“Memphis is in a very lucky position on the map. Everything just gravitated to Memphis for years.”
– Steve Cropper
I don’t know if it was luck or fate that made Memphis what it is today, but it certainly does have a rich history and it is impossible to talk about Memphis without talking about Music. Known as both “Home of the Blues” and “the Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll” Memphis’s music and culture impacted American culture in such a way that experiencing Memphis wasn’t just a southern experience, like I had thought it would be, but it was a profound American experience for me.
What started in Memphis has spread to the farthest corners of the united states and beyond, influencing music and culture around the world. So much of what American music is today came straight out of Memphis and it’s hard to ignore the link between music and culture.
I would even go so far as to say that if you really want to experience America, you need to put Memphis on your list of places to experience. I say “experience” because you don’t go to Memphis for the scenery. You go to Memphis for the music, the history, the culture and you don’t just “see” a place as soulful as Memphis, you feel it.
“The Blues? It’s the mother of American music. That’s what it is – the source.”
-B. B. King
The view from my hotel room was of Beale street, which in 1966 was recognized by congress as the official “Home of the blues.”
Clubs, bars, restaurants and shops all line Beale street today. Blues recordings and live music are a permanent part of Beale street and can be heard day and night. Live music was played, loudly, till early hours of the morning and I could hear it clearly even as I drifted off to sleep but I honestly didn’t mind.
I should probably warn you now: If you don’t like music, you’re not going to like Memphis, and Memphis probably isn’t going to like you either.
Back in the day Beale street was a central place of business for Memphis’s black community. It’s where they went to shop and carry out daily business but it also was a place you might have seen musicians such as B.B. King or Elvis Presley walking around in the early days of their careers. Beale street has changed drastically since then, but it remains the “Home of the blues.”
“ I never had the blues; the blues always had me.”
– Brownie McGhee
In Memphis it’s impossible to escape the music, everywhere you go there’s live music, there’s blues, there’s rock ‘n’ roll, there’s hip hop, there’s soul, there’s country. There’s always something playing somewhere, like I said even your hotel bed doesn’t guarantee peace and quite.
Across the Street from The Westin, where I stayed, was the Gibson guitar factory, where you can buy a guitar or tour the factory and see the process of making a guitar from beginning to end. This particular factory makes about 70 guitars a day.
I went on tour of the factory, which was very interesting, however security was very strict about taking photos or videos so you’ll have to take a trip to Memphis to see for yourselves.
Back at the hotel they offer “room service” where you can order a Gibson custom shop electric guitar which will be brought up to your room with a virtual amp and headphones.
“If you don’t know the blues… there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll.”
– Keith Richards
The Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum which was created by the Smithsonian museums was also across the street from my hotel and is a great place to introduce yourself to Memphis’s music history.
From a short introductory video and a self guided tour you’ll learn about the poor black and white sharecroppers who brought their music with them when they relocated to Memphis during the great depression. Here different types of rural music were combined, black and white musicians worked together in an otherwise very segregated world, to create music that would have a profound impact on this country’s music and culture.
Beale street may be the home of the blues but from the blues countless genres of music evolved, Rockabilly and eventually Rock ‘n’ Roll, most notably.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to get over to Graceland, which is also in Memphis, only about a ten or fifteen minute drive from Beale street according our cab driver.
Next time I’m in Memphis I’ll definitely make a point to check out Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley who is known to many as “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” but got his start in Memphis when, Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun records discovered him while looking for “a white man who could sing black music.”
“Rock ‘n’ Roll music, if you like it, if you feel it you can’t help but move to it”
– Elvis Presley
Walking around the soulful streets of Memphis, we were constantly greeted by locals who wanted to make sure we were enjoying our time in the city. Everyone was so eager to share Memphis’s culture and history with us. This was one of the biggest differences from home that I noticed. Strangers actually talk to you! A rare occurrence back home.
Everyone I encountered was kind and helpful, and while I’m sure Memphis has their fair share of unpleasant people, this kind of outgoing hospitality was a contrast coming from a state where we’re often referred to as “massholes.”
Locals on the street readily shared suggestions on where to eat, where to hear the best live music that night, sights to see and even shared facts on Memphis and it’s history.
“In Memphis we’re known for BBQ and the blues!” one man cheerfully shouted at us before he noticed that my brother was wearing a high school football sweatshirt and stopped to ask what position he plays.
At night people line both sides of Beale and beckon you to come hear the live band being featured.
At every restaurant our drinks were kept full at all times, including at Miss Polly’s where we tried the chicken and waffles, something I’ve been craving ever since but have not yet found anywhere in Mass that serves it.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll’s got to be like a shot of Jack Daniels, you’ve got to feel it burn.”
– Nikki Sixx
Memphis has undoubtedly changed a great deal from the early days of Blues and Rockabilly. Beale street is no longer only the hub of Memphis’s black community but is frequented by tourists from all over the country and the world. Although, our first day there was a Thursday and the city, including Beale street seemed almost deserted compared to the streets of Boston.
This city is just one small part of Tennessee but a huge part of American music and culture. I imagine it would be nearly impossible to find an American who doesn’t know something about or hasn’t been influenced by Memphis in some way.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll might not solve all your problems, but it does let you dance all over them.”
– Pete Townshend
One last experience from Memphis that I want to share is The Avett Brothers. A folk rock band from North Carolina, I saw the Avett Brothers live at the Cannon center in downtown Memphis after running the half marathon. I was exhausted and after listening to their music on Spotify I wasn’t totally convinced that I would love them. I am so glad I didn’t miss out.
This is a band that you really have to see live to fully appreciate. Their energy and stage presence was amazing and they had the crowd going crazy the whole time. keep in mind this crowd was made up mainly of people who had run either a half or full marathon just hours before.
Every member of the band is genuinely talented and most of them played several different instruments throughout the night. The band consists of brothers Scott and Seth Avett, Bob Crawford the bassist, Paul Difiglia on the keyboard, Tania Elizabeth – violin, Joe Kwon – Cello, and Mike Marsh – Drums.
They all contributed to the vocals to some degree and they were all extremely talented performers. Scott and Seth even jumped off the stage to join the crowd, and it was new experience for me to see a band that was still willing to connect with their fans like that during a show.
The Avett Brothers will perform at Madison Square Garden and the DCU center among other venues in the next few months and are definitely worth seeing.
In the end the crowd refused to leave until they came back on for an encore but the best part about the whole thing was that they performed for free that night to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Check them out:
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What city have you found the best live music in?
As always, thanks for reading,