Our current situation: The pandemic is starting to wane, and places are opening up. It’s time to get off the sofa and get out to see the world again. So, my husband and I decided to do just that and take a road trip. We chose Memphis because of family connections and its reputation for good food and good music.
The final stretch from Minnesota into Memphis is U.S. Highway 55. In about 12, hours we reached this gem of the mid-South. Most visitors to Memphis follow a “best-things-to-do” list that includes touring popular sites such as the National Civil Rights Museum, known to many as the former Lorraine Motel, the site where Martin Luther King was assassinated, and other attractions such as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Sun Studio, Graceland, Beale Street, and Mud Island. And then there are regional eats like BBQ ribs, fried chicken, fried catfish, biscuits, grits, and anything else that’ll shock your cholesterol.
Two restaurants you must visit are Uncle Lou’s Fried Chicken (endorsed by Guy Fieri, host of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives) and B.B. King’s Blues Club.
The fried chicken at Uncle Lou’s is a love affair of crispy, sweet and spicy. You can get it regular or hot. And the biscuits literally melt in your mouth. Warm and fluffy and brushed on top with butter and honey, which makes a light baked glaze. Desserts include a yummy strawberry shortcake, pound cake, and a very delectable-looking chocolate creation.
B.B. King’s Blues Club is in the heart of the Beale Street entertainment district. The venue is a restaurant and nightclub featuring live entertainment. BB’s lip-smacking ribs headline the menu. Equally tasty options include catfish dinner entrees, shrimp and grits, BBQ chicken, and chicken and waffles. My husband and I had the rib entrée. A lotta lip-smacking and finger-licking goin’ on.
For the healthy eating community, there are some vegan restaurants and a number of health food coops in the area.
You’ll find a number of bus tours of the city. For the not-faint-of-heart, there’s even a ghost tour of a haunted house. Many of the tours are offered near the downtown area. Your hotel van may drive you to the tour pick-up area, if you stay downtown. If that’s not possible, just Uber or Lyft.
Our favorite attractions were the National Civil Rights Museum and the Stax Museum.
The Civil Rights Museum underwent a major renovation in 2014 adding exhibits, films, and interactive media. The museum continues to maintain the iconic Lorraine Motel marquee and keeps a red wreath placed outside the room where Dr. King was assassinated. Visitors from throughout the U.S. tour the Civil Rights Museum daily. The day we toured, we saw license plates in the parking lot from at least ten different states.
The Civil Rights Museum does a great job of chronicling the history of the struggles of Black Americans throughout the decades and their courageous acts that have made everyday rights possible for Black people today. You’ll see an exhibit of a lunch counter sit-in, a vintage bus that represents the Montgomery, AL boycott and Rosa Parks’ historic act of refusing to give up her seat after a long day at work to a white man. The museum’s design reminds visitors of its charge to keep pushing civil rights issues forward.
The Stax Museum is a replica of the Stax recording studio. The museum celebrates the legacy of its family of recording artists. Among those include Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the Staples Singers, Johnnie Taylor, Albert King, Booker T. & the MGs, and Rufus and Carla Thomas. Other Stax soul music features such labels as Motown, Hi Records, Atlantic Records, and Muscle Shoals.
Visitors are entertained by a life-sized video of Soul Train as well as other video footage of non-Stax artists such as Aretha Franklin (whose birthplace is Memphis), Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Ann Peebles, The Jackson Five, Patti LaBelle, Parliament-Funkadelic, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Ike & Tina Turner, and others. For baby boomers, the Stax Museum is a treat. The sounds you’ll hear are the tunes we grew up with.
Throughout the two-hour self-tour, you may find yourself bouncing to your favorite tune or uttering, ” Oh, yeah, that’s my jam right there!” Toward the end of the tour is a replica of a custom Eldorado Cadillac that was built for Isaac Hayes. Spoiler alert: it’s shiny purple (enough to make even Prince jealous) with white faux sheepskin carpeting throughout— a must-see.
Although not part of the tour, the Stax Music Academy next door is a music education school for youths that want to study songwriting and the music business. In 2019, Justin Timberlake and the Levi’s Music Project visited the academy for several days and installed a songwriting lab, allowing students to create more original music. The Soulsville Foundation operates the Stax Music Academy and the Soulsville Charter School.
I wonder about Beale Street, though. Coined one of the most iconic streets in America, Beale Street is several blocks of nightclubs, eateries, and various shops in the heart of downtown Memphis. The district is a melting pot of delta blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and gospel. On a previous visit to Memphis, a brother from the area told me that Beale Street generations ago was not the entertainment district of today.
Of all the attractions in the city, I wish someone would create something that tells the story and history of Beale Street and what it was like before the commercial flavor of today. On this trip, I searched but didn’t find anything.
The majority of tourist sites and restaurants were open for business, and most required masks. Going to Memphis was a great way to end the pandemic for my husband and me. If you’ve never visited this city, consider it as a vacation destination. I promise it’s the best-kept secret around.
Pam Russell Warder lives in Minneapolis and is a writer of people and places.