Memphis Happy Returns

You're invited to the birthday party of a lifetime - The 200th anniversary celebrations of Memphis, Tennessee. Better pack your dancing shoes. Your blue suede ones, says travel writer E.McCabe.


When I visited Memphis, Tennessee earlier this year, I was lucky enough to find the city caught in the middle of its bicentennial celebrations. The headline event was the official Gala in May, a spectacular night with the pitch-perfect theme ‘A New Century of Soul’. However, Memphis is a place that knows how to have a good time any time. The bicentennial programme of art exhibits, urban regeneration projects, culinary and cultural festivals and, of course, live music runs right through 2019. If you get the chance to visit the city in this landmark year, take it. But keep in mind there’s never a bad time to discover the wonders of what has to be one of America’s most exciting destinations.


My first evening in Memphis was spent on a bar crawl on iconic Beale Street, which runs east from Mississippi for a little under two miles. These days, the street is the country’s most famous musical hub, but its role in the genesis of blues goes all the way back to the mid-19th century. I had to stop by famous spots such as the Orpheum, one of the earliest players in the street’s music scene. But the best part of the night involved just going with the flow, drifting into smaller venues with smaller reputations and smaller crowds. Back TO THE START For many music lovers, Memphis isn’t just somewhere they’d like to visit. It’s somewhere they need to visit, the number one place on their bucket list. This is the birthplace of soul, blues and rock ‘n’ roll – genres which sit at the heart of Memphis’ modern day culture, but are nonetheless the legacy of past brutality. The throbbing musical life now so synonymous with the city, originated with work songs sung by the enslaved people whose labour once made this a cotton trading hub.


I dedicated the next day to getting to know one of Memphis’ most famous musical figures - that’s right, the one and only Elvis Presley. The starting point had to be the famous Sun Studio, where a guide’s stories brought alive some of the huge names associated with this unassuming little building. It’s a strange feeling knowing you’re standing in the same building where not only Elvis but B B King, Johnny Cash and many more once recorded. Next, it was off to Presley’s mansion, Graceland, where the sheer power of his character permeated every crystal chandelier, every decadent carpet. If you favour a minimalist aesthetic, you’re in for a shock here. But alongside the cluttered opulence, there is of course a lot to learn here too. This is now a museum, and you won’t just see Presley’s possessions, but also get an in-depth insight into his life and times. The contrast with his birthplace in Tupelo, a little white house with only two rooms, couldn’t have been more stark. Although Tupelo is a little under two hours from Graceland, I’d recommend visiting both sites in fairly quick succession if you can. There’s no better way of envisioning Presley’s journey.


Memphis is possibly every bit as famous for its food as it is for its music. Hearty, warming soul food is the major culinary attraction, and I can safely say you’re never likely to finish a single meal here feeling anything less than perfectly full (I certainly didn’t). I started my food adventure in the city with a barbecue pork sandwich complete with rich, flavourful sauce and creamy slaw. Barbecue is the backbone of the local cuisine, and whether you’re a sticky ribs or melt-in-the-mouth pulled pork person, you’ll find a dish to suit you. Food festivals and cook-offs are anything but rare here, but even though there was nothing in that vein happening during my stay, I was completely overwhelmed with culinary choices. Fried chicken is a go-to, almost on a par with barbecue – a match made in heaven with a side of creamy mac and cheese. And once I’d indulged in that, there seemed no point in holding off on the doughnuts I’d been eyeing up – so I didn’t. Yes, Memphis’ food culture – like so many other elements of this dynamic city – is seductive, satisfying and incredibly rich. And in another 200 years, I'd be willing to bet it will be richer still.