Memphis

Sun, BBQ, Gibson, & Hot Fried Chicken

Sun Records is considered by many as the birthplace of rock-n-roll. For us, an opportunity to stand in the studio where  Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and so many others were discovered and recorded some of their most seminal works.

Located just outside of downtown Memphis, Sun Studios is a modest and unassuming building much smaller (and more crowded) than I had imagined.

We lined up and bought our tickets and jockeyed for position as we pursued the t-shirts and souvenirs in the main lobby which also serves as a cafe.

The tour begins upstairs in a crowded and makeshift museum of sorts with interesting memorabilia. We are joined by our tour guide Lahna who gave us an animated history of Sun and talks us through the legends one at a time. Later we learned that Lahna was from Port Townsend, WA and her guitarist/bandmate was from Anacortes, WA (my home town). Together they are Deering and Down. Small world.

Lahna leads us down to the original lobby and recording studio. It is here the gravity of Rock-n-Roll history hits us. X mark spots on the ground where sessions such as the Million Dollar Quartet (a chance meeting of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins) took place. At one point she told the guy standing next to me he was standing in the exact spot Johnny Cash sang and recorded Ring of Fire. A chill ran through my spine. She then handed me a mic, the very mic Elvis used to record some of his earlier songs. It was transcendent.

A good history lesson in Rock-n-Roll is best followed by some epic BBQ. Many people, hearing we were headed to Memphis, recommended we hit Charles Vergo’s Rendevous. We had also seen it featured on Man vs. Food. We found our way down an alley and then walked stairs into an underground restaurant through wafts of greasy smoke. OMG! These dry rubbed slow cooked charcoal ribs (and the side of bbq sauce for them) were absolutely amazing!

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We had arranged for a 3 pm tour of the Gibson guitar factory just off Beale street a few blocks away. We waddled our way to Gibson. This is where Gibson’s hollow body and semi-hollow body guitars are hand built. It was a fascinating process (which takes about 5 weeks for each guitar). Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take pictures inside the factory during the tour. But I got a few shots from an outside window later and Clara got an opportunity to play a few of the bass guitars.

Post tour, we walked Beale Street looking for some live music. We found a good band at Club Handy and they bent the rules a bit so Clara could sit in the bar and watch the music.

After a set of music, we headed out to find Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken which we had also seen on an episode of Man vs. Food featuring their hot and spicy Memphis-style fried chicken. The city seemed deserted as we walked to Gus’s. However, once we opened the doors it was wall-to-wall people and a 30-minute wait. Well worth the wait for the chicken, the friend okra, and the friend green tomatoes.

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Lorraine Motel – Room 306

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While musical pilgrimage may have been our trip’s key goal, we had another: visiting the Lorraine Motel, home of the National Civil Rights Museum, and the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. It was a powerful and transformative experience.

Given our next president has proven himself to be an ableist, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, racist, misogynistic, sexist, homophobic, authoritarian demagogue; we thought we should see first hand the struggle for civil rights to which Dr. King sacrificed his life before we head to Washington D.C. ourselves to join hundreds of thousands of others in the Women’s March on Washington on January 21st.

This museum is a national international treasure. We spent over three and a half hours here and felt rushed through the exhibits. You could have taken an entire day. It spans the entire legacy of African American history and goes deep into the civil rights movement Dr. King led; the sit-ins, the freedom rides, the protests, the marches. It examines the deep-seated hate and racial divisions in this country, many of which we are starting to see slither forth again from whatever rock they’ve been hiding under in the wake of Trump’s election and a Republican majority in Congress. It was powerful, moving, and inspiring, reinforcing our commitment to civil rights, our Constitution, and the social progress this Nation has made.

One of the last exhibits is a solemn viewing of Dr. King’s room as it was left April 4, 1968. There are no words, only silence, and reflection.

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Dr. King’s room, as he left it.

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Balcony where Dr. King was shot

Music and social consciousness often go hand-in-hand. In fact, there’s a whole section of the museum dedicated to the music of the movement. It lent my ear a new listening perspective on our record collection and showed us how intertwined in our lives our with song and sound. It also revealed a connection to the music of Memphis which we’d experience more in-depth in our visits to Sun Records, Stax, and Graceland.

