An incubator for everyone from B.B. King and Mamie Smith to Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, Memphis is shorthand for music. This holds true whether it is velvety blues or ear-piercing rock ’n’ roll. However, this southern city’s status as a magnet for the music-mad is only one side of its huge appeal. From neon-lit dive bars dishing up barbeque pork and one-of-a-kind museums that shed light on the South’s contradictions, here’s our lineup of Memphis’ greatest hits.
Homes don’t come more iconic than Graceland – a sprawling mansion that was purchased by 22-year-old legend Elvis Presley in 1957. It marked the start of his fame.
For The King, the white-columned home and 500-acre farm served as a stable fixture in a life shaped by frenzied fans, television appearances and gold awards.
These days, Elvis lovers from around the world flock to Graceland to pay homage to the rock'n'roll legend. They also marvel at the kitsch ’70s touches, which include fake waterfalls and green shag-pile ceilings.
2. A&R Bar-B-Que
Although Memphis has no shortage of dimly-lit barbecue joints bound to awaken your hidden carnivore, it’s difficult to go past A&R Bar-B-Que. The company has a few outlets in Memphis.
Despite the simple, roadhouse-style fit-out, the Memphis-style ribs are the stuff of local legend. They are smoked in traditional pits out the back, rubbed with spices and served with mountains of fried okra and slaw.
If you have a sweet tooth, sample Southern culinary tradition in the form of the sticky peach cobbler.
3. Hi-Tone Cafe
Some cities might talk up their live music credentials, but Memphis is the real deal. Here, you can catch indie-rock trailblazers and blues legends every night of the week.
High-wattage Beale Street gets most of the attention. This downtown thoroughfare is known for a lax approach to outdoor drinking as well as legendary venues such as B.B. King’s Blues Club. You can still find authentic music encounters outside this storied strip, though.
Hi-Tone Cafe on North Cleveland Street is a pretty good place to start. This gritty venue once played host to Elvis Costello and draws a steady stream of locals and visitors with its 300 shows a year.
4. Civil Rights Museum
A short walk from Beale Street is the Civil Rights Museum. Its relationship to Memphis is symbolic as well as historic as it’s housed in the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was shot in 1968.
Featuring comprehensive timelines and ambitious exhibits, it’s also one of the country’s most fascinating tributes to the African-American struggle for equality. Make sure you hire the excellent audio tour.
5. Goner Records
Established by guitarist Eric Friedl in 1993, Goner Records on Young Avenue is often considered the spiritual home of garage rock.
The company’s in-house music label is known for releasing albums by acts such as The King Khan & BBQ Show and Jay Reatard.
It also hosts Gonerfest – an annual music festival that involves the city’s music venues being colonised by garage bands from around the world. Events like this prove the city’s musical legacy is anything but in the past.