Rockin’ (and Rollin’) – Things to do in Memphis, Tennessee

  Memphis – a city that exemplifies the word Resilience.  The “birthplace of the blues” was founded upon a bluff along the Mississippi River.  The cliffside location made for easy transportation up and down the river, and unlike elsewhere in the vicinity, it would not flood.  Resilience to the forces of nature.

shackle

Resilience to the forces of oppression would be found in the mid 19th century, within a remarkable “way station” along the Underground Railroad.  The slaves fighting back.  Resilience in the face of evil.

Post-Slavery Mosquito-Borne Yellow Fever

The years after slavery brought poverty and horrific sanitation conditions to the city.  Memphis could not withstand the onslaught of Yellow Fever.  Thousands died, and while wealthy whites were able to flee the scourge, poor blacks could not.  Luckily for them, the deadly plague was far less fatal than it was for other peoples.   The theory goes that continuous exposure to the disease amongst their African ancestors back on the continent was passed down to them and protected them.  Immunology passed down from parent to child.   Resilience.

The Era of the Struggle for Civil Rights

Shortly after the horrors of this massive Yellow Fever outbreak, a revolutionary sewer system and fresh water aquifer brought relief to the city.  Memphis managed to pull through in no small part due to the heroic efforts of its surviving African American residents, many of whom helped allay the suffering of both whites and blacks.  When it was all said and done, however, Memphis still refused to confer civil rights upon everyone.  Blacks continued to be paid far less than whites.  Their education was poorer, and they were kept from voting.  Their civil rights struggles persist to the present day.  Thankfully, they don’t give up.  They are resilient.

Birth of the Blues

blues guitar in Memphis

I bring up the resilience of the city to help explain its history as the birthplace of blues and rock.  It’s been said that only those who suffer create noteworthy music.  Listen closely to early blues and rock.  Sure, “I’ve got the blues” is a struggling musician’s outlet to express despair.  But pay attention too, to their defiant, rebellious cries for hope and joy.  These musicians, ever resilient, form the backbone upon which Memphis pride passionately stands today.


Jailhouse Rock Elvis Presley Memphis
Elvis the Pelvis

CultureEveryone knows Memphis is the home of Elvis Presley.  The “King of Rock and Roll,” Elvis gave your great-grandparents the vapors when their children (your grandparents!) eagerly watched him gyrate on TV.  The King was quite the living legend in his day with his blues and gospel-inspired rock music.  He made his Memphis home at Graceland, a major American tour attraction.

If you’re in Memphis with your grandfolks and they want to visit Graceland, by all means, go!  Over 600,000 people a year enjoy checking out the King’s amusingly retro shag carpet, TV,  airplanes, vehicles and more.  Your grandparents will especially revere his grave site on the property.

Having noted all the above, I would not recommend a stop at Graceland if you are on a tight schedule or budget.  The kitsch factor is fun, but visitors complain the tours are highly overpriced, and you don’t get to see the inner sanctum of the residence (Elvis’ upstairs living quarters).

Sun Studio Memphis

CultureIndoorsInstead, visit the studio where the King’s voice and music first burst onto the scene.  The epicenter of the birthplace of rock and blues is a much better stop for music lovers.  Sun Studio is this place.  The renowned recording studio is still in full use today, at night.  During the day, the facility hosts scores of tourists gawking at the instruments, costumes, memorabilia and music of a bygone era.  Grandma can always revel in the fact that Elvis haunted these very same walls.    Bonus: delicious milkshakes served here!

CultureIndoorsIn conjunction with Sun Studios, you definitely should check out the Smithsonian-sponsored Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum.  According to their website,

This museum tells of the musical pioneers and legends of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds who, for the love of music, overcame obstacles to create the musical sound that changed the world… A digital audio tour guide takes visitors at their own pace through seven galleries featuring 3 audio visual programs, more than 30 instruments, 40 costumes and other musical treasures.

IndoorsMiscellaneousThe Gibson guitar factory across the street is a wonderful adjunct to the Rock ‘N Soul Museum, even if you don’t play guitar.  Watch master luthiers in action and pick up your very own guitar in the gift shop.


