Continuing on my musical journey through the American South, I left the country and bluegrass refrains of Nashville behind and travelled west by bus to Memphis, home of soul, blues and rock & roll. I really did just have 2 days in Memphis, arriving late on a Saturday afternoon and departing in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Being off work this week, this was plenty of time to squeeze in all the key music museums in the city, plus some wandering between them.
My hostel was quite far from downtown, in the Cooper-Young neighbourhood. This is actually quite a nice, artsy part of the city, with lots of cute shops and restaurants to choose from. I liked it better than downtown, which felt a little run-down in my opinion. I had a quick browse the afternoon I arrived, while picking up some dinner, but the torrential rain that let loose cut my explorations short. The downside of staying out here though, is that the buses are truly awful and never seem to appear no matter how long you wait. So I spent quite a lot on Ubers in just 2 days in Memphis!
First up on my list of music museums was the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Soul and blues came to life in the South, thanks to the large Black population here. Work songs from the plantations and gospel songs from Black church congregations evolved into entire musical genres, spreading across the USA and the world. And Stax Records played a huge role in American soul music during its heyday in the 1960s, with many of the most prominent artists of the decade signed to the label. It operated its recording studio out of an old movie theatre in South Memphis, where many musicians lived. Although the label folded in the 70s, the studio was saved and transformed into the museum that remains today.
The museum takes you an a journey through the history of soul music, from how it grew out of rural churches and evolved over the years to the founding of Stax itself. There are features on the label owners, siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, and the house band, Booker T. & the M.G.’s. There’s even a replica of the recording studio, including their instruments. Then of course, there are features on the label’s most famous artists, including Otis Redding, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas and Isaac Hayes.
It looks at other labels and artists not signed to Stax as well, covering soul music across the USA. They designed the museum really well and I felt like I learned loads about this genre of music, which I wasn’t super familiar with before. A bit like country music, it’s not one I listen to much but I can respect and appreciate it a lot.
From one recording studio to another. While Sun Studio only operated for 10 years, almost every notable Memphis artists came through its doors during the 1950s. Everyone: B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Rufus Thomas, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and of course, Elvis Presley.
Sam Phillips, owner of the studio, first “discovered” Elvis (though the secretary, Marion Keisker, deserves some credit too) when he came in to record some songs as a gift for his mother. He cut his first single in this very room, which then launched his career. Though he only recorded his first album with Phillips’s label, Sun Records, Elvis also returned to visit years later. Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were recording and then Johnny Cash happened to pop in the same day. And thus the legendary Million Dollar Quartet jam session came to be!
You have to book a timeslot for a guided tour of the studio. Our guide worked there for years, and regaled us with stories of the famous musicians he’s met. Although the label no longer operates, artists can still record in the original studio, or even join the tour! The tour starts upstairs at a small exhibit of memorabilia from the various artists of Sun Records. It also includes a replica of Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips’s studio, whose radio show helped many local musicians gain fame.
Then, the guide took us down to the actual, original studio. Instruments line the room while the walls are adorned with photographs of the many famous musicians to walk through these doors. You can’t enter the sound booth, but can see it through the glass. Knowing all the stories and the legendary singers that recorded here makes standing in that same room a truly special, spine-tingling experience!
Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum
My day continued with a walk west towards the downtown area of Memphis. It was a bit of a trek, but still early enough in the day that I had time to spare. I grabbed a late lunch and then headed to my next musical museum, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. As the name suggests, this one provides an overview of both genres in the city’s history, without being tied to any particular record label or recording studio or artist. It starts with a introductory video and then you get an included audio-guide for the rest.
I really enjoyed this museum overall, because I thought it was well put-together and gave a really holistic overview of all the music history of Memphis. While each genre – rock & roll and soul – is its own thing, they also have shared roots, and there’s other overlapping genres like gospel, blues and rockabilly. So with everything in one museum, you can understand how it’s all connected and how the city’s history formed them all. It begins with the working songs on the plantations and takes you all the way through to the present, covering key events and musicians. There’s overlap with other museums of course, like displays on Stax and Sun Studio. It was pretty amazing to see just how much music came from Memphis! And how it shaped not just its own music scene, but that all across the USA and the rest of the world!
The Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum is just off of Beale Street, so this was my next destination. Much like Nashville’s Broadway or New Orleans’s Frenchmen Street, this is the place to go for live music. Beale Street hosts dozens of bars and venues, where blues music continues to thrive.
Unfortunately, I was in town on a Sunday-Monday, so not the busiest days of the week. It was also still only late afternoon and most places seemed to be playing recorded music only, from what was drifting out onto the street. So, the live blues must be later on. Since my hostel was quite far away, going back and forth would have been a bit annoying. I couldn’t find any pub crawl options to join either, and wasn’t keen to go out solo, so I only roamed the street by day rather than experiencing a proper night out here. I was still glad to see it though, since I know it’s played such an important role in Memphis’s musical heritage and history!
Handy Park is on Beale Street as well, a popular site for outdoor performances, but again, nothing on the afternoons I was around. I saw the Elvis statue and then wandered towards the downtown area. Wandering up Main Street and past the Peabody Hotel (where many famous musicians have stayed), I couldn’t help notice it all seemed very quiet, with hardly anyone around. There was a slightly seedy atmosphere as well, further cementing my choice not to come back in the evening. Instead, I hopped in another Uber and headed back to my hostel for the night.
