Travel

Exploring music country: Everything to see and do in Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee

A music lover’s dream, this region of the U.S. is famous for its noteworthy strains of blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll, plus the many music legends that were born here

  • May 12, 2023
  • 1,722 words
  • 7 minutes
A vintage car outside of Sun Studio, also known as "the birthplace of rock 'n' roll." (Photo: Alex Shansky)
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The infrastructure surrounding Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, resembles a theme park more than a historic site. Complete with souvenir concessions, a soundstage, two restaurants and RV Park; there is plenty to accommodate the hordes who come each year to pay homage to the King of Rock ‘n Roll, Elvis Presley.

Elvis fans in front of the Graceland Mansion. (Photo: Alex Shansky)
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It’s been open to the public for 40 years, and yet Graceland remains the second most visited home in the United States, after the White House. Numbers are spiking again thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s Oscar-nominated biopic Elvis and the tragic death of his only child, Lisa Marie Presley, who was at Graceland to mark the King’s 88th birthday two days after my visit.

What is remarkable is that despite welcoming more than 650,000 people on average each year, the colonial revival house and its expansive grounds somehow retain the feeling of a family home. Perhaps it’s the fact that the upstairs, Elvis’ private refuge, and the room where he died, remains off-limits to the public.

When you enter the mansion, you see the living room, dining room, and foyer, with kitschy touches, an abundance of gold fabric, heavy blue curtains, stained glass peacock room dividers, with a “P” for Presley in the transom window. However, when you get to the back of the house and to the “jungle room,” with faux Polynesian tiki furnishings and the TV and billiard rooms downstairs, you really get a sense of Elvis. The golden yellow TV room, in particular, leaves the strongest impression of the King.

Elvis's golden yellow TV room inside Graceland. (Photo: John Geiger/Canadian Geographic)
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It is not the product of a professional decorator but reflects the imagination of Elvis himself. The room houses a jukebox, three inset televisions, a bar, and a lightning bolt on the wall behind the couch – a reference to Elvis’ maxim, “TCB,” which stands for “taking care of business in a flash.”

It also boasts his record collection of 2,000 albums. Pioneering rock greats Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers are represented, but so too are later bands, such as The Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.” But Elvis’s musical tastes were broad, representing the elixir of traditional forms – blues, jazz, gospel, country, soul – that produced the King and made Memphis the cradle of rock ‘n’ roll.

Graceland may be the best-known, but it is by no means the only stop for music aficionados in Memphis, a mid-sized city far from the country’s major economic hubs, yet serves as the epicentre of modern American music and culture.

Memphis is also a great jumping-off point for Nashville, just down the road, with the Country Music Hall of Fame, National Museum of African American Music, and Ryman Auditorium. Nashville calls itself Music City, but this entire region of the U.S. is music country. As a result, it’s had an outsized impact on global culture, and Graceland is only the beginning. 

Blues Hall of Fame. (Photo: Andrea Zucker)
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Blues Hall of Fame Museum 

A must-see destination in Memphis for devotees of the Blues, but fascinating too for casual visitors. A series of exhibits tell the story of the blues through artifacts from Pee Wee Crayton’s Fender Stratocaster to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s kimono. Opened in May of 2015, the Blues Hall of Fame Museum also showcases hard-to-find album covers and photographs, awards, unique art, musical instruments and costumes, tour jackets and other special items. 

DittyTV 

Located in the South Main arts district of Memphis, DittyTV is a 24/7 music television network streaming roots rock and other musical forms. On the exterior, the hip storefront, Vibe & Dime, sells “music, merch and mojo.” This active and growing company, dedicated to handcrafted music, proves that, for all its museums and historic sites, Memphis remains a dynamic centre for American music.

Sun Records 

Founded by Memphis record producer Sam Phillips, Sun Records is an American independent record label that launched in February, 1952. Initially, Phillips focussed on Black musicians, like B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Ike Turner. However, his recordings of Elvis Presley shook up the world. Elvis was soon joined by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and others, all recording in the simple, one-room studio, still intact and boasting the original vocal mic that launched the rock era.

The exterior of Stax Museum of American Soul Music. (Photo: Kristin Luna)
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Stax Museum of American Soul Music 

Soul’s answer to rock’s Sun Records, Stax Records helped create the Memphis soul sound, and its artists from Booker T & the M.G.’s, Otis Redding, and Isaac Hayes are legends. This great museum captures the essence of soul, and nothing Elvis had in his garage at Graceland can compare to Isaac Hayes’s gold-plated 1972 Cadillac on display. It has a fur-lined interior, television, bar and gold windshield wipers.

Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum 

This vast institution in Nashville, dedicated to preserving and celebrating country music, boasts 350,000 square feet of exhibition space, two theatres, an archives and an education centre. Cash is there, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and all the greats of this distinctly American musical form. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum also showcases different pop-up exhibits, including Through Taylor Swift’s Eras that will be running until May 31, 2023. 

National Museum of African American Music 

Opened in 2021 in Nashville, the National Museum of African American Music integrates Black history with the astounding influence African Americans have had on U.S. music. It is an enormous subject area, covering all the genres “created, influenced, and/or inspired by African Americans,” from spirituals to hip hop, from Nat King Cole to Prince. This highly immersive experience features large touch screens, videos and galleries that allow visitors to learn about the evolution of African American music traditions, the history, influence and survival of religious music and more. 

Beale Street Flippers. (Photo: Justin Fox Burks)
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Beale Street  

Every Memphis music pilgrimage is not complete without a visit to Beale Street, a cultural mecca, where blues and jazz legends, including Muddy Waters, Memphis Minnie, and B.B. King, once played. Beale Street is a major tourist attraction (witness the presence of the Hard Rock Café at 126 Beale), but A. Schwab’s dry goods store still operates, and blues music still fills the night air at places like B.B. King’s Blues Club, and Rum Boogie Café.

Aretha Franklin’s birthplace

Like the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Queen of Soul came from humble beginnings. The King died in Memphis, and the Queen was born there. Her birthplace, 406 Lucy Avenue, near the Soulsville neighbourhood, sits abandoned, boarded up, and behind a chain-link fence with a treble clef on the front. Although the home is not open to visitors, a sign out front informs visitors of this landmark location. 

Elvis Presley’s birthplace

In contrast to Aretha Franklin’s birthplace, Elvis’s birthplace, a two-room “shotgun shack” in Tupelo, Mississippi, is immaculately preserved. The King only lived there for a few years before his impoverished parents were forced out, eventually ending up in low-income housing in Memphis. A visit to Tupelo is needed to understand Elvis’s remarkable rags-to-riches story.

Johnny Cash's boyhood home. (Photo: John Geiger/Canadian Geographic)
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Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum 

Created by the Smithsonian, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum off Beale Street recounts the intersection of musical influences and the racial and economic factors that underpin them that altered the course of popular culture. It’s an ambitious museum with seven galleries filled with instruments and stage costumes by some of the most famous artists on the planet.

Johnny Cash’s boyhood home 

There is a pattern here of music somehow transcending grinding poverty and hardship. Cash grew up in a small wooden-framed house a short drive northwest of Memphis, across the state line in Arkansas. A farmhouse in a New Deal colony, Cash’s family suffered terrible setbacks while working their cotton field, including floods and the tragic accidental death of Cash’s older brother Jack. It proved, however, to be fertile ground for one of America’s great musical geniuses.

Johnny Cash Museum 

If you have been to Sun Studios in Memphis, and visited Cash’s boyhood home in Arkansas, then your journey is not complete without a stop at the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville. It is filled with Cash memorabilia, from his gold records, handwritten lyrics, and costumes, to furniture once owned by the Man in Black.

Honky Tonk Highway 

Also known by its official name, lower Broadway, and Nashville’s answer to Beale Street in Memphis, with live music until the wee hours, neon lights, and bars galore, from the Pontoon Saloon to AJ’s Goodtime Bar, this is the epicentre of Music City, the place where country greats like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson got their start. Yippie aye oh, yippie aye ay!

Central Station Hotel. (Photo: Alex Shansky)
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Where to stay 

Central Station Hotel, Memphis

With a rock and blues sensibility, this boutique hotel is ideally situated in the South Main arts districts, across the street from DittyTV, and within walking distance of the music mecca Beale Street. Incorporating an active Amtrak station, the hotel retains many of the features of the original bustling station, with neon directional signage and period passenger benches. Yet it also celebrates the musical heritage of Memphis, with the lobby boasting a wall of amplifiers and a beaded portrait of Isaac Hayes. Among its many features is a listening room, where guests can rock out, and a hip lounge with a 500-album record collection curated by a deeply knowledgeable DJ. There is also the excellent Bishop, a French brasserie with a mouth-watering menu that matches the sophisticated surroundings. Add to this splendid room with fantastic views of the beating heart of this historic city, ample parking, and a helpful, courteous staff, and you have the perfect Memphis hotel.

Placemakr Music Row, Nashville

Complete with a full kitchen and large rooms, this apartment hotel provides maximum flexibility for visitors to Nashville. Located just steps away from some of Nashville’s best restaurants, such as the Fable Lounge and Electric Jane’s, and a short drive to Broadway, this hotel is the global high street of country music. Placemakr is close to all the action and yet just far enough away to allow for a restful night. With free on-site parking, a gorgeous outdoor pool and a helpful front desk, Placemakr Music Row is a great Nashville base. 

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