While in town, take some time to visit some inspiring attractions dedicated to the fight for Civil Rights.

CultureYour first stop should be the Slave Haven / Burkle Estate Museum.Slave Haven Memphis  This stop on the Underground Railroad should only take an hour or so of your day.   You’ll discover what many heroes of the time (including abolitionist Jacob Burkle, a German businessman whose home you’ll tour) did to help runaway slaves find freedom at long last.

 

 

 

 

Lorraine Motel Memphis

CultureMove on to the incredible, heart-rending exhibits at the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the former Lorraine Motel.  This is the very site where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968.  His motel room has been left as he himself left it nearly 50 years ago.  Plan to spend several hours here because the exhibits span a lengthy timeline, from ancient slavery practices to the push for Black Power and ongoing civil rights activities.  You will definitely want to set aside some time for quiet reflection here.

Good eatin'Hey, you’ve gotta eat.  While you’re in town, you must try some of the best barbecue in the bbq ribs Memphisworld!  One of the most exemplary joints stands right across the street.  Central BBQ is renowned for its yummy smoked pork, chicken, turkey, ribs and more.  The atmosphere is casual for such serious barbecue.  Do not miss it!

 

Tom Lee Park Memphis

OutdoorsMiscellaneousOutdoors lovers will be in heaven alongside the mighty Mississippi River that borders the city.  If time permits, stroll Beale Street – you’re too young to go to the clubs, but you’ll experience the blues up close in its natural habitat!  Then stop at Beale Street Landing, with its lovely views of downtown, Tom Lee Park, with its paved walking path parallel to the river, or the Mud Island River Park, showcasing a scale model of the Mississippi near the Mississippi River Museum.  Hopefully you’ll have time for all three!

Good eatin'You’ll be famished afterwards, so what better time to try out the nearby Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken?  Each crunchy breast, wing, leg and drumstick is spicy, but not too hot!  There is usually a considerable wait but it’s so worth it!

Indoor Go Kart racing Memphis

IndoorsTranspoNow let’s talk about Rollin’ in Memphis.  For simple yet heart-pounding excitement, race indoors in the 40,000 square foot indoor go kart track at the Autobahn Indoor Speedway.  Separate courses are designed for the thrill of adults and well as youngsters.  Considering you must wear a helmet, and the European-designed electric vehicles’ speeds can go up to 30, 40, or even 50 miles per hour, this is no baby bumper car ride!


How have you overcome the obstacles in your life (and off the raceway)?  Do you have any creative outlets, and how do they help?  Let me know in the comments!

Seriously Entertaining – Nashville, Tennessee

My 14-year-old daughter, who is teaching herself virtually every instrument known to mankind, joined me a few months ago for a quick but fun trip to Nashville.  Tennessee’s capital rightly calls itself “Music City.”  You can’t swing a saxophone in any direction whatsoever without hitting someone playing music, usually live, in virtually any location, formal venue or park sidewalk.

It’s no exaggeration to say music (not just country music, either) is serious business here.  Naturally this place was like Nirvana for her and her love of music.   I bet it will be yours, too.  Rock on.

 

MiscellaneousThe first stop to make when you hit town is the Visitor’s Center adjacent to the Bridgetown Arena at 501 Broadway.  Awesome Nashville swag is available for sale by very friendly, very helpful staff who want you to have a great time.  They stage live music right here amongst all the Music City brochures, mugs and t-shirts, and if you are at all talented you can book yourself a gig on their website!  If you aren’t, you can still make believe it thanks to the props they have set up next to the faux stage.

 

CultureIndoorsNo matter your feelings on museums, this is one to check out.  Music City’s Musician’s Hall of Fame, located in the Historic Nashville Municipal Auditorium, imparts the thrill of knowing that so many legendary artists have performed in this very space.  Within the museum are musical instruments on display that many lesser-known musicians played, but for music that you’ve surely heard before.  The sitar on that Beatles hit?  You’ll admire it here, not far from one of Jimi’s workaday guitars.

