Memphis is on a roll, and by Memphis, the locals don’t just mean the city Andrew Jackson incorporated along the Mississippi River in 1819. Memphis the brand resonates now like perhaps no time since 1968. Consider that when disaster occurred at the Lorraine Motel, the city was already inspiring Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Alex Chilton, B.B. King, William Eggleston, and Peter Taylor. That crew—and many others—elevated the city to international renown before Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassin forever tainted its history, a tragedy that is now movingly, painfully recalled at the National Civil Rights Museum.
Four current TV shows are set in Memphis, as was the blockbuster movie The Blind Side (though it was shot in Atlanta). Two of the 2010 Tony Awards’ four Best Musical nominees were set here; rock-and-roll race fable Memphis: The Musical took top prize. This fall the show will launch its national tour from the stately, historic Orpheum Theatre. Clearly, Memphis is a city with lots of stories to tell.
Every spring the city packages itself with a multievent lineup called Memphis In May. The celebration kicks off with the three-day Beale Street Music Festival (4/29–5/1) on a strip of parkland overlooking the river. This year features perhaps its best lineup ever, with John Mellencamp, Ke$ha, Jason Mraz, B.o.B, Lucinda Williams, and dozens more artists. Less than two weeks later, the BSMF’s herbal haze gives way to the irresistible aromas of the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (5/12–5/14). And the month concludes with the Sunset Symphony (5/28), themed this year around the inimitable soul of locally based Stax Records.
With its famous ducks, the Peabody hotel gets all the (well-deserved) international attention—the Mississippi Delta famously begins in its lobby. But the Madison, a luxuriously hip hotel in a historic building (think the W’s less vain cousin), hits all the right notes, including a Stax CD and stereo in every room.
Of course, Memphis is known for barbecue such as fall-off-the-bone pork ribs at Central BBQ or the dry rub variation at Rendezvous. But there are other locally owned, chef-run restaurants accessible to both the wallet and the palate. McEwen’s On Monroe puts a gourmet spin on Southern specialties. New Orleans–themed Restaurant Iris is home to up-and-coming chef Kelly English, a 2010 James Beard semifinalist. And Bari Ristorante e Enoteca specializes in cuisine from the Puglia region of Italy.
In May the lovingly restored outdoor music venue Levitt Shell begins offering free shows from local and regional artists on Thursday to Sunday nights through mid-June. The historic stage in Overton Park has hosted Elvis, the Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash, and all of Memphis’s soul legends. Also in Overton Park is the popular Memphis Zoo.
Later in the summer is the annual August candlelight vigil at Elvis Presley’s Graceland. But somehow “Death Week,” even with its touches of melodrama and kitsch, adds to the city’s allure. A rock biographer last year put it this way for the Commercial Appeal, the local daily: “Even when they try to Disney-fy it, the real Memphis refuses to lay down and die.”
Photograph courtesy of Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau Marketing Department