Rocknuts Road Trip, Part 1: Memphis soul and the origins of rock n’ roll

This past week I was able to enjoy some rare vacation days, and a funny thing happened on route to some rest and relaxation — my vacation turned into an impromptu road trip through the deep south of the United States, and along the way I soaked in some of the rich musical history the region has to offer. It was a journey I recommend for any fan of rock music, or music in general, and if you take the time to plan it better than I did, you can come up with a trip superior to mine that will leave you with some life experiences you’ll always cherish.

I’ll take you through the trip in three parts, offering some thoughts on the attractions I saw and whether or not you should make it a point to do the same. The trip started after a company meeting in Nashville for my full-time job, after which I took a week of vacation time without really knowing what I was going to do with it. But that’s how I tend to do things — road trips have become a hobby of mine, and while out on the road I often leave things open-ended without deciding where I’m going to go next until the night before, or sometimes the day of. On occasion I’ll have hotel rooms reserved in advance, but often times I won’t reserve one until deciding the night before where I want to go the next day, or sometimes I won’t have a room until I walk up to a hotel desk and ask for one.

It’s all part of the adventure, I guess.

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With this particular trip, the two places I knew in advance I wanted to go were Memphis and Hot Springs, Arkansas (because I’m a National Parks geek and wanted to see Hot Springs NP while I was in the area). From there, it was completely open-ended, and as you’ll see in the days to come, I wound up in some pretty cool places.

After leaving Nashville on a Friday, I headed to Memphis with the intent on taking in the music vibe of the city. It was a good weekend for it, as the Beale Street Music Festival was taking place, with artists such as Jack White, Queens of the Stone Age, David Byrne, and The Flaming Lips on the bill. The festival certainly didn’t make traffic any easier to navigate, but the fact it was in going on just added an extra musical dimension to the weekend.

I stayed two days in Memphis and was able to take in the music attractions I came to see. We’ll go over three of them in this installment, starting with the attraction with the most soul.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music
926 East McLemore Avenue, Memphis
Pros: Nice price, well-presented, a few fun exhibits, gift shop has some cool stuff
Cons: Maybe a slight lack of mind-blowing artifacts, and some of that cool gift shop stuff is expensive
Score: 4 out of 5 (for music fans and/or fans of the genre only)

The Stax Museum from the outside

The Stax Museum was the first place I visited in Memphis, arriving shortly after the doors opened on Saturday morning. The museum is located at the former site of Stax Records and tells the story of the rise and fall of the label, how it shaped soul music and how it was changed by the events that took place in Memphis at the time, particularly the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which took place in Downtown Memphis at the Lorraine Motel (a site that is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, an attraction I also took in amid the frustration of large crowds). The Stax Museum is located somewhat away from downtown in one of the residential areas, which adds to its flavor.

Museum admission is $13, and there’s at least two hours of content for visitors to take in if they take some time to read what’s on display. There’s bits and pieces of history from artists up and down the Stax roster, with my favorite being the keyboard used during the recording of “Green Onions” by Booker T. & the MGs and Isaac Hayes’ Cadillac, which as you can see might be one of the wilder vehicles in music history.

Isaac Hayes rode in style

If there’s a nitpick I have about this museum, it’s that I came out of it without feeling much of a “wow” factor, although that’s not too big of a deal as I’m hard to impress. Overall I came away satisfied — I might stop short of calling it a must-see, but it is something any music fan should take in before leaving town.

Next up…

Sun Studio
706 Union Ave, Memphis
Pros: You can feel the history here
Cons: Doesn’t last very long
Score: 4 out of 5

Whereas Stax was a faithful re-creation and tribute to what existed on McLemore Avenue years ago, Sun Studio is the real deal, giving music fans the chance to stand where Elvis Presley stood when he belted out “That’s All Right” in 1954 and be in the same spot where rock music was arguably born with “Rocket 88” in 1951. The building is small and the experience somewhat short, but for music fans it’s definitely worth it, and it’s an entertaining enough experience for those who don’t care as much about music to get a kick from it as well. Part of that had to do with the uniquely gifted tour guide, who on occasion would break from his recollections of history to sing and play instruments.

It’s a two-part tour, beginning with a small museum on the second floor of the studio and concluding with a trip to the recording studio itself where it all began. That feeling of being there is what makes this a must-see for rock fans, and it’s probably what you’ll remember most from the visit. There’s also a small snack bar and gift shop, where they were playing the Dead Kennedys cover of “Viva Las Vegas” — a nice touch. Tickets cost $14; call ahead for a tour time in order to avoid any long waits.

Where the magic happened…

The third attraction reviewed in this portion is one I saw on my way out of town on Sunday…

Blues Hall of Fame
421 S Main St, Memphis
Pros: A few nice artifacts, a fun database of blues songs to play with
Cons: Very small and short-lived unless you take extra time to go through the database and read all the exhibits
Score: 3 out of 5

A Stevie Ray Vaughan display at the Blues Hall of Fame

With a couple hours to spare before heading out of town, the decision was made to squeeze this attraction late Sunday afternoon. Headed up by The Blues Foundation, the Blues Hall of Fame is a modest attraction that consists mainly of a hallway filled with exhibits and a hallway listing the Hall of Fame inductees. I liked what I saw in there, but admittedly there wasn’t a great deal to take in. It’s located right in the area of the Civil Rights Museum and not far away from Beale Street and other attractions, so it can be a good time-filler if need be.

There’s quite a bit more to see and do in Memphis — Beale Street, of course; the Rock & Soul Museum, which I missed out on, and any number of places to see live music. I definitely dug this town, and the rocknut (or bluesnut) in you will as well as it has a great, authentic vibe.

Beale Street in Memphis

And oh yeah, there is one other major music attraction of note in Memphis… but that’s a story for the next installment.

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3 comments to “Rocknuts Road Trip, Part 1: Memphis soul and the origins of rock n’ roll”
  1. I was there last week & found the Rock & Soul Museum to be my favorite of the attractions. I’m not counting Central BBQ 😉 So good!!!

    • I wanted to go to Central BBQ but the lines were unfortunately way too long 🙁 hopefully I’ll get another chance to go to Memphis and will get to try out Central BBQ then!

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