The next morning of my 2 days in Memphis was a fairly early start – partly because of the bus times I’d checked the night before. But after the bus failed to show, I ended up forking out for another Uber. Or else I was going to miss my timeslot for Graceland! Which was the other reason for my early start. Whether you’re a diehard Elvis fan or a more casual listener, it’s pretty hard to skip out on visiting his home while in Memphis. It’s the priciest of all the places I visited, even though I went for the cheapest package. Although, once you see how big the whole place is, it feels more worth it – I spent over 3 hours there! Tickets include a tour of the actual Graceland property but also to the huge exhibit halls across the road.
Graceland – The Mansion
The timeslot is for the mansion tour but you have to enter and check-in across the road at the exhibit hall. Then, I hopped on one of their minibuses, which take you over the road to the Graceland property. They stagger entry to the mansion to avoid it getting too crowded, but it was still pretty packed. Visitors can see the ground floor and basement, but not upstairs. Most of the rooms haves ropes near their doors so you can look inside but not fully enter. Obviously the decor style is pretty old by now too! It’s so surreal to see these rooms knowing that Elvis used to live in them. Seeing a place that was always so special to him is quite lovely too.
As well as the main house, you can also go out to the garden and see his father’s office building and the squash court. There’s a horse paddock and the swimming pool too. Later on, I would see home videos in the exhibit halls, and it’s kind of crazy seeing the family jumping in the very same pool! At the end, there is also the Meditation Garden. While Elvis originally built it as a peaceful spot for reflection, it is now also the family cemetery. Elvis and his mother were moved here from another Memphis cemetery, along with his stillborn twin brother. His father and grandmother were subsequently buried here too, and then his grandson and most recently, his daughter, Lisa-Marie. Definitely a solemn moment to be had as you pass them all.
Graceland – The Exhibits
The minibus transferred me back across the road to the exhibition halls, a vast complex called Elvis Presley’s Memphis. You’re free to spend as much time here as you want, exploring the halls containing thousands of items of memorabilia. The main one takes you through his life and career from his early recording at Sun Studio, his Hollywood movie era and his Vegas residencies. The display of dozens of sparkling jumpsuits is quite something! There’s loads of archival concert footage too, being displayed on big screens, a reminder of what an incredible live performer he was!
A lot of people enjoy seeing his huge collection of cars too. I have next-to-no interest in cars – other than the bright pink one – but dutifully snapped photos for my petrolhead best friend. There were also exhibits on his time in the Army, his impact on musicians today and one about Lisa-Marie. There’s a newer one about the recent Baz Luhrmann ‘Elvis‘ movie too, including costumes and props, and how they researched his life to create it. And finally, you can step onboard his private jet, the Lisa-Marie, parked out by the front gates.
There was so much to see and you could easily spend even longer there than I did. I’m sure the most diehard fans go for the whole day! Elvis is someone I’ve always been aware of but not really known a huge amount about. But between the movie last year and now visiting Graceland, I think I have a much better understanding of his life and career. And even more than just that, the impact and the legacy he has left behind to this day. You’ve got to be pretty special to change the face of music and continue to garner this much attention decades on!
Memphis Music Hall of Fame
After another failed attempt at catching a bus, I took another Uber back into Downtown Memphis for the afternoon. I had a late lunch and then went for a walk by the shores of the Mississippi River. My plan was to cross the pedestrian bridge to Mud Island Park. However, once I reached the island, most of the facilities were closed and there were some homeless sleeping around the bridge. I didn’t feel super comfortable at the lack of people around, so I backtracked instead. I had assumed a river island park would be pretty popular in summer!
Originally I wasn’t sure I was going to visit the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, in case it was overkill after so many other music museums. But with a lack of better options, I figured I may as well. The owners of the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum actually run both of them and you can get a combo ticket. I hadn’t done this the day before, being uncertain I’d do both, but was able to upgrade to the combo by producing my first ticket.
This one is a much smaller museum, just one room on an upper floor. Each display case focuses on a different Memphis musician, with a few items of memorabilia for each one. Not going to lie, totally forgot Justin Timberlake was from Memphis! Some were the same musicians I’d seen in other museums, but it was cool to see a few different ones as well. And again, it’s not tied to any one genre or label, so you get to see a broad range of artists featured. It probably took me about an hour to get round it, and then I headed back to my hostel once more.
A Weekend in Memphis
My 2 days in Memphis was a mixed experience overall. I can’t deny that I didn’t love parts of the city – as mentioned, I felt a little unsafe at times. Outside of all these music museums, there wasn’t much else to see or do. And unlike Nashville, there wasn’t as much evidence of a current music scene besides the Beale Street blues clubs. But it was worth it to explore all these museums and see the incredible musical legacy of Memphis!
I’m still staggered at just how many famous musicians rose to fame in this one particular city. Walking down streets and inside building that they once frequented is a truly surreal experience. Between Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee truly feels like the heart and soul of American music. And my musical journey wasn’t over yet… The next morning I was up early to catch the train, following the Mississippi River south to Louisiana.