Set the radio dial to WEVL-FM, 89.9, our all-volunteer local radio station. We’re about to drive you to the spots in the town that gave birth to rock ’n’ roll and is full of soul.
Start off in the Edge district, where you can snap some photos outside Sam Phillips’ studio, maybe catch a verse or two of Lucero’s band practice and then tour the legendary Sun Studio. The tour guides, many of whom are musicians — like Mark Edgar Stuart — are top-notch and the tour only lasts about 30 minutes. Sing a few bars into the microphone Elvis used and learn a little about Memphis’ amazing musical history before diving headfirst into drinking and eating.
Edge Alley is a short walk from Sun Studio and offers breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. Everything is made from scratch and is on the healthy side. Try an incredible house-roasted cup of coffee, a signature cocktail, a glass of wine, or a locally crafted beer from the adjacent High Cotton Brewing Co. before heading to Beale Street.
Yes, Beale Street. While most locals avoid it, there’s really no good reason to. It is the one place that you can count on hearing live blues seven nights a week. Should you arrive before sunset, head to B.B. King’s Blues Club and take the back stairs up to Itta Bena eatery and enjoy the magnificent blue light from the bar. After dark, your best bets for real-deal blues are Blues City Cafe, Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall and the Rum Boogie Cafe. The Absinthe Room, above King’s Palace Cafe, is a lesser-known spot and a great place to escape from the crowd and enjoy the view.
The truly adventurous can walk back over the pedestrian and rail Harahan Bridge across the Mississippi River to CJ’s Blues & Sports Bar on East Broadway in West Memphis. Tell Clem I sent you. And take cash.
Hit Earnestine & Hazel’s on South Main before you call it a night. This former brothel is the closest thing we have to an old-school juke joint downtown outside of Beale Street. If there’s not live music, you can count on their jukebox for Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “I Smell Trouble” and Jimmy Reid’s “Aw Shucks Hush Your Mouth.” Don’t forget to check out the upstairs and have a drink at Mr. Nate’s bar. Of course, get a famous Soul Burger to soak up a little of the night’s alcohol before hitting the sack.
Wake up early and head to the Arcade Restaurant for breakfast. Sit in Elvis’ booth and get a big order of sweet potato pancakes, eggs, bacon, hash browns and a locally brewed Wiseacre Gotta Get Up to Get Down coffee milk stout.
If there’s a wait, hop over to the Blues Hall of Fame on Main Street just a few blocks down. It opens at 10 a.m. and is the perfect 30-minute detour to see clothing, instruments and other memorabilia of famous musicians from Mavis Staples to Johnny Winter. (The annual International Blues Challenge Jan. 8-Feb. 1, 2020, is an excellent time for music lovers to plan a visit.)
Spend the rest of the morning knocking out one more “must do” touristy thing: Stax Museum of American Soul Music. The intro video is 20 minutes long and the self-guided tour takes about an hour. Experience a modest country church, a dance floor with disco lights, a legendary recording studio, every record ever recorded at Stax and Isaac Hayes’ glittering custom Cadillac Eldorado. The gift shop is a great place to load up on records, books and T-shirts.
Other nearby attractions include Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios, one of the oldest continuously operating recording studios in the world and home to the famed Hi Records and the Hi Rhythm Section. You may catch Boo Mitchell on his way in or out, but it’s not open to the public. However, across the street is Hattie’s Tamale & Grocery, where the tamales are made fresh every day. (Between the store and the four trucks, Hattie’s sells about 2,000 a day!) Made from beef and wrapped in paper, the Delta-style tamales come hot or mild. Get some to put in your cooler or your hotel fridge. They taste great cold, and are a little less messy.
Next, drive into Midtown and browse through a few homegrown record stores. Goner Records in Cooper Young has its own label and puts on one of the best festivals of the year — Gonerfest — the last weekend in September. After you stock up on new and used vinyl, walk a few blocks and snap a photo with the newly erected Johnny Cash statue, right next to the church where he held his first public performance. This will put you within a few blocks of Payne’s, the favorite barbecue stop of Sonic Youth when they recorded with Doug Easley. Payne’s is known for its mustard slaw and barbecue bologna, but you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu.
