Well, of course I was listening to the song on the way here from Nashville. I got through 2 1/2 Marc Cohn albums as I made my way down Route 40 and then around the beltway to my first destination: Subaru! –I needed an oil change, tire rotation and have everything checked out. Then I was back on the loop and arrived at my hotel, just a few blocks off the Mississippi River. Route 40 was unlike any road I have been on. It was a nice enough highway as highways go, but there were more trucks than I’ve ever seen. More 18 wheelers than cars barreling towards the Mississippi.
West Memphis, which is actually not Memphis, is in Arkansas across the river. It is a trucking hub and became known as the “crossroads of America” in the trucking industry–hence the volume of trucks flowing towards it. It is also known as one of the most dangerous cities in America, which is why I won’t be flowing to it. Well, maybe just for a peak?
“Memphis is gritty,” a friend told me, as we sat and ate dinner. That’s the word I was looking for: gritty. Nashville is all shiny and new, with construction going on all over the place as new high rises go up. “Memphis,” he said, “is like a combination of Detroit and New Orleans. It has the grittiness of Detroit mixed with the weirdness of New Orleans.” Other people I have spoken to like the place. I know I liked it.
Plan A was to walk to look out on the Mississippi, go and grab some lunch and then head back to the hotel for nap. As usual, Plan A didn’t go well. I finally got to hear my blues here in the home of the Delta Blues, sitting in BB King’s Bar at the beginning of iconic Beale street. Since I was there, the Blues Museum was only a little bit away, so I walked there. Closed due to Covid. Memphis is known as the birthplace of Rock and Roll, with Soul to Blues to Rock. Just another mile walk away is Sun Studio.
At Sun Studio is a great picture hanging of the first “super group,” nicknamed the million dollar quartet. One night, Jerry Lee Lewis, still only a session player, was playing with Carl Perkins. In walks Elvis Presley. They started chatting and Sam Phillips, the owner, called Johnny Cash–along with every newspaper reporter he could find. The quartet would do a long set including their favorites, mixed in with soul and Christmas songs. Phillips illegally recorded the entire thing–Presley was then under the Epic label–but waited over 30 years to release it.
Amazingly, it is still a working studio and has never been updated since the likes of Elvis, Cash and BB King recorded there. Newer artists have gone there looking for the sound like U2, Bonnie Raitt and Maroon 5.
In between Beale Street and the Blues Museum is the other side of Memphis: the home of the Civil Right’s Movement. Just past the Blues Hall of Fame is the Civil Right’s Museum and the infamous Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. It was eerie. The motel has been kept intact with the cars still in the parking lot and the museum built attached to it. I’ve seen the sight in countless movies, documentaries, history books, and articles. But to stand underneath room 306?
There was a strangeness to Memphis, though. A hushed silence away from Beale Street. There were more boarded up windows than people, more “business space for rent.” On a weekday afternoon, where I walked about 8 miles instead of napping, I could not feel the “downtown” of a major city. A quiet day or Covid? Like other places I am finding, it is just not like it was/will be. But the grittiness just made it seem more stark against the July sun.
PS. Who’s Karen?