As soon as I got off the plane, I knew I wasn’t in Kansas any more. Elvis images, blues music, and the smell of barbeque let me know that I had most definitely arrived in Memphis. I was here to check out the site of SSA’s 2011 Annual Meeting and meet with the planning team. My husband and I arrived a few days early so we could experience Memphis.
April, the month of the annual meeting, is an ideal time to visit Memphis. Temperatures reach the 70s during the day and cool off at night. However, we are busy in April and must do the pre-conference meetings in the summer. So we went in August when temperatures were in the low 100s and humidity was high, determined to have fun in spite of the heat.
The meeting hotel is the Downtown Memphis Marriott, located at the north end of the downtown district overlooking the Mississippi River. We didn’t rent a car because the Main Street Trolley line pulls up outside the hotel entrance every 10-15 minutes. Saturday morning we hopped aboard to start our adventures. A few minutes ride and a short walk took us to the Rock and Soul Museum.
Memphis is a town of museums of all kinds. I’m really not that fond of museums. But I was in Memphis and this museum was about the birth of the blues, so in I went. A short film gave us some history, then we moved on to the exhibits. We saw videos and listened to audio recordings of early blues (singers that began it all I hate to say I didn’t recognize), into the early Rock era (Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, early Elvis and B. B. King) through the 60s (Boxtops, Beatles and others I had listened to as a kid.) It was a fun hour’s entertainment.
From there we moseyed over to Beale Street where BBQ joints abound. At 1:00 on a Saturday, the street was deserted. We went into Arthur’s; famous for good food and live music. Apparently there aren’t any “no-smoking” laws in Memphis. It had been so long since I’d been to a restaurant where one could smoke that I was ready to call the manager when the people at the next table lit up. A congenial move to the non-smoking section remedied the situation and we enjoyed BBQ chicken and catfish sandwiches.
From Beale Street, we took a walk along the river. The wide Mississippi winds along the edge of Memphis, separating it from Arkansas. The riverside park is sprinkled with benches where you can watch the riverboats. It appears to be fairly easy to cross the bridge via monorail to Mud Island where there is a park and an amphitheater. We opted to sit on a bench, content to enjoy the breezes off the water and the lovely view.
If you want to miss the crowds at the famous eating spots on Beale Street, mid-day is the time to go. But you will miss all the fun. When we returned to Beale at 7 pm, the streets were filled with tourists and entertainers. As we walked toward the music, we passed Pepsi Park and caught a whiff of BBQ. We followed our noses to a huge grill with smoke pouring out. We ordered nachos with pulled pork, a completely new experience for me. A huge serving of chips, gooey nacho cheese sauce and hot pork with spicy BBQ sauce was only $5. We sat on a wall, eating the best nachos and the best BBQ I’d ever tasted and listened to a high-energy blues band. When we had eaten all we could, we made our way down Beale Street. A group of kids did back flips and other tricks. We passed a rowdy Irish pub and a wide variety of gift shops when we saw a crowd gathered. They were watching a band singing vintage rock – Beatles and Stones. The lead singer/guitar player channeled Jack Black while a tiny left-handed rocker chick played the heck out of her bass guitar and the grandfatherly drummer kept time. It was an oddly entertaining performance. Lines had formed for BB King’s BBQ and the Hard Rock Café where an Elvis impersonator contest was in progress. We passed a gap between buildings where someone had squeezed in a small stage, a few tables, and a bar. Music was everywhere. We were surrounded by happy, well-fed, easy-going people. It was fun.
The next morning we set off for Graceland. If you go to Memphis, you have to at least consider visiting Elvis Pressley’s famous abode. The trolley took us back to Beale Street and from the Rock and Soul Museum we caught the free shuttle to Graceland. The mansion was much smaller than I had expected. For someone who was larger than life, Elvis’ home was decidedly cozy with no room being much larger than a normal middle-class living room. The tour came with headphones that guided us through the grounds with interesting anecdotes and historical facts. We opted to skip the tour of Elvis’ planes and cars.
The free shuttle then took us to Sun Studios where people like BB King, Elvis, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other legends began their recording careers. This was a real surprise for a couple reasons. First, the studio was tiny. This worried me since the shuttle was not leaving for an hour. However, the second surprise was how much fun the tour was. Our guide, knowledgeable and energetic, took us through the history of the studio, telling stories, showing us where Elvis stood, explaining how various innovative effects had come about, and helping us appreciate the contribution Sun Studios made to the music we love. The hour flew by and the driver had to drag us out for our trip back to Beale Street.
Across the street from the Rock and Soul Museum, the Gibson Guitar factory runs factory tours every hour, so we signed up. Although no one was working the factory on Sunday, our guide took us in amongst the machines showing us how each process worked to create a top-notch semi-hollow body electric guitar.
On the way home, we stopped by the famous Peabody Hotel. Just going inside is an event. It is an old elegant structure with gift shops that look more like museums. At 4:30 pm we sat down in the central lobby, next to the fountain, ordered a drink and watched the most famous hotel residents – the Peabody Ducks. In the next 30 minutes we were joined by around 100 people (many under age 10) who were also there to watch.
Each day at precisely 11:00 am, these ducks come down the elevator from their home on the roof and spend the day swimming in the lobby fountain. A few minutes before 5:00, the Duck Master came out, rolled out a red carpet that lead from the fountain to the elevator, set up some red stairs and told us stories about duck antics through the years. Then, at precisely 5:00, he called the ducks to attention. They lined up at the top of the stairs and waddled down the stairs, along the red carpet, and into the elevator. It was adorable!
Monday morning we headed off to the National Civil Rights Museum. One block from a trolley stop, this museum has been created around the Lorraine Hotel, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination. It includes the room where Reverend King spent his last day and a view from the boarding house across the street where the shot was fired. We had expected to spend an hour, perhaps a bit more, before we headed off to other sites. This amazing museum kept us completely absorbed for 5 hours (and we could have spent more time if we had had it.) With photos, videos, letters, and displays, the museum tells the stories of real people in real places in the not-so-distant past. We walked through the bus that Rosa Parks rode and saw the burned out shell of the bus ridden by the Freedom Riders.