It must be at least 20 years since I was last in Memphis and it’s amazing how time can alter a city and one’s perspective of it. Due to limited time I opted to collect a rental car on arrival at Memphis airport and it proved a masterstroke. Often city centres are gridlocked and too intimidating to even consider adding to the masses of traffic. Memphis, surprisingly, was such an easy place to drive around with all the attractions we visited having mostly free, but always sufficient, parking.
Beale Street, Memphis’ downtown centre of bars, restaurants was, in my previous visit, reached by an apprehensive walk through a less salubrious section of the city. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to enjoy a comfortable stroll past the famous Peabody Hotel (the starting point for many a John Grisham novel!). Whilst the vibrancy of this one street alone attracts many visitors there is much more to Memphis.
My favourite was The Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated. What a fitting tribute and memorial for the entire motel, remodelled to house a permanent exhibition depicting the history, struggles and divisive times that are an indelible part of American history, culture and music. Absolutely must see!
What Sun Studios lacks in grandeur it more than makes up for in historical value. The actual studio on the ground floor, where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash had all recorded is both compact and basic and it brought back to life an era that heralded the birth of what became Rock & Roll. As my adventure south progressed the timeline of music will delve deeper into the roots of music with The Blues and Jazz.
Another Tennessee music legend is Gibson Guitars that are produced in both Nashville and Memphis. For just $10 you can actually tour the factory which is just off Beale Street. Virtually next door is the Memphis Rock & Soul Museum which has some wonderful audio visual presentations and memorabilia. Sadly I didn’t get chance to compare this with the Stax Museum of American Soul Music which is conveniently en route to Graceland but closed on a Monday – the day I left Memphis!
Graceland is out of the city but is easily reached by shuttle as well as fitting in perfectly with a self-drive heading south. The basic tour took in the main house and adjacent gardens and out buildings whereas my “Platinum” pass included a number of extra exhibits including a display of vehicles that had been owned and driven by Elvis. Further upgrades are also available to meet the needs of the most ardent Elvis followers. The actual home itself is perhaps not as big as one may imagine but it is remarkable in the sense that you can sense how it feels very “lived in”.
Out of everything I learned about Memphis the key advice I would impart is you need to plan to stay longer!