audiences.
The story goes that Memphis had a mayor from 1909 to 1915 names E.H. Crump. William Christopher “W.C.” Handy, born near Muscle Shoals, Alabama, was hired to write a campaign song for Crump. He did, but then tweaked that song in 1912, changing the words and renaming it “Memphis Blues,” reportedly the first blues song ever published in America. Handy is known as the “Father of the Blues,” having famously written the “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues."
Beale Street was always music central in Memphis, home to several clubs where you could hear the best players. It still is the downtown music hub, home to many iconic clubs and some great barbecue joints.
A music-oriented tour of Memphis – in just a day and a half, can go something like this:
Get into town early and head to Sun Studio at 706 Union Avenue, the place where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Roy Orbison and more got their start. This tiny studio where Sam Phillips helped create rock and roll has incredible history. Take the 45-minute guided tour. If you’re lucky, your tour guide might haul out a battle-worn acoustic guitar and reveal Johnny Cash’s secret way of muffling the strings. The studio's upstairs has wonderful exhibits with important artifacts. The studio is open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The tour is $14 for adults, $12 for students and free to kids ages 5-11. Sun Studio returns to a recording studio at night, letting anyone reserve some time and lay something on “tape” at $200/hour.
From Sun Studio, head a little further south and visit the 17,000-square-foot Stax Museum of American Soul Music at 926 E. McLemore Ave. The actual Stax Records studio was demolished in the 1970’s after the label went bankrupt. The museum pays homage to legendary artists who created hits there, people like Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding. Booker T and the M.G.’s, featuring legendary guitarist Steve Cropper, were the Stax house band!
Check out the period recording equipment in the control room, then move into an exact replica of Studio A, the main location where Stax artists recorded. The impressive “Hall of Records” is lined floor-to-ceiling with all of the albums and singles released by Stax and its subsidiary labels from 1957 to 1975. The museum even has Isaac Hayes’ luxurious Cadillac Eldorado, with its 24-carat gold exterior trim and white fur carpeting. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $13 for adults, $12 for seniors 62+, active military and students with ID, children age 9-12 are $10. Kids under 8 are free. Plan about 90 minutes for a visit.
Make Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, your last stop of the afternoon. Of course, it’s on Elvis Presley Boulevard. It is Memphis' top tourist attraction and it’s busier in the morning. Elvis died there in 1977 and is buried on the grounds, along with his parents. The place is largely untouched, with furnishings and decorations as they were when Elvis lived there. The grounds can get crowded, especially in the summer when up to 4,000 daily visitors cruise in. At $39.75 (with some slight discounts such as military, AAA, etc., available), the Graceland ticket is the most expensive of the local attractions. Plus, they charge you $10 to park! The last mansion tour of the day begins at 4 or 5 p.m., depending on the day of the week and time of year. You can also take tours of his airplane for a few dollars more.
By now, the afternoon should be winding down. Head downtown and treat yourself to a night in The Peabody Memphis. This historic 464-room hotel turns 150 years old in 2019. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. The hotel has classically appointed rooms, a great bar and restaurant, and a lobby area that exudes a grand hotel’s old world elegance and charm. There isn’t enough space to go into the history of the famed Peabody ducks (the web site has more details, but you can learn more during guided hotel tours ($10) each morning immediately following the morning Duck March and lead by the Peabody Duckmaster.
Head to Beale Street for the evening. I’m not going to recommend one restaurant or club over another. My suggestion is to wander and window shop, checking out menus and smells coming from the restaurants and sounds coming out of the live music clubs. Trust me, you’ll find something you’ll like. If you time it right, you might also catch Beale Street during one of the many festivals and special events that take place there annually. I was there on a Wednesday night and was astounded to see thousands of motorcycles of all sizes and designs packing the downtown. Wednesday Nights from mid-April until the end of September are “Bike Nights” on Beale.
I have to say that this was my favorite museum of the trip. No, it didn’t have the “Wow, this is where it all happened,” feel of Sun Studio but in terms of exhibit design and weaving together the story of how the blues/country/soul and more evolved, birthing a child that became rock and roll, this place is exceptional. As the museum advertises, “It tells the story of musical pioneers who, for the love of music, overcame racial and socio-economic barriers to create the music that shook the entire world.” The museum has had more than one million visitors since opening in 2000. I loved the headsets and handheld units that let you access recordings and narratives that shared the actual music as well as the context of the times. It’s open daily from 9:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. $12.50 for adults and $9.50 for youth ages 5–17 Admission discounts available to AARP members, AAA members, Smithsonian members and members of the military.
After you finish there, cross the street and visit the Gibson Guitar Factory. There you can take a 45-minute tour to see how these classic American-made guitars are handcrafted. If you’re a picker, don’t miss the opportunity to spend some time in the adjacent retail store. There you’ll find beautiful, sometimes custom shop Gibsons ready for you to fondle, pluck and caress. You can buy one if you can afford it (some models cost more than $20,000!) Me, I was happy playing, among others, a nice “Doves in Flight" acoustic lovely that had more mother of pearl than a Polynesian princess. It was on sale for a little over five grand. Still waiting for that ship to come in but, on a side note, I did just get a nice Gibson J-45!
Now, just to confuse you, if you want to wire things a little differently, you can start off at the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and buy a “Backstage Pass” that gets you into the museum, Sun Studio, the Stax Museum and includes one adult Elvis Experience Tour at Graceland. It costs $84 and saves you $17 off the price of everything bought independently. Plus, you can catch free shuttles to Sun Studio and Graceland – remember that $10 parking fee at Graceland. Why not Stax, too? I have no idea. There are other tour groups around Memphis that offer similar packaged tours. Personally, I’ve never been much of a packaged tour rambler.
For a complete rundown of all to see and do in Memphis check out the Memphis Tourism web site. You can often find discounts and special offers on the site, as well. The blues are callin’.