Magically Musical Memphis

There are three Southern US cities where music is king. A decade ago, Ellen and I had the privilege to visit the first of these. Nashville is the home of country music, with the Grand Ole Opry and all the major country music recording studios. Ellen and I sat a table in an establishment that was a boot shop by day and honky-tonk by night. We have told several friends that we were probably the only people in the place drinking milk. We came away terrifically impressed with “Kellie and the Famous Rangers.” For years we looked to see if they made it to the big time, but never saw them appear on the charts under that name.

Now, ten years later, we have just been to the other two iconic music venues: New Orleans and Memphis. In many ways they are very similar, with a famous hub from which music constantly eminates. In Nashville, it is called “Music Row.” In New Orleans, it is the French Quarter, particularly Bourbon Street and the nearby Jackson Square. And in Memphis it is Beale Street, with arched neon signs at both ends that proclaim it to be the “Home of the Blues.” The name of the game is live music every night and much of the day in all three venues.

The music is similar, but different. Nashville was (when we there) distinctly country, ranging from the twangy old country to the more rock and roll modern country. Memphis is much more soulful — blues with some country, jazz, and rock. It is the only airport I have ever been in that broadcasts nonstop blues over the loud speakers. I expected New Orleans to be mostly all jazz, but it was actually the most eclectic of the bunch, with more Caribbean flavor (Cuban/Jamaican) and lots of oldies style rock and roll. You have to seek out jazz if you want it.

Each location is anchored by indoor venues, with music piped onto the street to draw you in. New Orleans, with its warmer climate, has a plethora of open air music as well, usually under an awning of some sort, because rain is freqent. A 10-minute walk down the 7 blocks of Decatur Street (in front of Jackson Square), can assault you with a dozen musical numbers in an equal number of different styles. Check out our New Orleans blog for some pictures.

In the pictures below, I have tried to capture the essence of Beale Street. Like Decatur in New Orleans, the music portion is only about five or six blocks long, delineated by the aforementioned neon arches at each end. Most of the venues are “clubs” with famous names (BB King and Jerry Lee Lewis) or famous pedigrees (such as Club Handy, that claims to be the birthplace of rock and roll). There is also some mixed culture here, with a self-proclaimed “world famous” Irish bar smack in the middle. Somehow, I can’t picture a traditional Irish pub advertising “flippin’, dippin’, sippin’ ribs” in neon in the front window. Must be from southern Ireland.

Ellen and I chose a place called “Rum Boogie CafĂ©.” Being the age we are, late nights on Beale Street are not an option, and Rum Boogie starts its evening music show at 4:30. We arrived a few minutes early and got a table directly in front of the stage, where we were able to enjoy pie a la mode and a couple of hours of really good live entertainment, heading home just as the lights were taking full effect. The place was mostly empty when we sat down. An hour later it was filled to overflowing. I can tell you that they know how to make pecan pie and apple cobbler on Beale Street. And they definitely know how to belt out the music.

To round out Memphis, I threw in a couple of pictures from a group of old mansions in “millionaire’s row” near downtown Memphis. These have mostly been turned into B&B’s or museums, but display some nice architecture.

So if you ever have a chance to see Memphis, do it. Just be sure to experience the music. You will be glad you did.