…Memphis, Tennessee. As Chuck Berry immortally implored back in 1959. We rolled into town here on Tuesday, May 7th.
On our way out of Nashville, we had stopped off to see a typical Southern Antebellum mansion, Belle Meade Plantation. Although nominally described as a plantation, the building and land had gained wealth and fame not through cotton but as a result of its thoroughbred breeding program. In particular, a horse called Bonnie Scotland was imported from England and was the progenitor of a large number of successful horses, including Secretariat and Seabiscuit, both of whom have had movies made about their success. The building itself was fascinating and the guide did an excellent job of guiding us through the various rooms and describing what life was like for the different populations of Belle Meade: the wealthy owners and the slaves.
The mansion is now owned and run by a charitable trust and they have an interesting initiative currently underway. There’s a recognition of the lack of information on the lives of the many African Americans who lived and worked on the farm, both as slaves and post-emancipation. They are trying to address this gap by engaging in archaeological, sociological and genetic research to derive a fuller picture. We wish them well in their efforts.
Belle Meade was only a minor diversion from our route. We were moving in the right direction for Memphis but joined the Interstate slightly later than we otherwise would have. So we arrived at our AirBnB by mid afternoon and checked ourselves in. We’re in a converted garage – as we have been previously in our travels – and have plenty of room to park the car and to spread out in our little abode.
After unpacking, we checked the location of the nearest supermarket and discovered it was an easy walk away. It turns out we’re quite near a gentrification border where we have nice little row houses all around us then two blocks away we’re among some decrepit commercial and industrial units by the main road. It was still an easy walk to the supermarket, but the difference was abrupt and quite jarring. Importantly, we were able to buy some milk so our tea consumption was safe here in Memphis. We had a relaxed meal in and saved further exploration for the next day.
We have a couple of major sites that we want to take in here, but we had to make decisions on what to do first. We decided that Stax Records was the place to go. On our second wedding anniversary (32 years ago), Ishbel’s parents lent us their car (we didn’t have one of our own) and we drove to Fort William for a couple of days. Since it wasn’t our car, it lacked any musical choices that we had made. We decided to stop at a petrol station and buy something for the long drive. Petrol stations, as you’d expect, do not have a wide range of music available and what they have is mostly compilations. We settled on a cassette (32 years ago, remember) of Atlantic Soul Classics. Most of the songs on that tape were recorded in the converted cinema at 926 E. McLemore Ave, Memphis, Tennessee that served as Stax’s studio.
This place was a dream visit for us. The old building was torn down in 1989 but the Stax Museum is a replica of what was there before. The volume of quality music that poured out of this place is remarkable, as is the list of artists whose careers it kickstarted. Booker T. and the MGs, Isaac Hayes, Otis redding, Wilson Pickett – the list goes on and on.
After Stax, we moved on to look at Graceland. We’re not huge Elvis fans and were a little ambivalent about taking the tour, but it turned out to be really enjoyable. They provide iPads to all visitors to guide you through the mansion, but that’s also a clever way of keeping everyone moving along which, with the number of people taking the tour every day, is very necessary.
I realised I wasn’t that big an Elvis fan because in my musically formative years, I was familiar with Elvis the Vegas entertainer, rather than Elvis the rebel who changed popular music forever. It was good to be reminded of what he did, when he did it, and why he is revered by so many even today.
After Graceland, we went back to our little pied-à-terre to relax for a while before our next stop: Beale Street.
There aren’t many streets that boast their own app. Beale is about three blocks of music bars and restaurants. It’s a little bit like Broadway in Nashville, but with a grittier, less gentrified feel. We ate in Silky O’Sullivan’s, and managed to get a seat under cover there just before the heavens opened and the rain settled in for the night. We listened to the band there for a little while and chatted with a nice group who were visiting from St. Louis before moving on to our next stop, which was Tin Roof. Again, we had a drink and a listen to the band there before our third and final stop of the evening in the Rum Boogie Cafe. This was probably the best music of the evening, but it was also the latest so maybe bands get better as the evening draws on. Or maybe we become less discerning.
One note for Beale Street bouncers: if the sign says “We ID everyone – No exceptions”, then it just makes us old people feel bad when you casually wave us through. We don’t want to be exceptions!