Music, food, and the Lorraine Motel were our priorities for our visit to Memphis. We start off with a half day before our drive out to Little Rock, and decided to fit in as much BBQ and Elvis as two people and 4 hours can. Our first stop was a visit to Sun Studio located in Memphis but a bit of a ways off from the center. The studios offer tours throughout the day, but they fill up easily. I recommend getting there early and buying tickets for your preferred time. We missed our first opportunity, so instead of waiting around we rushed back into the center for what I can only call Brunch BBQ.
The place to eat BBQ is Rendezvous BBQ. It is, as I've come to learn is common for these kind of places, an institution and homage to BBQ. In Memphis, its dry rub or go home. None of the West of the Mississippi sauce dripping ribs, and I may be a convert. Charlotte and I managed to each clean off our own personal rack of ribs in 25 minutes, just in time to make it back to Sun Studios for our tour of the place Elvis was discovered.
After our visits to Little Rock and Clarksdale we had one more day and night in Memphis. Our first stop on the road back was.... Graceland! (obviously). Elvis and Memphis, Memphis and Elvis. The two are forever linked and frankly a visit to this city without a stopover at Graceland is a travesty. This is probably the right time to let you know that we were very close to not doing the whole Graceland thing. I know, I know, but we are not huge Elvis fans. I never thought he was still alive and I grew up to Britney and Madonna shaking a whole lot more than just her hips on the Ed Sullivan show. All that said, it was worth a stop. We opted for the least expensive tour which was still upwards of $30. The one positive of traveling completely off season was the total lack of lines which I have heard can be a pain during the summer. An hour or so later and a tour of the house, I have gained a whole new appreciation for Elvis the phenomenon and cultural icon, and for the amazing decorative beauty of floor to ceiling green shag.
Later that Monday evening we arrived back in town. The main drag of downtown Memphis, its Bourbon Street in effect, is Beale Street. We discovered that it is open and loud every day of the week, even on a chilly Monday night in October. We started off with a recommendation and two delicious matching bowls of Gumbo and Étouffée at The King's Palace. I tend to stir clear of place that combine food and tourist attractions, but I promise you this was good. Our recommendation came from a very chatty local (well all the locals are chatty in this part of the country, but you get my point). Our evening was spent sampling some of the weird and wonderful of an off-season evening on Beale Street. Even though the places where mostly empty and the night was chilly all the music was good. I guess this is Memphis after all, and though the culture is packaged and lit with neon lights, these people take their food and music seriously.
Before leaving the next morning we walked down to the old warehouse district. 'Walk the Line' was filmed here and you can see the imprint of local hipsters doing their hipster thing. Before breakfast at the Arcade Diner (I recommend the sweet potato pancakes) we went to see The Lorraine Motel. This is the spot where MLK Jr. was shot and killed in April 1968. Though the National Museum of Civil Rights is closed, the balcony where MLK Jr. died is right in front of any visitor who stops by. The motel is on a slope, and the 2nd floor balcony is almost at eye level from where you stand. A powerful and sad reminder of the murder of arguably the most important American historical figure of the 20th century.
Memphis itself is still caught in the collapse of the manufacturing and cotton industries. The downtown is really a shell of a city but there are some tendrils of growth. You can see civic investment and the very modern wave of young creatives looking for cheap but inspiring places to live. The upside is that the destruction of old buildings for newer, but definitely less pleasing to the eye, modern ones has not been rampant as in other cities. Though the pyramid that sits on the banks of the Mississippi and overlooks the downtown is an eye sore.
Memphis was the anchor of our trip to the Delta. The first night we stayed at the Holiday Inn in downtown Memphis, across from the much more expensive Peabody Hotel. The next morning we obviously went to see the ducks, and so should you. When we returned we stayed at the much cozier and more personal Talbot Heirs Guesthouse, and that was a treat (especially after the share cropper shacks at the Shack Up Inn). I would say go. Memphis is strangely enchanting. I has been a few weeks since my visit and I keep thinking about the BBQ and history of the place.