Memphis and Nashville are musically conjoined twins. One child Country the other RocknRoll. While both genres are unique, have their own icons and fan-base, in many ways they are intrinsically intertwined. Both are forged in the cauldron of gritty delta blues, raucous juke joint swing and soulful Appalachian ballads of the Scots-Irish. Rock and Roll and Country are quintessentially American. While they may sometimes quarrel like siblings, they share a deep commonality that forever binds them. So I make the journey into the melded hearts of the music I love so much: Memphis and Nashville.
In December 2010, I had reached the end of my work year and still had all my vacation days unused. To this day, I’m not really sure how I pulled that one off other than I must have been really focused that year. With two of my three weeks ‘use it or lose it’ days, I needed to do something. On a whim, I decided to drive from my home in Kansas City to Nashville, stopping for a day or two in Memphis. The only problem was this wild idea hit me at ten pm, and I ended up making the eight-hour drive in the dark.
If you should mention Memphis, Tennessee to someone one name and one name only comes to mind this guy:
Elvis and not as in Costello. (Although he’s pretty good too). No, Elvis Presley the first and only King of Rock and Roll. He may be long gone (or is he?) but his shadow is still widely cast in Memphis. His home called Graceland is on Elvis Presley Boulevard and is the second most commonly visited home in the country, second only to the Whitehouse.
It was a cold rainy day when I visited. The yard had some lovely firs decorated in full Christmas regalia. I found there’s more to Graceland than just the home. There are several museums housing Elvis’ cars, airplanes and gold records. There’s a very nice hotel called “The Guest House” that has a four-diamond rating from triple A. ( I stayed at the motel6 down the street I mean I am on a budget) But the guest house did look very nice, They also have several theme restaurants like “Vernon’s Smokehouse” and: Gladys’ Diner” named after Elvis’ parents. Elvis’ former wife Priscilla and executor of his estate have really turned this into a real commercial enterprise.
You can’t go to the front door and walk in, tickets must be purchased across the street. The prices range from 39.00 for just the basic fare to the house to a luxuriant 169.00 “Ultimate VIP Tour” which includes a personal guide to the grounds, access to all the museums a really prestigious looking VIP laminate you get to wear. There’s and an ‘exclusive private photo-op’ which both sounds equally ambiguous and intriguing. But alas, I’ll never know just what that photo-op entails. If I could only rate a motel6, I certainly wouldn’t be able to get the VIP package. I opted for the next tier down still apparently a VIP but with a slightly less illustrious laminate. I joked to myself I was a KIP “kind of important person,” but it worked for me.
I was shocked at how much of the mansion I had to myself. Sure, it was a weekday in wintertime, but there wasn’t really anyone else there. I got to stroll at my own, slow pace which meant I got to drink in the jungle room in all its glory. I had a headset which described all the places. The recording on the headset said kept saying ” Please step aside so others can see” and I was the only one in the room. I thought that was quite funny.
I saved the grave-site for the end of my visit. Elvis rests next to his parents at a tiny outdoor chapel beside his swimming pool. As I approached the grave, I saw a woman standing next to his graveside weeping. I didn’t contact but held my ground a respectable distance away to allow her to have her moment. She pulled a card out of her coat pocket and set it on his grave and walked away. I walked over and looked down at the card. I was curious as to what it said. The card just said “Always on my mind” (the name of one of his hits). I’d be lying if I didn’t say it made me tear up a bit myself.
My first thought when I saw this woman crying was ” It’s amazing how someone we never even meat could touch our lives so much to make us weep for them.” The older me realizes that’s a silly thought. Of course, she met him, even if she never saw him face to face. What makes Elvis well, Elvis was his ability to reach others through music. He left his soul in the notes of his songs. We connected. We all met him, we all miss him.
Rock and Roll may have been conceived in the juke joints of the Mississippi, but it was born in Memphis and the delivery room Sun Studios. Hope I didn’t belabor that analogy too much (pun intended). Sun Studios is just a few blocks away from Graceland. They even offer a free shuttle. The prices are much less marquee than Graceland at 14.00 for about an hour guided tour. The young lady who was the guide was an extra in the movie “Walk the line’ about Sun alum Johnny Cash. She had some great stories about her time on set.
The list of talent who graced Sun Studios in its early days stymies the mind. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Conway Twitty (who was a rock and roller before he went country.) What’s pretty amazing is that several of them shared an apartment right above the studio. Imagine that. Even today bands like U2 and Dire Straits have recorded here. You can record there too if you like. The studio offers demos. Here’s me singing right where Elvis stood.
While I would definitely recommend both. I did feel like the 14.00 hour of Sun Studios was a better value. Memphis also has great Bar B Q and a wild club scene on Beale Street with live blues and brews nightly. I was planning on staying an extra night and visiting Beale Street, but several locals said to stay away as there had been some recent problems with crime there. So I took a pass and headed on down Highway Interstate 40 to Nashville.