Three hours west of Nashville is another city with a deep and wide musical heritage: Memphis. Nashville is the capital of country music and all its variations, including bluegrass and rockabilly. You can see a statue of Bill Monroe behind the Ryman Auditorium celebrating the first bluegrass broadcast at the Grand Ole Opry. I didn't take a picture even though I walked by it a couple of times. Call me negligent.
Memphis is a much different place. It sits geographically about 20 miles north of Mississippi and was a hub of cotton warehousing and marketing back in antebellum Tennessee. It is the capital of what they call the mid-south region, and as such, it didn't just draw on the hillbilly/country influences that impacted Nashville. No sir, it was king of the blues. The unbelievable poverty from the Mississippi delta lead many people to the urban hub of the region, Memphis, and that included some amazing musicians.
Both cities had a lot of gospel influences, too. It is hard to understate the importance of gospel in the rise of rock 'n' roll, and that is one of the reasons why rock was so controversial. The use of God's music for secular purposes was frowned upon by both the white and black communities.
From the combination of blues, gospel, jazz, country, rockabilly, and big band pop came a unique Tennessee blend, and thus was born rock 'n' roll. I'll come back to that story later, but let's just recognize this town as the birthplace of all that rocks.
You would think that the drive between these two musically diverse cities would be sprinkled with other musical towns and venues. Well, at least I thought there would be something between them. The only thing I found was Loretta Lynn's ranch, which appears to have become a kind of amusement park, Loretta museum, Americana museum, campground and greasy spoon. With all due respect to the coal miner's daughter, it was a pretty easy "no thanks" for me.
The drive is straight down I-40, and it seems that every trucker in the environs is on that stretch of interstate. It reminded me of going down I-81 except it wasn't nearly as scenic. Still, it had dense and green forests for much of the way, and it was pleasing to the eye.
Now, Memphis isn't huge, but it's a sizeable city of about 700,000. It's vastly different from Nashville. In fact, it's different from almost every other city in the US that I visit. I had not been to Memphis in probably 15 years, and during that time, most US urban environments went on building and gentrification booms. Not so Memphis. Its skyline is right out of the 90s, and there is very little new downtown. OK, there is a new basketball arena and a new minor league baseball park, but not much else. I will say that it has cleaned itself up some, but it's unusual to see a modern US city still looking much as it did without tons of new glass and steel skyscrapers.
And Memphis still remains a black and white city. We were all over this town, and I barely saw any Asians or Hispanics. How can that be? I don't know. Memphis is also poor. Once you get out of the downtown area, you are into some shameful looking stuff.
Let's try to be positive. One cool thing is that there is hardly any rush hour traffic. Its a damn pleasure to drive around downtown. And there is street parking available, too. What a concept! But with that ease comes the trouble: I don't have recent stats, but Memphis has been a leader in the violence category for a long time. It's a gritty, poor urban city, but with some charm and attributes, too. Watching the news here is like watching Cops or something - it's crime after crime, and many of them violent. I'll get to those on subsequent posts, but note that downtown is pretty quiet.
Most cities have a high rise with an elevator that you can ride to the top for a sweeping view of the city. Memphis has a pyramid with an elevator. It's weird. The pyramid is primarily a Bass Pro Sports store, but also a hotel/restaurant complex, and a faux swamp complete with gators, trout, and some snazzy furniture that you can buy - in camo! Man, that's decorating right there. I don't really hunt or fish, so I went to the bathroom, did a circular tour of the place, and was back in my car in about 15 minutes. It's unusual.
Memphis is known for its BBQ, too. We're outside of Texas, so we ate the pig like we should. Pulled pork sandwiches with slaw on top, yummy! Dry rubbed ribs! Below, the top picture is from Central BBQ and the bottom is from Rendezvous. We preferred Central, but there is BBQ all over and it's high quality, too.
But the best meal that we had was from Gus's Fried Chicken. This was some tasty yardbird, and with great slaw and baked beans, too. Who says you don't eat veggies in the South? Maybe not green ones, but those brown beans count, right? Anyway, if you get the chance to eat at Gus's, jump at the opportunity. It's a humble looking place, but there's old, young, rich, poor, black, white, male and female in there tucking in to some incredibly tasty vittles. My mouth is watering thinking about it. Oh, baby!
I have a lot more to say about Memphis and its environs, and will put up a bunch of posts on the subject. Hang in there - it might take me a bit - but I'm telling you, this town has some musical highlights that are tremendous. Here's a quick B.B. King tune to get you in the mood - see if you can guess the others that are playing with him (and check out how they all know that they're playing with a master as they seek his approval at the end of each of their solos) - it's a great video:
Keep coming back for more from Memphis - I've got a lot to say and some great pictures, too. I think you'll dig it. I had a great time there. In the meantime, keep rockin' it and keep pursuing happiness - no country was founded with a better motto than that.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.