As a resident of Memphis, I have always known that some things readily go together with the city, such as Memphis and music, Memphis and the blues, Memphis and barbecue, and Memphis and Beale Street.
Just as some people investigate their ancestry, I decided to seek my Memphis heritage. The natural place to start was downtown, where it all began.
I began my Memphis music education by visiting the Gibson Guitar factory, where informative tours are offered, providing visitors with details about its history – from acoustic guitars and mandolins in the early 1900s and into the electric guitars with Les Paul in the early 1950s – and the process of making Gibson guitars. The 45- to 60-minute tour outfits visitors with safety goggles and takes them to the factory floor, where craftspeople called luthiers make the guitars almost entirely by hand.
Photo: James Richardson
Although the factory is loud, the tour guide explains each step of the process, from the block of wood being cut, glued, and sanded to the neck being attached, and then to the final product being strung, painted, buffed, and tuned. Approximately 60 to 65 guitars are made each day, and because Gibson only wants the highest quality instrument with its name on it, there are no seconds.
After the tour, I walked across the street to the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, which is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. It tells the story of the Memphis musical heritage from rock and roll to soul. Both the Gibson Guitar factory and the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum are one block from Beale Street, where the blues began ... and still lives.
BUSTLING BEALE STREET
Photo: James Richardson
Beale Street is significant in my city’s history, as well as in the history of the blues. It is the most famous street in Memphis.
At the turn of the 20th century, Beale was a bustling and sometimes rowdy street, and music could be heard emanating from the nightclubs and in the churches. This combination helped give birth to the blues, creating a completely American form of music.
In 1909, William Christopher (W.C.) Handy wrote the first blues song, which later was published as “The Memphis Blues.” It caught on quickly in the clubs due to its unique sound. Then Handy wrote “St. Louis Blues” in 1913.
Other great bluesmen followed in W.C. Handy’s footsteps: Muddy Waters, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and, in the 1940s, Riley “Blues Boy” King, later to be known as B.B. King.
Today, the blues clubs and restaurants that line Beale Street are major tourist attractions. Festivals and outdoor concerts periodically bring large crowds to the street and its surrounding areas.
DUCKS TO DINNER
Photo: James Richardson
When I left Beale Street, I walked through the lobby of the Peabody Memphis hotel, also conveniently located near the heart of the downtown music scene. I arrived just before 5 p.m., when the famous Peabody ducks routinely make their march from the central fountain, along a red carpet, to a waiting elevator that takes them to their rooftop residence. Ducks were introduced to the fountain as a prank in the 1930s and have been marching daily since 1940.
Dinnertime. Rendezvous by Charlie Vergos is located across Union Avenue from the Peabody, on a small street named Maggie H. Isabel (actually not more than an alley). It’s a Memphis landmark for barbecue. Charlie Vergos opened his small diner in 1948, where he started serving ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Naturally talented at a grill, he started barbecuing ribs that have drawn musicians and other celebrities to Rendezvous for decades.
SUN SHINES ON MORE MUSIC
Photo: James Richardson
The next day, I continued my Memphis music heritage tour with a visit to the historic Sun Studio on Union, just east of the Peabody Memphis hotel. Still making “records” in its recording studio, Sun is noted for its Elvis connection and the impromptu jam session of the “Million Dollar Quartet” (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins).
Just behind Sun Studio is another, lesser-known guitar factory – the home of the St. Blues Guitar Workshop, owned by Jeff Cox. The factory has personalized tours, during which visitors can touch the guitars, talk to workers, and take pictures. The pace of the tour is much slower than at the Gibson factory, and the tour guide explains in detail how the wood is prepared, where it comes from, and the steps in the process.
St. Blues Guitar Workshop only makes three models of the St. Blues Guitar – the Workshop Series, the Juke Joint Series, and the Cigar Box model. Cox markets the St. Blues guitars around the world and says that blues music is big in Europe and his sales reflect that.
Through my exploration of Memphis music, I discovered a number of locations where the blues and other types of music can be heard – on Beale Street and beyond. Heartily recommended: the Beale Street Music Festival in May, the Mud Island River Park amphitheater, and concerts in the Levitt Shell in Overton Park.
Even though I live in the Memphis area, I’ve been enlightened to a heritage that many residents like me take for granted.
Additional places to go and things to do around Memphis:
- The annual Memphis in May celebration (marking its 38th anniversary in 2014) on the banks of the Mississippi River features:
- The Beale Street Music Festival
- The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest
- The Sunset Symphony ending the monthlong celebration with fireworks over the river
- The Mud Island River Park amphitheater schedules regular performances, usually June through October.
- The renovated Overton Park shell, which is called the Levitt Shell, where free concerts of various genres are held throughout the year. Overton Park is located in Midtown Memphis and also is home to the Memphis Zoo, Brooks Museum of Art, and the Memphis College of Art.
For visitors more interested in the outdoors or who want to combine music with their outdoor recreation, there are opportunities to enjoy west Tennessee’s natural beauty. The Greater Memphis Greenline trail network connects various neighborhoods by converting unused railways into multiuse trails for walkers, joggers, and bicyclists.
Linked to the Greenline is Shelby Farms Park in East Memphis. Shelby Farms Park contains 4,500 acres of green space with 6.5 miles of trails.
The Wolf River Pedestrian Bridge is a new amenity at Shelby Farms Park that connects trail systems in the park with the Wolf River Greenway and adjacent neighborhoods.
Meeman-Shelby State Park is northwest of the city. It has two large fishing and boating lakes, a state wildlife management area for wildlife viewing, and hunting of a variety of small and large game.
Reelfoot Lake State Park is in the northwest part of the state, about a two-hour drive from Memphis. It’s known as Earthquake Lake because of the 7.5 to 7.7 seismic shocks that occurred from December 1811 until February 1812 along the New Madrid Fault.
Reelfoot Lake covers approximately 18,000 acres and harbors almost every kind of shore and wading bird, as well as golden and American bald eagles. The lake’s shallow waters are recognized as one of the world’s greatest natural fish hatcheries. Among the 50 species of fish that call Reelfoot Lake home are largemouth bass, catfish, bream, and crappie. During the summer months, American lotus aquatic plants cover hundreds of acres on the north and east side of the lake, making it a perfect place for canoeing, kayaking, and bird watching.
A self-guided auto route is one of my favorite parts of a visit to Reelfoot. The visitor center has information on the loop and other park attractions.
Reelfoot Lake State Park
2595 Highway 21E
Park office: (731) 253-8003
Eagle tours: (731) 253-9652