The Nashville skyline enchants locals and visitors alike. — Photo courtesy of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation
In the South, it seems to take a bit longer to get from one thing to the next. (And somehow, that’s just fine.) The pace is mellow and the drawls meandering; here you get the sense that every “how y’all doing today?” is more than a mere pleasantry.
In this pocket of the country, omnipresent, wrap-around porches are built for rockin’, and screened-in porches hint at sweltering evenings marked by buzzing mosquitos and lazy fans attempting to slice the soupy air. The hospitality in this part of the country is top-notch and, if you’re anything like us, you’ll be tempted to order another sweet tea and stay awhile longer.
Southern hospitality reigns at institutions like Ajax Diner in Oxford, Mississippi. — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
Though road trip options abound in the historically-rich American South, we’ve begun with an itinerary focused on the treasures of Tennessee. Naturally, one can’t discuss Memphis and Nashville without diving into the towns’ distinctive music personalities. (But of course, we had to do our due diligence and delve into these destinations' culinary riches, too.)
These cities communicate in two different languages; while Memphis sings the blues, Nashville croons in country. Come along, y’all. Let’s rock and roll.
At Stax, visitors learn about the evolution of Southern soul and Memphis soul music. — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
When talking to locals, it doesn’t take long to pick up on a subtle (often playful) rivalry between Memphis and Nashville, not altogether surprising for two closely-situated towns–just over 200 miles–that boast very different histories and present-day dispositions.
Natives of Memphis show great pride when talking about their city–the "home of the blues, birthplace of rock 'n' roll"–where buzzwords range from Elvis to BBQ. Statements like “Memphis will always have soul” surface in casual conversation; after a few days here, this makes perfect sense. The vibe in this town is sometimes gritty, other times grandiose, consistently friendly and refreshingly “real.”
To understand the events and figures that have shaped Memphis’s landscape, begin by exploring the exquisite and powerful National Civil Rights Museum (at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in April of 1968), and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Here an intro film and subsequent rooms chock-full of photographs, video footage and relics reveal how music has become richly embedded in the tapestry of the city. (Also check out Sun Studio, where Elvis recorded his first songs and such stars as B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins later recorded.)
This naturally leads to another “must-see”–Graceland, the colonial revival-style mansion that "The King" called home for more than 20 years. An informative, hi-tech tour winds guests through sunken dens with funky, now-retro decor and an expansive yard where Elvis's golf carts whizzed and horses once galloped. Visitors enter by group, but personal tablets allow for individual pacing. (Tip: Go mid-week to dodge massive tour bus crowds.)
Visitors to Graceland enjoy gems like the sunken living room with vibrant green shag carpet. — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
Of course, a visit to Memphis isn't complete without a stroll along Beale Street, reminiscent of New Orleans' Bourbon Street. Along the thriving (tourist-heavy) corridor, neon signs reveal a line-up of bars and live music venues where the greats once "wowed"; these days, a hodgepodge of beats continue to spill out into the streets.
Near Beale Street, music gurus enjoy the Gibson Guitar Factory Tour, and those in the know flock to popular dive bar (and one-time hotel/brothel) Earnestine's and Hazel's–today marked by its friendly vibe, constantly-jamming jukebox and renowned "soul burgers."
So how else to sate one's appetite in the midst of all these music-centric adventures? It's imperative to experience the Memphis BBQ craze–sampling styles both "dry" and "wet"–by checking out casual lunchtime eateries (Central BBQ) and institutions like Rendezvous (opened in 1948), a vibrant, subterranean spot where some of the bow tie-wearing wait staff have served for decades. Diners here relish platters of ribs, pitchers of beer, and walls stacked with memorabilia and autographed photos of famous faces.
Rendezvous, a true Memphis institution, has been charming guests for 80-plus years. — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
For other food-and-music combos, head to the historic Overton Square of Midtown Memphis, where local celebrity chef Kelly English has two acclaimed restaurants–Iris and its next-door neighbor Second Line, both situated inside charming house-like spaces. Consider grabbing a cocktail in a private back room of Iris before delighting in Second Line's casual fare that puts a Memphis spin on New Orleans favorites; think po'boys, seafood plates, roasted meats and freshly-squeezed Hurricanes. Afterward, check out live music nearby at the recently-renovated Lafayette's, a historic space where legends like Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Kansas, and Kiss once took the stage.
