When it comes to road trips in the USA there are countless great options to choose from, the famous golden triangle includes Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco and remains one of the most popular. For those with plenty of time, and a sense of adventure, the famous Route 66 trip is still an option, although most of the original roads have been replaced by modern highways. For music lovers the ultimate trip has to include stops in Memphis and Nashville. It is almost impossible to calculate the impact these two southern cities have had on the music scene, the influence of early musicians native to these parts still remains very much evident in the chart topping hits of today. In the late 1700’s the slave trade was at its peak in the southern states, with it came the music and sounds of Africa, tribal music that blended voices and beats. Over time this evolved and new musical genres began to form. Songs that had previously been sung in the fields found their way into churches, music halls, bars, jukeboxes and eventually onto the airwaves.
We started our musical road trip in Memphis to find out for ourselves if it lived up to the hype.
We headed straight to Beale Street, home of the famous B.B King Club. Live music is on offer pretty much everywhere in this part of town, especially on weekends. At night a carnival atmosphere prevails as music lovers and partygoers descend on two blocks of restaurants, bars and shops, illuminated by countless neon signs awash with colour and music. Memphis in summer is hot and humid, the air is rich with the smell of hickory smoked BBQs and musicians competing with each other for your attention.
But Memphis is much more than just music, as its local residents were keen to tell us. It has a rich and troubled past, dramatically impacted by the U.S civil war, and then again during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, it wasn’t far from Beale Street that in 1968 Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Today the motel forms part of the Smithsonian Museum of Civil Rights, it has been preserved exactly as it was on that fateful day, right down to the vintage vehicles parked outside his hotel room. A wreath marks the spot where he fell.
In the past the city has been decimated by yellow fever, unemployment, and depopulation - as people left in search of new opportunities. Today as other America cities face housing shortages and hyper-inflated living costs, people are once again returning to Memphis and the banks of the muddy Mississippi River, a river described by early inhabitants as being ‘too thick to drink and too thin to plough’.
A half-day guided walking tour of the city helped us to discover the many highlights Memphis has to offer. We were taken on a factual journey through time that included the days of the confederation, prohibition, and the civil rights movement.
Memphis claims to be the home of the blues, but gospel, jazz and soul music also have deep seated roots here. In the 1950s a young man named Elvis Presley fused elements of all these musical styles together, creating a new sound they called ‘Rock n Roll’. Almost six decades later, and with over a billion records sold, Elvis Presley is still the undisputed king of rock n roll. No visit to Memphis would be complete without a visit to his legendary home.
Graceland is no longer merely a house, it is a sprawling complex. Located (not surprisingly) on Elvis Presley Boulevard, where on one side of the road you have the original building and former home of Elvis and his family, and on the other side of the road huge studios have been built to house the many artefacts, costumes, cars and memorabilia that epitomise his career and the contribution he continues to make to music today. His private planes are also on display here. Today’s celebrity obsessed media loves nothing more than documenting the extravagances of Hollywood’s latest stars, but nothing comes even close to the excesses of Elvis’ life at the height of his fame. He didn’t buy a private jet, he bought an airliner AND a private jet, then spend millions of dollars customising them both. He spent millions on jewellery and cars but then whimsically gave them away to family and friends. He gave millions of dollars to charities and was renowned for his generosity. By his early 20’s he had become the biggest star in the world, every record was a hit, every film a box-office blockbuster. No matter how many millions he spent, millions more came flooding in. But 20 years in the fast-lane took its toll and his career began to stall, his spending however did not. When Elvis died in 1977 aged just 42, his vast fortune had all but gone. It was his ex-wife Priscilla Presley who made the decision to open Graceland up to the public after his death. Her shrewd business acumen enabled the Elvis Presley estate to prosper in the years that followed. Today it is estimated to be worth close to a billion dollars. Whether you are an Elvis fan or not be sure to allow at least half a day to visit Graceland, it’s an absolute must see!
Memphis has a range of accommodation options for visitors to choose from, offering something to suit all tastes and budgets. The Hotel Napoleon, an Ascend Hotel Collection Member is a one of a kind neighbourhood boutique hotel on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1902 The Hotel Napoleon was our home away from home during our stay in Memphis, and put us at the very heart of the city.
The hotel offers beautifully appointed contemporary rooms with sleek lines and bright spacious bathrooms, a modern twist that complements the historical architecture of the building.
Most of the major attractions are within walking distance of the hotel, however for anyone with reduced mobility the trolley line runs right outside, ideal if you want to explore attractions a little further away.
The Hotel Napoleon is the ideal place to start or end your road trip in Memphis. Just 100meters from the Avis downtown car rental depot, collecting or dropping off a rental car here couldn’t be easier. You won’t need a car in Memphis as it's a compact walkable city, so if your road-trip starts here don’t collect your car until you are ready to leave, this will reduce the rental cost and will save you unnecessary parking charges. Likewise if you are finishing your trip in Memphis return the car when you arrive. Taxis are readily available between Memphis and its international Airport, we used Uber and paid just $19 to get from the airport to our hotel.
The banks of the Mississippi River are a mere five minute walk from The Hotel Napoleon. Be sure to take a camera as from here you will get stunning views of the Hernando de Soto Bridge, or the Big M as the locals affectionately call it. You will also see two older bridges a little further down the river. If you take a leisurely stroll to the older iron bridge you will find it has a walkway running alongside of it, allowing pedestrians to cross the Mississippi on foot. Halfway across you will find the marker for the Tennessee and Arkansas state line, here you can straddle the mighty Mississippi, with one foot in Tennessee and the other in Arkansas!
Be sure to check out the calendar of events for the FedEx Forum before you arrive. The FedEx forum is a multi-purpose arena, home to the Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA but also hosts conferences, exhibitions and world class live music events. We managed to pick up a couple of last minute tickets to see Memphis born Justin Timberlake playing to a sold-out home crowd. The arena is just one block from Beale Street and a five minute walk from The Hotel Napoleon.
Memphis is an absolute must on any road-trip through the southern states, a city rich in history, music, and culture. If you havent already discovered the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock n roll, now would be a great time to add it to your bucket list.
Join us on our journey next week as pick up our hire car and head off to the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, then it's on to Nashville for all things country!
If you are planning to visit the USA for business or pleasure Traveleads has access to a whole range of discounts you wont find available online. For more information please speak to your Traveleads consultant.
Photocredits: Sean Pavone f11photo James Kirkikis Karenfoleyphotography / shutterstock.com