Touring the Deep South USA: Memphis

Arriving at Sun Studio in Memphis

We were now well into the second half of our week touring America’s Deep South and after a pre-tour stay in New Orleans and stops in Alabama, Gatlinburg for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Nashville, today we were Memphis bound.

Like with Nashville, this would not only be my second time visiting the city of Memphis, Tennessee but also my second time visiting as part of a Trek America tour.

Waiting to tour the Studio

The first time, had been pretty disastrous as far as our plans went as we had to abandon most of them when the city was hit by heavy snow. We had managed to fit in a tour of Sun Studios before the blizzard came but Graceland, the Civil Rights Museum and most of the other city museums, attractions, cafes, restaurants, shops and bars had closed. So I was looking forward to returning and hopefully, doing all the things I’d missed out on before as well as repeating some of the few things I had done – starting with a return to Sun Studios.

Beale Street

Over two years on from my first visit but the tour of Sun Studios hadn’t changed in the slightest – It was even the same tour guide! This didn’t make the experience any less interesting, special and even emotional. To stand in the studio where so many legendary artists, including Elvis Presley, have stood, surrounded by recording equipment and instruments that would have been used back then is a strangely moving experience for any music fan and hearing those early recordings while stood in the room where the vocals were laid down is once again sent chills down my spine – in a good way!

Following on from the tour, we went to check in at our hotel. Whereas last visit, we stayed at a motel in the heart of the city, this time were staying on the outskirts giving us easier access to Graceland the next day but meaning we couldn’t just pop back their while out in the city. So once we were all ready, we were driven back into the city centre and headed straight to Blues City Cafe on the famous Beale Street for a delicious American BBQ dinner.

The bar/restaurant/club venue was a really fun place to visit. As we awaited our food, we were entertained by an excellent blues band then after polishing off my plate of ribs and pulled pork, we were later invited on the stage during a rousing rendition of Elvis classic Suspicious Minds.

Outside the entrance to the mansion and below, inside Graceland

The next day, I was finally going to visit Graceland, one of the things I had been most looking forward to on my last visit to Memphis but on that occasion, it wasn’t meant to be. This time however, its gates were wide open! After some discussion, we went for one of the more basic ticket options giving us access to a self-guided tour of the house and to visit the private jet.

Tickets purchased, we queued for the shuttle bus to take us across the the house entrance and were provided with individual ipads headphones to use to interactively guide us around the property. The house was for the main part, smaller and less grand than I expected but it was interesting listening to the commentary on each room, seeing the garishly-decorated ‘Jungle Room’, hearing the stories about Elvis’ home life and paying our respects at his grave. I would have liked to see more of the pop culture side – memorabilia and costumes for example – but later found out that a lot of this had been removed from the house and put into a separate exhibition that required one of the the higher priced tickets.

Elvis Presley’s private plane

After touring the house and grabbing some photos outside, we were shuttled back to the entrance complex where we grabbed lunch from one of the slightly over-priced food outlets, many of the group trying one of Elvis’ favourite Fried Peanut Butter and Banana sandwiches!

Then we walked over to see his private jet, the Lisa Marie which we were able to board and explore.

Arriving at the Stax Museum

We had finished at Graceland by early afternoon and again, I wish I had bought a higher priced ticket and took the opportunity to explore more of the exhibitions on offer while I had the chance but instead, we were at a bit of a loss for how to spend the rest of the day in Memphis. One thing the whole group was interested in doing was a visit to the Peabody hotel to see the March of the Peabody Ducks – my favourite part of my previous visit to Memphis being one of the few things open! But as that wasn’t until 5pm, we still had a lot of time to kill.

After some discussion, some of the group decided on a visit to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music so our guide drove us over to it. While I was not overly keen on visiting, the museum wasn’t in the best area of the city so we only really had the option of going into the museum or waiting on the van while the rest of the group visited. Figuring it was going to be at least more interesting than the inside of a van, I decided to join some of the other group members in buying a ticket – and I’m glad I did.

I wasn’t sure I would know many of the artists the museum would cover but I was wrong and it was interesting to read and hear about the rise soul music in the US and the part Memphis played in that as well as seeing lots of related music memorabilia.

The museum didn’t take a great deal of time to go round and we still had a long time to kill before we needed to be at the Peabody so our next stop was at the National Civil Rights Museum from where we had the option of walking into the city for a while.

Inside the museum

After taking some photos of the Lorraine Hotel, the museum’s base and site of the shooting of Martin Luther King, and reading some of the information boards outside the museum, a couple of us decided that actually we actually wanted to visit the museum and bought tickets to go in.

Ahead, the building and window the shot was fired from

I found the museum to be a fascinating and humbling experience. It was informative and well laid out, chronicling the fight for civil rights in America and eventually leading us to a viewing area of the hotel room where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated, outlining what happened that day. Included in the ticket was access to the building from where the shot was fired across the street.

We could have probably spent a lot longer reading through the information at the museum and its displays in more detail but having arranged to meet the rest of the group at a set time, we had to skim through some of it in order to see the whole museum in the time we had.

The Peabody Ducks swimming around the fountain in the hotel lobby

Having been picked up by the van, we were taken to the Peabody hotel in time to grab a place alongside the red carpet to watch the Peabody ducks.

Right on time, they jumped out of the fountain they’d been circling all day and began their march down the red carpet and into the elevator to return to their penthouse suite. Only in America!!

The bright lights of Beale Street

After a few hours to relax back at the hotel, it was back into the city for another night on the town. Dinner tonight was at Gus’ Chicken, a well known fried chicken diner, then we were set free on Beale Street for some bar hopping, drinks and live music.

Hitting the bars on Beale Street

It had been fun to return to Memphis and get the chance to see some of the places that had closed on my last visit.

Tomorrow, we would be driving to the final state on our tour of the Deep South, Mississippi where we’d be spending our final night in the city of Natchez and I was looking forward to see what the day would bring.

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