A curious thing has happened in Memphis over the last few years. As Nashville has reached its peak and turned into an all-out bubble of both tourist and investment insanity, Memphis has quietly stepped up to bat as the true icon of Tennessee with an unmistakable identity. And with the Memphis bicentennial upon us—indeed, the Bluff City turns 200 years old today!—there’s never been a better time to celebrate her metamorphosis as she emerges from her cocoon a full-blown butterfly of cultural integration. Sure, Memphis music is how you undoubtedly know the state’s largest city, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg—it’s also full of great food, innovative art and up-and-coming neighborhoods garnering national attention.
The Music in Memphis
Let’s start with the obvious: Perhaps most prominent in Memphis’ evolution is the music scene. The city has come a long way since the days when Sam Phillips and the Stax team ruled the musical sound. While playing the very music created in the town you’re exploring, Backbeat Tours gives a great look into Memphis’ pivotal place in the history books with visits to all of the greats: Sun Studio, Beale Street, Stax, and the homes of Elvis, B.B. King and Johnny Cash, among other treats.
Diving into the backbone of a place is an essential first start to any exploration for us and, it must be noted, virtually all of music emanating from the United States is based on the work of the pioneers that decided to blend gospel and blues into rock and roll, arguably the greatest achievement of mankind, if you ask us. Standing on the shoulders of these giants—and those before them—is the entire ecosystem of sound we now enjoy. Remnants of timing, hooks, twang and soul define everything you’re hearing in your earbuds, and Memphis is the epicenter of it all.
Stax Museum of American Soul is definitely a must-visit. When you stop to think about it, the music that emerged from this humble, DIY studio is astounding. Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Albert King, The Bar-Keys, Booker T., Jean Knight, The Staple Singers and Rufus Thomas spent time bending strings behind the glass here. You might think you know what came before, but taking a tour of the hallowed ground on which it was actually created makes it hit home like nothing else would.
You can’t begin a discussion about Memphis or music or rock and roll without whispers of Sun Studio tiptoeing into the conversation. Sam Phillips discovered—and created a platform for—the likes of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, among many others, in the 1950s. Without this studio, humanity wouldn’t be graced with the songs “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “I Walk The Line” and “That’s All Right”—or be keepers of memorabilia such as the songs produced from the Million Dollar Quartet, Presley, Cash, Perkins and Lewis singing gospel. Get thee to Sun Studio, immediately.
But even more interesting, to me at least, is glimpsing the sound that has ricocheted off Memphis music. A grunge-y, raw and entirely visceral mishmash of homegrown hip-hop, metal and rap that draws inspiration from the greats before them and is ping-ponging off the zeitgeist of the day feeds the vibrant underground. Many notable acts from the 80s and 90s, like Three 6 Mafia, were born from Memphis’ musical awakening.
Only a select few make it to mainstream music that you’ll hear reverberating over the airwaves but make no mistake: Once again, Memphis is defining the sound of our era. The current fan favorite, which mixes almost all genre together into one glorious, funky and irreverent sound, is Lord T & Eloise, who we saw in concert at Railgarten, complete with a bubble bath and liquor poured into the mouths of the most eager show-goers.
Others who make up the wide spectrum of the singular sound radiating from this corner of the country are Star and Micey, Amy Lavere, Motel Mirrors, Fast Planet, Myla Smith, John Paul Keith, Project Pat, Juicy J, Young Dolph, Yo Gotti, and the late Omar Higgins (Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, Negro Terror), who was the subject of a recent documentary, plus hundreds of others who continue to input their unique mix of soul-influenced vibrations into the universe. Memphis doesn’t mess around, and venues and bars are scattered around the city with music any day of the week. In fact, while a stroll down Beale Street is always recommended for the first-timer, you needn’t even venture downtown to get a taste of Memphis’ true modern-day musical vibe.
But I’m more a rootsy kind of girl at heart, so paying a visit to Ditty TV was my favorite part of our Memphis music journey. This venue provides an anchor to the distinct Americana sound created by Roots musicians, which includes tunes like country, bluegrass, folk, gospel and rockabilly. Projecting their recordings and various iconic examples of the genre across multiple digital streaming services, Ditty TV broadcasts across the Earth 24/7 on every mobile and digital platform.
