Stan Slap’s Memphis Blues Trip Part 1 of 2 Food & Music
Ever since we met, Diane and I have been talking about taking a blues trip, starting in New Orleans and following the blues development trail to Mississippi then onto Memphis and Chicago, driving the back roads, stopping to listen to great music and eat a bunch of sloppy barbeque. We haven’t gotten around to doing the whole thing but we decided to hit part of it and just spent a few days in Memphis.
We have been to many of the world’s most exotic and beautiful locations but have rarely had as good a time as these three days. Memphis is one of the most profound and beautiful cities in America.
KING’S PALACE/MEMPHIS MUSIC
We arrived armed with a list of the best-rated barbeque hovels that define Memphis cuisine but got in late the first night and decided to just head to Beale Street and take our chances. We ended up at a place called King’s Palace but the menu looked to be more Cajun than ’que so we started to leave—only to be halted by our waitress with a dramatic “Stop! In the Name of Love!” gesture. “Where are you going?” she demanded, and when we told her we were looking for a barbeque place, she dragged us into the kitchen saying to the cooks, “They think we don’t do barbeque—give them a taste.” Turned out to be some of the best I’ve ever had and I’ve had plenty.
We tried a few other places during our trip, plus the famed Memphis International Barbeque Festival was happening while we were there, which drew 40,000 fanatics, but we kept coming back to King’s Palace night after night. Anytime a waitress throws herself in front of me as I’m leaving and drags me back to the kitchen to defend the food, consider me a frequent feeder.
Beale Street is a blend of tourist and legitimate—it draws tourists but the food is real and the music pouring out of every club is fabulous. Music is everywhere in Memphis, in restaurants and bars and outdoor pavilions and coffee shops. It’s all blues and it’s all free and it’s all in the hands of very capable musicians. We stopped into the Memphis Music shop, a great local record store, where we picked up a rare Magic Slim and the Teardrops CD. They love the music they sell; I watched the owner enthuse about a disc to a customer who was reluctant to buy it. He ended up giving it to her.
GRACELAND/MUSEUM OF ROCK AND SOUL/GIBSON
We started the first day by visiting Graceland, renowned as a museum of kitsch, a temple of bad taste, forever dooming its former inhabitant to be known for the ’70s interior designs amongst which he perished. But I never consider Elvis in the harsh light of his latter self-caricatured Vegas days; his early accomplishments are too deep and too big to be that easily tarnished. He bought Graceland in 1957 and rock and roll has rarely deserved as much respect as it did at that time and because of him.
To truly get Graceland is to get the heartbreaking combination of splendor and isolation that is fame and that defined Elvis’ life. It is a surprisingly affecting experience and by the time you’ve moved to the end of the tour, past the piano where he sat playing on the morning of his death to the graveyard where he is buried with his parents, you’d have to be inhuman not to be wistful and wondrous.
We then went to the Museum of Rock and Soul, which is operated by the Smithsonian Institution. It is a chronological tour of the development of blues and Memphis soul from the sharecropper shacks of the ’20s to the recording studios of the late ’70s and includes the kind of amazing and outrageous artifacts that you’d expect from the lovechild of the Smithsonian and Rufus Thomas.
Then we hopped across the street to the Gibson Guitar Factory, where they make all their hollow-body guitars (solid-bodies are made in Nashville). There is a cool tour right through the factory itself to see the guitars as they are transformed from bended wood to gorgeous instruments.
Part 2 of this trip coming soon.