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Memphis Con Brio

Music and history flood through the heart and soul of this quintessential American river town

The Reverend Shawn Amos, who is best known as a musician and songwriter, stated, “Memphis is the place where rock was born and Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed. It’s full of contradictions, abject poverty, and riches that only music can provide.” The name Memphis appears in more than 400 songs, according to Billboard Magazine – more than any other city. Memphis is also the home of FedEx, Graceland and St. Jude’s Hospital.

Memphis is a city with memory and history, as well as a modern flair and vision to the future. The gleaming 321-foot Pyramid standing on the south bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River is a nod to the city’s ancient namesake in Egypt. Two-thirds the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza, this glass-and-steel edifice has become a landmark of America’s Memphis and an attraction in its own right, in its current incarnation as a gigantic Bass Pro Shops superstore.

The Renasant Convention Center is a 300 thousand square foot facility which boasts column-free ballroom space, exhibition areas that can subdivide into multiple event spaces perfect for meetings and breakout groups, floor-to-ceiling windows to allow for natural light, and easy access to the 600-room (with 300 more rooms planned) Sheridan Memphis Downtown. The convention center is also in proximity to The Guesthouse at Graceland, The Peabody Memphis, River Inn of Harbor Town, and Big Cypress Lodge, all which feature comfortable accommodations and meeting spaces.

Though a grand tourist draw, Memphis takes its COVID-19 response quite seriously. Mayor Jim Strickland has led a campaign with the Shelby County Health Department to curb the spread of the virus through enforcement of standard best practices concerning mask wearing, social distance, testing and sanitation. The city is currently in Phase 2 of reopening, but the statistics are encouraging.

Learning from History 

For those who enjoy walking in the footsteps of history, Memphis is a living museum. In 1968 the Civil Rights movement was in high swing. Then on April 4, under an overcast Memphis sky, a single bullet shattered the dream. Though a nation mourned, resilience enabled a people to fit the pieces together again and continue the march toward equality.

One essential element of any rights movement is the thoughtful protection of history and memory. The National Civil Rights Museum, established in 1991, is located at the former Lorraine Hotel, the site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The museum offers a history lesson about racism in America as well as a memorial to the men, women, and children who suffered and often lost their lives during a civil and moral struggle that continues today.

To increase its ability to offer a more immersive and hands-on experience, the museum underwent a $27.5 million renovation in 2013 and 2014, adding films, oral histories and interactive media. In addition, the museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and is a founding member of the Intercontinental Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

Another tourist-must is Graceland, the iconic home of Elvis Presley which welcomes more than 600 thousand visitors annually (second only to The White House). The home has greatly reduced its tour capacity, and its restaurant and shuttle capacity has been cut by 50 percent. According to a Graceland official, employees and guests will undergo temperature checks prior to entrance, and hand sanitizer stations have been installed.

Shut for two months, the 23-room mansion re-opened to continuous commercial-grade cleaning and UV light sanitizing wands. Employees wear face masks and gloves, and visitors are encouraged to do the same. Six-foot social distance markers and touch-free payments have been implemented. Such precautions are being made since the tour usually includes a set of headphones and touchscreen tablet.

Graceland, which was purchased by Elvis Presley in 1957 for a little over $100,000 when he was only 22 years old, today occupies 12,700 square feet. Though the grounds of Graceland are quite extensive, the close floor plan inside the home might make social distance difficult as guests, eager to soak in Rock and Roll history, crane their necks for a glimpse into the ornate living spaces of The King.

Rock Around the Clock 

If one is including Elvis on the itinerary, a quick trip to Sun Studios is as essential as grooves in the vinyl of an LP. For those who do not understand that reference, then Sun Studios will be an education as well as a journey back in time to the rise of such illustrious names as Johnny Cash, B.B. King and Jerry Lee Lewis, along with Elvis. It was here that countless musicians launched their recording careers gripping the mic (something that is encouraged on the tour). Sun Studios is known worldwide as the birthplace of Rock and Roll, and at the end of the tour – which features a multi-sensory experience – guests will feel like they stepped into another world as well as feel a part of it.

Of course, Memphis’ music legacy goes much farther back than these 50s rockers, nourished in the rich Mississippi Delta country. Gospel, soul, rock, country, funk, and of course, the Blues – virtually every corner of American musical life has been touched by the sounds that came out of Memphis. W.C. Handy, the self-styled Father of the Blues, made his home here for a time and his statue stands today at the entrance to Handy Park along the legendary Beale Street.

Along with the Blues, Memphis has also become associated with hoodoo, a set of folk practices that combine magic, spirituality and healing, and uses of roots, herbs and charms. This practice originated with African slaves who combined many religious traditions. The practice spread to other areas as a result of the Great Migration. However, hoodoo’s roots (no pun intended) are celebrated in Memphis, especially on Beale Street, itself a tradition and a tourist draw.

If one is searching to reconnect with a lost love, or perhaps find prosperity in the job market, one must stop into A. Schwab’s, a gift, novelty, and tourist memorabilia shop. Here the store’s third floor houses a rich assortment of roots, oils and other hoodoo accessories on. Established in 1876, A. Schwab’s had been a family run business for 136 years, finally changing hands in 2011. The grandson of the original owner is still there, mixing ingredients and sharing stories with any customer who dares to belly up to the counter.

Culinary High Notes 

For lunch and dinner, respectively, Central BBQ and Rizzo’s Restaurant are top picks for quality cuisine. Central BBQ offers casual eats but formal tastes. Opened in 2002, this Memphis-style restaurant owns the motto, “Smoke is our Sauce.” From their variety of dry rubs to their “fall-off-the-bone” meats, Central BBQ is the perfect spot to go between meetings or after work has ended for the day. Rizzo’s Restaurant features the creations of Chef Michael Patrick, who combines common local ingredients with a pinch of love to cook up tasty dishes perfect to match the spirit of the location. The restaurant is on South Main Street, in close proximity to the Civil Rights Museum within the South Arts district.

A trip down South Main Street will lead the traveler with feline curiosity to Ernestine and Hazel’s, a former brothel turned low key bar and grill that is rumored to be haunted. The best chance of seeing or hearing the woeful spirits is upstairs where the bedrooms whisper their sordid histories to peeled paint, lacerated walls and warped floorboards. At the far end of the hall, a crude bar occupies what had once been two adjoining bedrooms – one vice replacing another. Here, spirits can be ordered, the potable type, and although not top shelf, one pays for the historic ambiance and a chance to hear the local gossip with a touch of Southern hospitality.

Finally, not for the faint of heart, and if one speaks to the locals, totally forbidden, is Voodoo Village. What started in the 1960s as St Peter’s Spiritual Village, a construct of self-ordained Baptist minister Washington “Doc” Harris, has come through legend to be known as Voodoo Village. A creepy drive down Mary Angela Road, a dead end path leading to village, will bring the foolish thrill-seeker to a few neglected houses which sport warning signs against trespassers. There is a history here of vandals and troublemakers causing havoc, especially around Halloween, which has necessitated the residents to fight back in an area seldom visited by police.

Though most thrill-seeking visitors search out the most haunted hotels, sites of grisly crimes, and skeletons in the many hidden closets of typical tourist haunts – all of which Memphis can offer in abundance – the more discriminating traveler can still find plenty of off-the-beaten-path experiences in Memphis to satisfy his or her taste.