Tennessee: Two Cities, Two Histories

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Some cities punch above their weight in historical consequence for the 20th century.

By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones

Tennessee has two such cities, Memphis and Nashville. The latter is known as “Music City” and more on that later. Memphis has the distinction of producing some of the best and worst of the turbulent 20th century. Let’s start there.

Two important things happened in Memphis: rock ’n’ roll and soul were born and Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

If nothing else, Elvis Presley recorded his first tracks at Sun Studio and changed the trajectory of popular music. Elvis was part of a circle that included Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. These iconic names were first recorded by producer Sam Phillips at his Sun Studio storefront on Union Street. You can tour the studio and even kiss the spot on the floor – as Bob Dylan allegedly did – where Elvis cozied up to the mic to record his rockabilly hit, “That’s All Right Mama.”

Not far from Sun Studio, Booker T. & The MGs cooked up a sound that became the backbone of soul label Stax Records. As the house band at Stax, the group went on to write and record instrumental tracks for Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, The Staples Singers and Wilson Pickett – to name a few.

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music stands on the sacred ground of the original studios. It takes several hours to read and listen to every exhibit – but it’s a great tour through the history of an institution that, for a few golden years, filled the airways with memorable soul songs that compel you to snap your fingers in time.

Wander down Memphis’ Beale Street on a Friday or Saturday night and every second club has live music – some of it very good. You can imagine what the music scene was like in the more rambunctious but prosperous 1960s and 70s when soul music and early rockabilly was breaking into the mainstream.

All of this music was making its mark at a time when cities of the South – Memphis included – were struggling with issues of class and segregation. That’s what compelled civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. to visit the city in April 1968 to campaign for the labour rights of the city’s striking sanitation workers.

King was standing on the balcony, in front of room 306, of the Lorraine Motel when he was gunned down by an assassin’s bullet. The Lorraine Motel – now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum – holds a place in the race and civil rights history of Memphis. The African American-owned motel was the preferred hangout of the staff and musicians from Stax, a place where there was no colour barrier. The black and white musicians shared the swimming pool, relaxed and socialized at the Lorraine when they took a midday break to escape the heat of the studio. The museum is a poignant and expansive look at the lessons of the Civil Rights movement and the events before and after the assassination of Dr. King.

Elvis’ Graceland is about as hallowed an American destination as any in the nation. You really can’t overstate his contribution in bringing black music to white people. The tour of Presley’s stately Memphis residence sugar coats and celebrates the person while glossing over some of the less appealing context. For committed fans Graceland is a pilgrimage: the wildly-decorated Jungle Room, the walls lined with platinum and gold records, the singer’s two private jets and the quiet contemplation of the Meditation Garden where The King is buried.

Nashville, or “Music City” as it’s nicknamed, is home to two iconic musical institutions – the Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry – as well as the enormous Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

If there’s a “mother church of country music,” it’s in the heart of the city at the red brick Ryman. Constructed as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892 – well before the age of electronic sound reinforcement – it’s like “playing inside a guitar” according to Neil Young who recorded his concert film Heart of Gold there. Still a popular concert venue, the Ryman is filled with posters, newspaper clippings and exhibits from the Grand Ole Opry years (1943-74). The sound is glorious and the sightlines are ideal.



And if you can stand the commercials – it is a live radio show after all – see the Grand Ole Opry in its “new” home on the edge of Nashville, completely restored from the 2010 flood and still hosting the biggest names in country music. Backstage tours show the glamour behind the curtain.

Downtown, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum covers the very earliest days of country music (the Carter Family, Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams) to the current-day stars dominating the radio waves and concert stages. It’s most interesting to watch the evolution of country music from folk art form to big business.

Memphis and Nashville inspired a lot of what we have come to know as popular music in our lifetimes. You can focus on the music, but you’ll get much more out of the music if you set it into its historical context of race and rights, struggle and resistance, triumph and defeat.

Other worthwhile Tennessee stops:

  • In Knoxville catch a live lunchtime performance of the Blue Plate Special, broadcast on radio station WDVX from the downtown Visitor Center.
  • If fretted instruments are your passion, you’ll find more than a thousand at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, including a 1960 Les Paul Standard priced at $135,000.
  • After a visit to the Lorraine Motel, stop for Memphis barbecue at Central BBQ. The pulled pork sandwich is large enough for two to share.


Who’s writing

This is an experiment in creating a lifestyle: Taking her expertise (travel writing) and his experience (as a professional musician and freelance writer), stirring it together and seeing what happens. Add a camper van (a 20-foot Leisure Travel Class B, for those who need the specs), an easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby), a window of six weeks and a yearning to follow and write about the great music trails of the Southeast United States. There’s a file full of maps and a GPS nicknamed “Hal” (we prefer the maps).