The Great River Road

Old Man River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation,” Big Muddy—by any name the mighty Mississippi cuts a mythic figure across the American landscape.

Memphis

Memphis’s gifts to American culture include the supermarket, the drive-in restaurant, the Holiday Inn, Elvis Presley, and Federal Express, and if you detect a pattern here you’ll understand why the city is at once entertainingly kitsch and supremely captivating. This is not to say Memphis (pop. 655,141) lacks a coherent character—just the opposite—but its charms can have unpredictable side effects.

Beale Street, downtown between 2nd and 4th Streets, has been Memphis’s honky-tonk central ever since native son W. C. Handy set up shop in the early 1900s with the blues he’d learned in Mississippi. Beale Street, and much of downtown Memphis, has been sanitized for your protection, turning it into a (new and improved!) version of its old self. A massive shopping mall and flashy new arena for the Grizzlies basketball team have transformed the entire south side of downtown Memphis. Slap an adhesive name tag on your lapel and you’ll fit right in with the tour bus crowds strolling at night along Beale Street’s block of clubs—including B. B. King’s (143 Beale St., 901/524-5464), marked by a giant neon guitar.

Fortunately, a number of other music-related museums and attractions capture a more authentic Memphis: The original Sun Studio (706 Union Ave., 800/441-6249, daily, $12), where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and many others recorded their historic tracks in the 1950s, is a short walk northeast. Even more satisfying for most music obsessives: the site of Stax Records studio (926 E. McLemore Ave., 901/942-7685, closed Mon., $12), now an excellent museum documenting the soulful impact of Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Al Green, and other greats during the 1960s.

If there’s one place that shouldn’t be missed, it’s the eloquent National Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry St., 901/521-9699, closed Tues., $15), south of Beale Street behind the restored facade of the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Aided by extensive multimedia and life-sized dioramas, museum exhibits let you step as far as you like into the powerful struggle of the Civil Rights Movement. Across the street, disturbing displays about Dr. King’s assassination are housed in the old rooming house where James Earl Ray fired the fatal shots.

On the north side of downtown Memphis, Mud Island is a real island in the middle of the Mississippi River, connected to downtown by a pedestrian bridge and a monorail. This 50-acre island holds a five-block-long mock-up of the Mississippi River, with the Gulf of Mexico played by a huge, 1.3-million-gallon public swimming pool. Also here is the excellent Mississippi River Museum.

Right in downtown Memphis, but just a step away from the majors, the Memphis Redbirds (200 Union Ave., 901/721-6000, $6-23), Triple-A farm club for the St. Louis Cardinals, play at AutoZone Park.

 

Practicalities

As it is with live music, food is one area where Memphis can still surpass just about any other American city, and if your taste buds prefer improvisation and passion to over-refined “perfection,” Memphis is sure to satisfy.

Competition among the city’s 50 or more rib shacks is fierce. Elvis Presley’s favorite barbecue joint, Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous (52 S. 2nd St., 901/523-2746), right downtown, with its main entrance through a downtown alley, is now something of a tourist trap. Main challengers to the title of “Best Barbecue in the Universe” include Neely’s Interstate BBQ (2265 S. 3rd St., 901/775-2304), just north of where US-61 crosses I-55, and bare-bones drive-up barbecue stand Cozy Corner (745 N. Parkway, 901/527-9158), just east of US-51. For a change of pace from ribs, try the onion rings, burgers, beers, and live blues at another Memphis institution, Huey’s (77 S. 2nd St., 901/527-2700), right downtown.

Except during the city’s many music and food festivals, Memphis accommodations are priced very reasonably. The whole alphabet of major chains—from Best Western to Super 8—is spread around the I-240 beltway, and again along I-55 in neighboring Arkansas. One landmark place to stay, the Peabody Hotel (149 Union Ave., 901/529-4000, $219 and up) is Memphis’s premiere downtown hotel, whose sparkling lobby is home to the Mississippi’s most famous mallards: Twice daily, at 11am and 5pm, the red carpet is rolled out for the Peabody ducks to parade (waddle, really) to and from the lobby fountain. And if you’re planning a vigil at Graceland, consider Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel (3677 Elvis Presley Blvd., 901/332-1000 or 877/777-0606, $115 and up). Owned by his heirs and across from his former lair, the Heartbreak Hotel features a 24-hour in-room Elvis movie channel.

For tourist information contact the friendly and thorough Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau (47 Union Ave., 901/543-5300 or 888/633-9099), or drop by the information center (340 Beale St.).

 

Memphis

Information Center (340 Beale St.)

Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau (47 Union Ave.)

Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel (3677 Elvis Presley Blvd.)

Peabody Hotel (149 Union Ave.)

Huey’s (77 S. 2nd St.)

Cozy Corner (745 N. Parkway)

Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous (52 S. 2nd St.)

Mississippi River Museum (125 N. Front St.)

Mud Island

National Civil Rights Museum (450 Mulberry St.)

Stax Records (926 E. McLemore Ave.)

Sun Studio (706 Union Ave.)

B. B. King’s (143 Beale St.)

Neely’s Interstate BBQ (2265 S. 3rd St.)