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Loretta Lynn and B.B. King

What do Loretta Lynn and B.B. King have in common? Probably more than we think. At the very least they are connected by I-40, the 3-hour drone of pavement between Nashville and Memphis known as the Music Highway.

We left Nashville and headed towards Memphis for the b-side of our musical pilgrimage. I-40 is a rather flat and boring drive of no particular interest. Along the way (what seems nearly every mile) you’d come across billboards for Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen. I recognized the signs and remembered having been to Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen one spring break in college when I drove from Annandale-on-Hudson, NY to New Orleans and back in my late 80’s Subaru GL station wagon. I remember the all-you-can-eat buffet and my first taste of grits. “We should stop there for lunch,” I said. “It has a large buffalo statue with glowing red eyes out front which would be good for some kitsch.” We exited I-40 at exit 143 and drove up the hill towards the buffalo. A friend had warned us that things move a bit slower in the South and she was right. Our quick detour turned into over an hour as we waited for our food and explored the slightly-offensive-to-our-sensibilities gift shop. It didn’t meet the muster of my memories as my grits were served so cold they couldn’t melt the margarine placed upon them. But all-in-all it was a useful distraction from the monotony of I-40. We even ended up buying her new album, Full Circle, while we were there (an album I highly recommend).

As we drove on we flipped from radio station to radio station trying to find something other than country music to listen to. How do these radio stations differentiate themselves and win loyal listeners when they all play the same thing? We hoped we’d be able to find some blues, soul, or oldies rock-n-roll stations as we approached Memphis but had mixed results. However, it was a good thing we had the radio on because about 30 minutes outside of Memphis we heard the emergency alert system kick in. “I hope that is just a test,” said Tawny. No such luck. We just heard a severe storm warning alert. Here’s the report.

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We were located just outside of Germantown and headed towards downtown Memphis – right into the storm! Driving a rental car from Hertz and having my last run in with them in Portugal I didn’t want to receive car damage from quarter sized hail. We saw a sign for a visitor’s center and pulled off to ask their advice. We walked in and asked them if they knew about the coming storm. They didn’t, but one of the employees looked it up on the computer. Looking at the radar screen he commented, “We are in the box!” Tawny was alarmed, “The box? What’s the box? That doesn’t sound good, does it? I don’t want to be in the box. How do we get out of the box?”

They advised that we make our way to the nearby Exxon station and park under the covered fueling area until the storm passed. We could see the sky growing darker and so we left and drove immediately to the service station. No sooner had we left the visitor center than it began to rain. Seconds after pulling under the covered area the hail began to fall.

The storm was over as quick as it had begun, so we headed back out onto I-40 and saw accidents all up and down the interstate. Sirens and aid vehicles were just starting to arrive and help motorists who had spun out or crashed in the flash storm. We felt lucky to have the advanced warning.

As we pulled into Memphis we were greeted by a bizarre giant pyramid adjacent to the Mississippi. A Bass Pro Shop in the shape of a pyramid? Huh? We made a mental note to return here later.

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We wanted to check into our hotel. It was a busy weekend in Memphis because of the Liberty Bowl happening on Friday. As such, hotels were hard to find. Yet, somehow we were not only able to get a great room downtown but when we checked in they give us the penthouse suite! It was like the entire top floor and rooftop deck of the Marriot Memphis Residence Inn with a view of downtown and the Mighty Mississippi.

We quickly unpacked our stuff and then headed to The Peabody to see the famous Peabody Ducks. We arrived a little late to get a prime spot but were able to secure an unobstructed view from the lobby balcony to watch the evening show.

Afterward, we headed towards Beale Street to get a sense of Memphis. While it was touristy and filling up with college football fans coming into town for the bowl game it was still Memphis and it had a completely different vibe than Nashville. The gentrification and pretense of Nashville gave way to the bar-b-que and juke joints of Beale Street. We felt right at home. We walked up and down Beale Street to get our barrings and then went into B.B. Kings Blues Club prominently placed on the corner of 2nd and Beale. While primarily catering to tourists they served very credible bbq and featured a great blues artist (Memphis Jones) who gave historical lectures about Memphis blues history between songs. It was a great introduction to what would prove to be another great music city for us.

 

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