Yes, Mr Hendrix’s guitar (one of many he would have played in his short life, but still) is lovingly displayed with all due reverence behind bulletproof glass.  Finally, the most exciting part: the large sections within the GRAMMY Museum Gallery in which you can play instruments, compose music, produce music, and much more, all on your own (with guidance from the exhibits themselves).   Feel like a rock star for a couple of hours in this place!

 

CultureIndoorsCountry Music Hall of FameIf you’re really into country music – and even if you’re not – you’ll surely get something out of a tour of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.  In the beautiful Hall of Fame itself are permanent and temporary exhibits of all your favorite country music stars past and present.  Do sign up for the tour of RCA’s historic studio B, the “Home of 1,000 Hits,” while you visit the Hall of Fame.  Luminaries like Elvis Presley put Nashville on the map thanks to their recording sessions here.

 

Broadway Fireworks Nashville
This is Broadway, folks! One massive party on Broadway Street in Nashville

IndoorsCultureGood eatin'Veterans to Nashville won’t let you leave until you’ve checked out the Honky Tonk scene on Broadway.  It’s all neon all the time to complement the music, food and dancing on this iconic street!  Each venue has different policies for admission for anyone under 21 but if it’s daytime or early evening, you should be okay; just ask the staff at the door.  One recommendation for lively fun and tasty food in a spacious, energetic Music City atmosphere is the Wildhorse Saloon. All ages are welcome until 9:00 pm nightly for live music, dining and dancing.  Learn the newest line dancing steps demonstrated here, and amaze your friends back home with your trendy self.

 

OutdoorsSeasonalNow that you’ve experienced downtown Nashville, you probably need some room to roam alongtreetop with some fresh Tennessee air.  Your best bet: head over to Nashville Shores Lakeside Resort.  This scenic hideaway of cabins and RV spaces features an exciting variety of adventurous activities from which to choose.  Your folks will probably be content to rent a pontoon boat for some leisurely relaxing and fishing.  Fine, but make sure they set aside ample time to join you in rocking the Treetop Adventure Park, an obstacle course in the treetops, and the refreshing Waterpark.  The website has all the deets so check it out first.

 

CultureOutdoorsWhat’s up with the controversial views Americans have about their Commander-in-Chief?  Well, their 7th one, anyway?  Find out when you step back in time at the Hermitage, home of the 19th century’s “People’s President,” Andrew Jackson.  The grounds, as beautiful as they are, provide a bittersweet backdrop into the workings of a southern cotton plantation, slavery and all.   Rustic slave cabins scattered about the landscape contrast with the majestic mansion.    Fascinating interpretative signs which provide an explanation of daily life here skirt the leafy, tranquil countryside.

 

Grand Ole Opry Nashville

CultureIndoorsExperience a part of Nashville’s musical heritage when you tour the Grand Ole Opry.  No less than three backstage tours are offered here, the Ground Zero of America’s country music origins.  Performances have been broadcast on radio, and then TV and now Internet, for almost a century.  Take one in while you’re here; check the website for backstage and show information.  And whatever you do, get here early to fight for the limited parking spaces.  Better yet, summon back that Uber driver you had ferry you around downtown!

A really unique hotel, the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, lurks next to the Grand Ole Opry, and if you’re in town on a convention you may be lucky enough to stay there.  If not, though, the hotel is still worth a visit, especially when the weather is less than ideal.  The highlight of this facility is its multi-story enclosed atrium, around which the guest rooms cluster alongside dining options and boutique shops.  Luckily there is no charge to marvel at the property’s lush waterfalls as you amble through its nine acres of indoor gardens.  A Delta Riverboat Cruise, all indoors, is even offered for a nominal charge.

 

OutdoorsSeasonalTranspoYou can book a single or tandem (double) kayak at River Queen Voyages and spend the better River Queen Voyages Nashvillepart of an afternoon riding some sick Cumberland River waves.  Kidding about the waves.  But yeah, the journey involves plenty of soothing immersion into nature when you’re not basking in the majesty of downtown Nashville’s skyscrapers from a unique river vantage point.  You can choose a canoe if you prefer, but either way this is a great way to get some cardio action in while admiring the scenery.   Read the FAQ’s here thoroughly before you go!

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