Another can't-miss: Downtown, daily at 5 p.m., watch the march of the Peabody ducks in the hotel lobby–a quirky, endearing tradition now going on some 80 years. (Tip: arrive early to get a good viewing spot on the upper balcony or near the fountain where the ducks commence their blink-and-you'll-miss-it parade.)
If the weather’s right, grab a drink afterward at the Twilight Sky Terrace atop the Hotel Madison, which offers killer views of the mighty Mississippi. Then, for a truly unforgettable "throwback" experience, top off the night with a visit to Paula & Raiford's Disco, where cigarette smoke and funky beats waft into the wee hours.
To thoroughly relish the flavors of this soulful city, check out the much-anticipated annual events of Memphis in May. The Beale Street Music Festival (May 1 through 3) features acts like Lenny Kravitz, Shovels + Rope, Ryan Adams and Flaming Lips, and the world-renowned Barbecue Cooking Contest sizzles again this year from May 14 through 16.
If time allows, venture farther south on Mississippi’s Blues Highway, along historic Route 61. Make pit stops in captivating spots like Clarksdale, revered for being the cradle of the American blues movement and the producer of legends like Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, and Muddy Waters.
Oxford's scenic town square proves a great spot for shopping, eating and music-listening. — Photo courtesy of Corinne Whiting
Alternatively, for a different dose of Mississippi flavor, drive the 80-some miles from Memphis to Oxford–the home of Ole Miss–where highlights include visiting Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner; digging into Ajax Diner's generous plates of fried catfish, collard greens, and sweet potato pie; and wandering the bustling square to soak in nighttime music in happenin' spaces like The Lyric, The Blind Pig, and Proud Larry's.
Just over three hours east of Memphis, the majestic cityscape of Nashville rises against a brilliant sky. The buzz of the city is immediately palpable upon entering "Music City," a nickname highly appropriate for a town that boasts more than 150 live music venues. (Keep your eyes peeled for guitar pick-shaped “Live Music Venue” signs that signal spaces where talents takes the spotlight four or more nights a week.)
Nashville residents use words like "alive" and "smart" to describe their vibrant hometown, and many appreciate that a fuss isn't made about brushing shoulders with long-time music legends, newer-to-the-scene megastars (Taylor Swift), and country-chicks-by-association (Nicole Kidman). For anyone dreaming to make it big in the country music industry, Nashville, it seems, is the place to hang one's hat.
By day, get educated in the phenomenal Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum; by night, soak in the city's array of beautiful sounds inside legendary spaces like the Grand Ole Opry. What began as a simple radio broadcast in 1925, this year proudly celebrates its 90th anniversary of being a live entertainment phenomena that's well worth a visit.
Then, of course, there's the "Mother Church of Country Music"–Ryman Auditorium–and institutions like Station Inn, the longtime, laid-back listening room for bluegrass and roots. For a high-energy night out, explore the plethora of honky tonks on downtown's Lower Broadway like Robert's Western World. (Fair warning: If exploring this strip on a spring or summer Saturday night, be prepared to brave crowds reminiscent of Times Square on New Year's Eve.)
The Grand Ole Opry showcases longtime legends and hot, emerging acts like Striking Matches. — Photo courtesy of Chris Hollo/©2015 Grand Ole Opry
Consider lodging in centrally-located venues like Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, where draws include sleek, music-accented guest rooms, proximity to the beautiful university campus and a Rhythms of the South package that connects guests to the city's hottest attractions. At mealtime, head to the recently-booming Gulch neighborhood, where highlights range from breweries to culinary gems like Biscuit Love and Adele's (where a pudding-dessert finale is a must).
Up for a small road trip? Just half an hour south of the city, sprawling farmland leads to charming historic towns like Franklin, known for its boutique shopping and celeb clientele. Grab brunch at hangouts like Gray’s on Main or 55 South, where upscale comfort fare includes a regional favorite–Nashville Hot Chicken.
After delving into Tennessee's many treasures–past and present, one thing's for sure: You'll be heading home with a smile on your face and the songs of the South echoing in your ears. Y'all come back now, ya hear?
Talents like Tommy Simms are the heartbeat of Nashville's music-centric vibe. — Photo courtesy of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corporation