And this next week, Ditty TV is opening the most attractive music store/performance venue I’ve ever seen, Vibe & Dime—full of instruments, merch and just plain cool swag—in the space right next to the studio.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the showstopper of a group, the Lucky 7 Brass Band, we saw light up the streets downtown at a whiskey festival play a mashup of hits like “My Pony” via brass instruments. The band recently finished recording its first EP, and I cannot wait to hear what magic results from it.
Memphis’ Art Scene
In a music town with a strong student population, it’s no surprise that there’s a burgeoning performance art scene, too. After all, there’s the Memphis College of Art and several renowned museums like Brooks Museum of Art. But what really blew me away on my recent visit was seeing both a drag show and a burlesque performance in the same afternoon. Oh, how far Memphis has come from the Memphis I remember as a child.
I’ve long been a fan of Chef Kelly English, his the Second Line restaurant being one of my favorite places to eat in all of Memphis, but I was more than a little excited to discover our visit last month corresponded with his first-ever drag brunch. We arrived 10 minutes before the Second Line opened, and it was so wildly popular that by the time we got inside, there were no patio seats available. The Second Line doesn’t take reservations, so bear that in mind and arrive earlier than we did.
We chowed down on the most amazing Creole brunch indoors, then stood outside and watched the patio drag show once we were done. The manager told me they are hoping to hold a drag brunch one Saturday a month, so keep an eye on the Second Line’s Facebook page for the next one. The restaurant also periodically hosts patio music, as well as other special events.
After the drag brunch, we ventured south into Orange Mound, a historically black neighborhood where the Collective (The CLTV) is now located. This non-profit organization of black creatives recently opened the city’s first museum for black artists, The COMPLX, as a space for the artistic community to showcase their original pieces. The art gallery on 2234 Lamar Ave. is free to visit and a powerful place to tap into the artistic mentality of the city and its Millennial population.
Tying into Memphis’ black community and its place in the Civil Rights Movement, I Am A Man Plaza next to Clayborn Temple is a can’t-miss stop. This installation by California artist Cliff Garten was added in 2018 surrounding the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and the sculpture right next to Clayborn Temple honors the 1,300 men who were a part of the historic 1968 sanitation workers strike that led to King’s murder.
As if a drag show, an art gallery and a Civil Rights monument weren’t enough for one day, that evening, we finally made it to the Mollie Fontaine Lounge, a place I’ve been dying to visit ever since it first opened many years ago. A swank place to sip fancy cocktails in an 1886 Victorian, that evening happened to coincide with Velvetina’s Blue Moon Revue, a sultry, classy, burlesque experience.
There are some things you just can’t see on the Internet, and these lovely ladies are definitely in that category! A New York-based performer, Velvetina Taylor will be continuing her burlesque show at Mollie Fontaine every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening through October, so get your tickets while you can. If you’re in town another night of the week, this three-story bar and lounge is still worth a visit—there’s usually some sort of live jazz going on—if nothing else for the decor alone. As Victorian homeowners, we were both obsessed with all the historical character fused with modern-day accents.
Memphis’ Coolest Neighborhoods
Overton Square and Cooper-Young have long been cool—and they’re ever-growing as more restaurants, bars and music venues enter the fray—but the most notable hip new ‘hood is Crosstown Concourse.
It takes a certain kind of visionary to conceptualize a public space spanning offices, apartments, retail, restaurants, bars, public art, a gallery, a brewery and multiple music venues, among other things, out of an old, abandoned, 1.5-million-square-foot Sears distribution warehouse. One of the best parts of visiting Memphis so often is seeing Crosstown Concourse evolve over the past two years since it opened.
This time, for example, we finally made it to Crosstown Brewing Company, as well as dined on Nepalese food at Global Cafe and had a round at Art Bar, the cutest little cocktail space with drinks to match Crosstown’s arty vibe.
Downtown Memphis is seeing a whole lot more action, too, with South Main experiencing an elevated revival in food, shops, art galleries and events like Trolley Night on the last Friday of each month.
