I stopped in Memphis on a cross-country road trip. How could I not? It’s got everything you want in a city when you’re on a trip: you’re going to learn something, you’re going to talk to interesting people, you’re going to eat good food and you’re going to hear some amazing music.
People usually associate Nashville and music- even Gibson is moving their guitar factory across Tennessee, but don’t sleep on Memphis- this is the birthplace of rock and roll. It’s got its own style of blues and is a foundational stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail. It’s where soul became classic. It’s the home of Graceland. Dozens of venues on and off Beale Street venues that draw millions of people a year looking to hear something exceptional.
So let’s talk music, shall we? You can do the below in one day, but you have to get up early and make sure you hydrate because it’s a lot.
Sun Studio (corner of Union and Marshall) On July 5, 1954 19-year-old Elvis Presley recorded a sped up version of Arthur Crudup’s blues classic “That’s All Right.” That’s how rock and roll started. For real. When Muddy Waters wrote “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll” he was being pretty literal (One of my favorite songs, actually. I’ve added it to our SNAPS Summer Road Trip playlist*) It’s where legends BB King, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash were all ‘discovered.’ And numerous blues, country, rockabilly and rock and roll legends recorded here including Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, U2, Bonnie Raitt, Roy Orbison. On top of all this, they make one hell of a malted shake- so grab one to cool down on your way out.
Stax Records (East McLemore and College St) Otis Redding is the greatest soul musician in the history of music. Fight me on this. His voice was unbelievable. His wrote so many classic songs- Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay, Ole Man Trouble, Hard To Handle, and Respect among many, many others. He was a singer, songwriter, producer and arranger. Oh, and he died in a plane crash when he was only 26. 26. He recorded his first single “These Arms of Mine” at Stax, as well as most of his catalog. Carla and Rufus Thomas recorded here, as did Booker T. and the MGs, Eddie Floyd, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Sisters- soul legend after soul legend. Stax music and artists were front and center in the Civil Rights movement and the museum does an excellent job of exploring that while serving up classic soul music at every turn.
Next step was Graceland (Elvis Pressley Blvd., naturally). My mom was really into Elvis. Like stacks-of-45s-in-the-attic into Elvis, so I grew up hearing his music, but never really listened to it. I only went to Graceland because I thought it would be fun and goofy, something I could check off the great tourist-trap list. Honestly, I wrote him off as just another pretty white guy who got rich by appropriating black culture. I wasn’t wrong, but I also was very wrong. Graceland is super well-run, informative, and spread-out experience that includes the mansion, the grounds, the planes. It’s so well preserved and tastefully curated that I still can’t tell if Elvis was really tacky or just on trend for the times. I learned so much about his life and his music and who he was. I realized that while my original description of him still stands, there was a lot he contributed that was his own, both musically and socially. Debatable, maybe, but there’s no denying that he was the first real megastar. The literal first rock star. And he wasn’t equipped to handle it- probably nobody would have been. He was a deeply talented, deeply flawed guy worth investigating.
Finally, we headed to Beale Street. It was surprisingly short- only a two-to-three block nucleus, but it’s packed with dozens of bars and venues in which to hear some of the best blues music that hasn’t been discovered, as well as sing along to some of the most iconic songs that originated in Memphis or elsewhere in America. I can’t really recommend one place over another- Beale Street’s a different animal. It’s a living, breathing music scene that fluctuates with the talent on any given night.
We had only two days in Memphis this last trip- we spent the other focusing on the history of Memphis, primarily around the Civil Rights Era and the assassination of Dr. King. It requires someone far more eloquent than myself to try and capture that experience.
So much truly American culture is interwoven with this city- food, music, civil rights struggles. These intertwine and intersect with one another in very powerful ways in Memphis. I highly recommend visiting if you want an essentially American experience.
*SNAPS Summer Road Trip on Spotify is a playlist we created filled with songs from, or about, our destinations, as well as songs that remind us of summer, or are particularly great for rocking out to during a long drive. Check it out.
- Donna B.
Donna runs marketing at SNAPS. She loves to travel and has had the good fortune to drive across this country three times on two different trips, the last one as she moved from Los Angeles back to New York City in 2015.