Memphis is paradise for music lovers. I had only visited the city once before, and it was only a one-night stay due to an overbooked flight. I saw Graceland, Sun Studios, Beale Street, and that was about it. It was long before I began writing about music, and this trip was long overdue. Visiting Memphis was a fantastic and enlightening experience.
Before heading out for a day of touring have breakfast at the Arcade Restaurant on the corner of South Main and G. E. Patterson. Not only is this the oldest restaurant in the city, it was also one of Elvis’s favorites, and you can still sit in his booth. The diner has a real nostalgic feel that has attracted writers and filmmakers. Scenes from Mystery Train, Great Balls of Fire, The Client, The Firm, 21 Grams, Walk the Line, My Blueberry Nights, and others were filmed inside the Arcade.
The best place to start a visit to Memphis is at one of the city’s fine music museums. The Rock ‘n’ Soul museum, conveniently located near many hotels in the Fedex Forum (across the street from Gibson guitars!) tells the story of how the many genres of music from gospel to blues to soul combined and morphed into rock. It’s a relatively small museum, but jam packed with information so you’ll want at least a couple hours here. There are many listening stations each allowing you to sample tunes to your heart’s content.
If you are a guitar aficionado, or just interested in how instruments are made, hop into the Gibson Guitar factory just across the street. For $10 per person you can get a first-hand look at the process of building a guitar from binding to neck fitting to painting to tuning. The 45-minute tours are given on the hour from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and from 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Sunday.
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music at Soulsville, USA, is a monument to the genre that flourished in Memphis in the ’60s and ’70s. Stax Records launched the careers of such legendary artists as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Rufus & Carla Thomas, Booker T, & the MG, but it’s most important legacy may be as an oasis of racial harmony during a very troubling period in American history. This is a really cool place. Take note of the state-of-the art Soulsville Charter School and Soulsville Music Academy next door. What great assets for Memphis’s next generation of musicians.
Another museum you won’t want to miss is Sun Studio. Referred to as the birthplace of rock and roll, this small studio and its tour are an entertaining must. If you’ve seen the show Million Dollar Quartet, this is where it all took place. You almost feel like you might bump into Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, or Elvis Presley just hanging around the studio. One of the coolest things about Sun Studio is that it still operates as a recording studio in the evening—making it the only working recording studio in the US that’s been designated a National Historic Landmark. You can schedule a quick karaoke-like recording, or even a professional recording using the same vintage ribbon mikes and analog tube gear as Elvis did, or get the best of both worlds by combining the warmth of tube gear with the ease of digital audio. You’d be in good company—musicians like Justin Townes, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Lee Rocker, and many more, have recorded here.
Music icons, especially those recalling Elvis, are everywhere in Memphis. Many of the other attractions refer to Graceland as the “mother ship.” There’s a shuttle that runs between Graceland and Sun Studios every hour, so following your visit to Sun is probably the most convenient time to see Graceland. The sprawling complex including the mansion, trophy room, Elvis’s car collection, and airplanes is very commercialized, but still well worth a visit. The audio tour is a must.
The picture of the Memphis music scene and how it evolved is not complete without a visit to the National Civil Rights museum, located at the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. This is truly an emotional site, and anyone who visits it can’t help but be touched. Be warned that this museum is due for a major renovation beginning in 2012, so parts of it may be closed.
If you want to take in some specialized shopping. Local guitar maker St. Blues will be happy to show you around their custom workshop and describe how they hand-build each instrument. You can browse their selection of fine, handmade guitars. You may even want to bring home a souvenir cigar box guitar.
If percussion is more your thing, Memphis Drum Shop is world-renowned for their drums, including vintage kits, and the world’s largest cymbal inventory. This store is a percussionist’s dream and you could easily spend an entire afternoon browsing. The drum shop sometimes hosts clinics, demos, and benefits featuring well-known and local artists. The latest addition to this incredible facility is its Gong Room, where you can get a sonic massage on the last Saturday of every month. This is an sensory experience you won’t soon forget.
No trip to Memphis would be complete without a walk on Beale St. Aside from the many venues with fine live music, you can see the famous Memphis flippers who backflip down the street for tips, A. Schwab, the oldest retail establishment on Beale, an exhibit of civil rights photographs by Ernest Withers, and the home of W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues.
When you are tired of the hustle and bustle step into Itta Bena on the third floor above B.B. King’s. Modeled after the speakeasies of the 1920s, there’s live music on the weekends. Or head to the Center for Southern Folklore on South Main Street. On most Saturday and Friday nights you can hear local artists performing live blues, jazz, or R&B. On Labor Day weekend the Center holds its annual Memphis Music and Heritage Festival.