Shangri-La Records, in nearby Overton Square, buys, sells and trades LPs, CDs, DVDs, 7”/45s, 78s, books and magazines, sheet music, musical and stereo equipment, turntables, and music and pop culture memorabilia. There’s also a decent chance it’s having a party with live bands in the parking lot. Just a few blocks away is Ardent Studios, where some of the best music in modern history was and is still being produced.
Overton Square has plenty of dining options, but in keeping with the weekend’s theme, try Coletta’s or Mortimer’s for dinner. Coletta’s is one of the city’s oldest Italian restaurants and another favorite of Elvis’. It’s known for its barbecue pizza, and the South Parkway location has one of the best old-school bars in town as well as an Elvis Room. Mortimer’s requires a quick trip east, but is a must for Big Star fans. The owner is Chris Bell’s sister, and there’s a dedicated Big Star room just next to the bar. Known as the Berclair Country Club, Mortimer’s will give you a taste of blue-collar class. The fare leans toward Cajun, but the menu has a little something for everyone.
Saturday night should offer a number of opportunities to experience live music. In the summer and fall, the Levitt Shell in Overton Park hosts a free outdoor concert series that’s popular among locals and visitors alike. (Fun fact: The Shell is credited with the “first-ever rock ’n’ roll show,” thanks to a 1954 performance by Elvis.)
The Green Room in Crosstown Concourse is another great option for a low-cost/high-interest performance. What was once a Sears Tower is now a bustling vertical urban village full of creative offerings. With art galleries, restaurants, a bar and a brewery, it is a great place to spend the evening.
Be among the first to breathe life into an old haunt. Dale Watson recently restored Hernando’s Hide-a-way, which was once referred to as Jerry Lee Lewis’ “office” because he played there so often. Happy hour, live music, great burgers and fried catfish are on the bill.
Night owls should head to either the Hi Tone, B-Side or DKDC for late-night live music. Wild Bill’s is another old-school, cash-only juke joint for more blues and guaranteed dancing. The nearby Alex’s Tavern is a beloved dive bar with two jukeboxes, lots of televisions, a famous Greek burger and equally popular Greek wings, a great staff and no official closing time.
We recommend sleeping in, and then sipping a pour-over at Low Fi, which spins vinyl on Sunday mornings. Around 11 a.m., head to the Full Gospel Tabernacle, better known locally as Al Green’s church. The congregation is more than welcoming, as tourists and music-loving locals are frequent visitors to the Sunday service. Rev. Green, who arrives around noon or noon-thirty, will either be dressed in a colorful robe or a dark suit and sunglasses. Don’t expect him to bust out any of his top 40 hits, but he will most assuredly break into song with his seven-piece band (drums, piano, guitar, bass, keyboard, bongos, maracas) and color-coordinated choir backing him up. Tithing is encouraged. ($20 per person is a good rule.)
Al’s church isn’t too far from Graceland, so pop over for a selfie at the front gates, write your name on the wall, or hey, take the tour!
Before heading home, be sure to fill your belly with some soul food. The Four Way Inn or Jim & Samella’s House are both solid bets. They’re both likely to be crowded, but definitely worth the wait. If you’ve made it to Sunday and realized you didn’t eat enough barbecue, make your last stop Cozy Corner, about a mile from the Interstate 40 bridge, for one of its famous barbecued Cornish hens or some rib ends for the road.
Where to stay
The new Central Station Hotel (by Hilton) was designed with music lovers in mind. The lobby features a massive album cabinet for vinyl records, each of which is connected to Memphis in some way. A live DJ spins a selection of the 40,000 songs from afternoon to night. Songs can also be heard in the guestrooms — a playlist for the day and live music show listings are left outside the door each morning instead of a newspaper. (Call for availability before Dec. 22, book online afterward.)
Around the corner from Graceland is singer Dale Watson’s Airbnb, Lil Graceland, which rents for $160 a night. It features a Jungle Room and “Wat-Sun Studio” in the basement. There’s a solid ’50s feel at the Airbnb, but it has all of the amenities a modern traveler needs: comfy beds, plenty of plugs and TVs, and even Alexa. Ask about the two Airstream trailers in the backyard if the dates you want are booked. Watson and his wife, Celine Lee, have lots of tourists staying there as well as bands coming through to record.
Coming with a group? Check out another Airbnb listing: “A gift from Elvis to his doctor” sleeps 14 guests to the tune of $800 a night.