The Food Scene in Memphis
No deep-dive into Memphis’ metamorphosis is complete without addressing the trailblazers guiding the local food movement. I’ve long been a fan of Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, the duo who first launched Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen just over a decade ago, then went on to culinary fame with Hog & Hominy, Catherine & Mary’s and now the Gray Canary.
Another pioneer, Louisiana transplant Kelly English was named “Best New Chef” by Food + Wine magazine a decade ago, and he continues to lead the pack with The Second Line and Restaurant Iris, a fine-dining establishment housed in a 116-year-old building that recently got a complete overhaul.
Of course, some of the food trailblazers that came before—like The Four Way, a meat-and-three that has been around since 1946—are still doing the same thing they’ve been doing for decades: serving up soul food to the masses, day after day, in a no-frills setting with a line out the door. In fact, we tried to lunch at Chef Tam’s Underground Cafe, and the wait was over an hour! You know it’s delicious if people are willing to sit around and wait that long for a table on a weekday. Alas, we didn’t have the time to kill, so we’ll have to arrive at Chef Tam’s earlier next time.
And you can hardly visit Memphis without a BBQ meal or seven. My all-time favorite is Central BBQ, which now has several locations across the city, though Germantown Commissary and Rendezvous are popular options, as well.
This City Has Spirit
The anchor of the Tennessee Whiskey Trail in the eastern division of the state, Old Dominick is also one of the slickest operations of the 30+ distilleries scattered across Tennessee. We first visited Old Dominick just weeks after it opened in 2017 and were blown away both by the story of the family company and the care in which they built out their new facility on the river.
The theme is elevated, the spaces grand and the staff and family are just about the sweetest human beings on the planet. The bar and whiskey tours are open with varying hours so check the schedule before planning a trip to the tasting room or their massive rooftop lounge overlooking the Mississippi River.
A long-time favorite–we drink Tiny Bomb and Gotta Get Up in our house like it’s going out of style (or stock)—Wiseacre Brewing Co. has been having a moment ever since it opened in 2013, and its star is shining brighter the more national awards and well-earned recognition that Kellan and Davin Bartosch accrue. And while they quickly outgrew their Broad Avenue Arts District locale and kept pumping out the new brews—Wiseacre boasts five year-
round beers and 160+ specialty and seasonal beers—they waited patiently until the right fit came along to expand.
In fact, the groundbreaking for their second facility takes place this week. The Bartosch brothers purchased multiple parcels near South Main Street in Downtown Memphis to build its second facility, which is slated to open in a year at the intersection of BB King, Butler Avenue with Abel Street.
While Wiseacre is my personal favorite, its success has laid the groundwork for new breweries like Crosstown Brewing Co. and Meddlesome to thrive. Other local breweries include Ghost River Brewing Co., Memphis Made, Crosstown Brewing Co. and High Cotton Brewing Co.
A few years back, there weren’t a whole lot of options by way of hotels. There was one of my favorites, the Peabody, which turns 150 this year, and then a couple of smaller chains, and that was it. Well, many of Memphis’ iconic buildings, like the Hotel Indigo where we stayed last time, have undergone renovations in recent years to transform into cute boutiques.
Brand new to the scene is the seven-story, 150-room Hilton Garden Inn Memphis Downtown, which is directly across the street from AutoZone Park, where the Memphis Redbirds play. It debuted just this year and is one of Memphis’ newest hotels.
Location-wise, it’s a killer spot to make your downtown base. Comfort-wise, it’s got that shiny new feel of a well-polished hotel and is unlike any Hilton Garden Inn I’ve ever seen; very design-forward with a lot of natural light and some eye-catching patterns woven throughout the lobby. The property also includes an indoor saltwater swimming pool, 24-hour business center, fitness center, and an Art Deco-style restaurant and bar, the Greyhound, with an outdoor patio.
My recommendation would be to stay downtown at any cost. It sure was nice being able to hit the pavement with my own two feet (or scooters). And Memphis has a lot to see, so you better put your walking shoes on and get to exploring!
For more Memphis inspiration, start here:
- Eat, Drink + Explore Memphis: A Weekend Guide to the Bluff City
- The Urban Distillery Takeover of Tennessee
- 14 Cool Things to Know About St. Jude
- Exploring Memphis’ Downtown District
This post is in partnership with Memphis Travel. All opinions, as always, are my own.