Austin, Texas, claims to be the live music capital of the world, but Memphis and Nashville must surely give it a good run for its money. From the birthplace of rock n’ roll to the spiritual heart of the country music scene, this epic part of my road trip explored the people, history and movements behind the music of the USA today.
Finding Elvis’ Graceland
The first stop on this musical leg of the journey was Graceland, home to The King. Situated just outside of Memphis, Graceland was bought be Elvis Presley when he was 22 and ultimately was the place he died, aged just 42. His home has been converted into a museum and welcomes over 650,000 visitors a year. Everything has been left as it was from the interior decor to the furniture and the photographs on the wall.
By today’s standards for music royalty, the house itself isn’t really that big. The rooms are modest in size but fitted out with opulent and daring designs (the jungle room a key example of this). The rooms also feature some of the newest technology of the day, including one of the first ever microwaves in the kitchen and multiple screens in the TV room. The audio tour is, in parts, narrated by his daughter, Lisa-Marie, and her memories of him in the house give you a vivid picture of what family life must have been like for them. At the height of his fame, Graceland was a perfect escape for Elvis, the large green estate providing a refuge near his musical roots.
It is a very moving place. The museum highlights his multitude of achievements both in music and film, in an age where there was no one like him, The Presley family are buried within the grounds and visitors can walk beside their gravestones and place flowers next to their idol’s final resting place.
Walking in Memphis
Sun Studio was where Elvis recorded his first demo and went on to become the first superstar of rock and roll. The studio opened in 1950 and is still in use today. We went on a tour of this historic music-making factory and saw the exact studio where Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded their hit music and where the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ photo was taken. More recently Ringo Star and U2 have also made album tracks in its hallowed musical halls.
It is impossible to imagine the world without rock and roll – the music, based on a blend of blues and country, went on to influence fashion, dance, attitudes, language and the civil rights movement, as well as spawning other genres and bands including The Beatles and rock. Imagining for a moment, being in Sun Studios and the excitement of hearing this new wave of music for the first time – it must have been (excuse the pun) electric!
Beale Street is THE music street in Memphis and bars and restaurants featuring live musical performances line the whole street. It was here in the 1920s that Louis Armstrong, BB King and Albert King, among others, developed the blues music sound known as the Memphis Blues. We went to Silky O’Sullivan’s to take in duelling pianos in the main bar and folk singing in the garden area, whilst watching their resident friendly pet goats enjoy the tunes!
Nashville (also known as Nashvegas for its street-party atmosphere) is the capital of Tennessee and the home of country music. From Johnny Cash to Donna Summer and recent artists like Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood -all have lived here in ‘music city’. Many highly successful artists who have lived here have explored other genres too including Paramore, Kings of Leon and Jack White who founded Third Man Records. Third Man is open to the public and full of White Stripes and Jack White related merchandise to buy.
All the action here happens on Main Street and Nashville comes alive at night. Punters spill out onto the streets and everywhere becomes a live music venue. There are line-dancing halls and leather shops aplenty for any cowgirl boot purchases you might like to make if the mood takes you!
For those die-hard country fans, The Grand Ole Opry tour is a must do, as is the Bluebird Cafe – both venues steeped in country music history. They both come with a price tag and sadly my budget couldn’t stretch to it, but country music is in the blood here and there are plenty of free shows to watch on the streets and in the bars of Nashville.
Southern hospitality, a slower pace and friendly locals are all part and parcel of both these big southern cities. For me, Memphis stole the musical show, but purely because I prefer blues and rock and roll to country. Both cities were great fun and nothing more helps in making new friends than a good old sing-song, preferably over your fourth beer!