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The Bluff City and West Tennessee offer many adventures for travelers
Memphis is celebrating 60 years of rock and roll. So there’s no better time to take in the sights (and more importantly the sounds) of “the Birthplace of Rock and Roll.” And there is a lot more to see than just Graceland. Let’s start by saying you really have to stay at the Peabody Memphis. This truly gracious landmark has history, luxury, glamour and, of course, ducks. There are ducks on everything at the Peabody (including duck-shaped soaps).
The famous March of the Ducks into the Peabody lobby, “where the Delta begins”, began in 1932 and continues today. Have a drink in the sophisticated lobby bar and duck-and-people-watch. (901) 529-4000, peabodymemphis.com
The Peabody is within strolling distance of very touristy, but entertaining Beale Street, and just a little further on down is the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. This collection of seven galleries of interactive exhibits, instruments, costumes and artifacts was originally created by the Smithsonian. Since 2000, it’s been housed in its own building at 191 Beale St. Tracing the history of musicians in Memphis and the Delta from the 1930s to the 1970s, it’s everything you would expect from one of the world’s top curators. Especially fun: the jukeboxes placed throughout the galleries, on which you can choose to hear all sorts of music from the eras depicted. (901) 205-2533, memphisrocknsoul.org
One of the surprising things about Sun Studio, where Elvis recorded his version of “That’s Alright Mama”, considered by many the first rock song, is how tiny the actual studio space is. Yet Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, among many other legends, all recorded here and it’s still a working studio. The tour, led by a local musician, is corny but lively and informative. You can have your picture taken holding “Elvis’s first microphone.” Gotta love that. (901) 521-0664, sunstudio.com
Much larger is the rebuilt and restored site of Stax Records, now Soulsville: Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The 17,000-square-foot museum sits on the original site of the studio that launched or furthered the careers of people like Isaac Hayes, Al Green and Otis Redding. You can dance to old “Soul Train” videos, check out costumes from Ike and Tina Turner (among many others), and be stunned at Isaac Hayes’ actual “Gold-Plated Cadillac” as it rotates on view. Even more importantly, the museum helps to support a terrific music program for young people. A don’t miss. (901) 942-7685, staxmuseum.com
Of course, the history of blues, soul and rock is not limited to Memphis itself. West Tennessee has literally dozens of sites resonating with music lovers.
Head to Brownsville, TN and the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, where you will find the West Tennessee Music Museum, commemorating the contributions of artists like Carl Perkins, Tina Turner and Sleepy John Estes. Estes’ actual house has been moved to the center; you can enter the little home and marvel at how the blues pioneer grew up and lived. The big news here is the addition of Tina Turner’s childhood one-room schoolhouse, Flagg Grove School. Turner, who has been personally involved in the school’s restoration, is donating memorabilia to be displayed and her personal designer has designed the exhibits. It’s not yet known if the retired star will come in from Switzerland for the official opening, but in any case, the school, like Estes’ house, is an extraordinary peek into a not-very-long-ago time. (731) 779-9000, westtnheritage.com
Jackson, TN is home to the International Rockabilly Hall of Fame. The real reason to visit this small and not fancy site is director Henry Harrison, who leads the tours and is an absolute font of music history. Harrison knew and worked with many of the people he commemorates: Perkins, Presley, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and others, and regales visitors with priceless tales from that time. If you’re lucky, you may be the one chosen for a percussion lesson on a drum kit used for many years by Johnny Cash’s drummer.
(731) 427-6262, rockabillyhall.org
(While we’re still in Jackson, here’s a plug for the Courtyard by Marriott. The primarily business travelers’ hotel is nonetheless comfortable and staffed by friendly folks who will make your stay enjoyable. 731/256-7073, marriott.com/hotels/travel/mklcy-courtyard-jackson)
Along the Way
Discovered along the way on this trip were a number of sights and sites worth seeking out on their own.
Just re-opened in Memphis is the National Civil Rights Museum, housing exhibits from the civil rights struggle of the ’50s and ’60s. One exhibit, “Exploring the Legacy” is actually in the building from which James Earl Ray fired the shot that killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (901) 521-9699, civilrightsmuseum.org
Combine a trip there with a visit to the unique Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, an 1849 house used for years as a stop on the Underground Railroad, despite the many dangers posed to both the people escaping slavery and the family that protected them. The Burkle family continued to own the house until 1978, and kept most of its history a secret. Elaine Turner of Heritage Tours will tell you many stories of that time, including revealing the secret codes of the gospel tunes sung by slaves in the fields.
For example, those hearing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” would know that “swing” meant” “run”, “low” meant “hide”, “Jordan” was actually the Ohio River, over which they could cross to freedom, and “angels” were the abolitionists. Powerful and moving. (901) 527-3227, slavehavenundergroundrailroadmuseum.org
Moziah Bridges is an amazing 12-year-old boy who since age 9 has been the entrepreneur behind Mo’s Bows, his self-designed collection of bow ties. “I like to dress up,” he says simply, and relates that his grandmother taught him basic sewing skills. Bow tie owners now include Steve Harvey and President Obama (who has an exclusive blue one). Mo employs four seamstresses to keep up with demand, and 100 percent of sales from one design are dedicated to providing summer camp scholarships for kids. Mo does not have his own retail establishment (yet!) but the custom-made ties can be ordered at mosbowmemphis.com
Map and globe lovers will find a trip to Halls, TN well worth it for Murray Hudson—Antiquarian Books, Maps, Prints and Globes. It takes three separate buildings to house the collection Hudson has acquired in a lifetime of collecting. Of course, most of his sales are now generated globally, so to speak, on the Internet, but the genial Hudson will welcome you into his cartographic world of more than 40,000 items. (731) 836-9057, murrayhudson.com
The mind will boggle at first sight of outsider artist Billy Tripp’s enormous installation in Brownsville, titled by him “The Mindfield.” The ongoing work-in-progress, begun in 1989, is a tribute to the artist’s parents and will evoke both the Watts Towers in Los Angeles and the home of the late, great Howard Finster, Paradise Garden in Georgia. There is no admission; you can just show up and view the work. For more information, visit sites.google.com/site/billytripp/home
For more information
To learn more about visiting Memphis and West Tennessee, contact the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development at (615) 741-9000, tnvacation.com and the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau toll-free at (888) 633-9099, memphistravel.com