MEMPHIS – This Southern city boasts Elvis and a whole lot of charm — but if its personality had to be distilled down to two words, it would be music and barbecue.
The blues, country and gospel music converged along the Mississippi in the 1950s and '60s to create some powerfully moving music by the likes of Johnny Cash, Isaac Hayes, Booker T and the MGs and Al Green.
While many of the artists left decades ago, visitors can still follow in the shadows of their favorite musicians by just driving around town.
For a complete overview of American soul music, head to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which tells the story of artists like Sam and Dave and Otis Redding from the rebuilt location where they recorded hits like "Soul Man" and "Try a Little Tenderness."
While Motown was cranking out polished hits in Detroit, Memphis cultivated its own sound on the south side of town, where siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton opened a record shop and recording studio that would become a beacon for neighborhood kids to wander in and do their thing regardless of their skin color.
"It was pure. It wasn't polished. It was rough," says Al Bell, the former president of Stax Records in the film that opens the museum.
A church bought the original Stax location in 1981 for a buck during bankruptcy proceedings, and demolished it in 1989, but the building was restored and reopened as a museum and music academy in 2003.
The academy includes a Memphis charter school for sixth through 12th graders and community outreach to students in the third to 12th grades.
"We're trying to keep the legacy going by giving these kids the same kind of chance that these other neighborhood kids had," said Tim Sampson, a Stax spokesman.
Memphis Slim's house, across the street from the Stax parking lot, is soon to be restored.
A few minutes' drive from Stax, music fans can head to what has been called the shrine of Memphis music, Sun Studio. It's the location where Johnny Cash got rhythm, Elvis got his start and where current acts continue to record big hits. U2 cut "Angel of Harlem" here.
High on the Hog
Downtown Memphis smells like barbecue, with the indelible scent of smoked meat drifting on the summer breeze. A gal could easily get plump on the aromas alone.
Locals love their pork products, and wonder over plates of barbecue spaghetti whether the city has more gas stations or barbecue joints. Indeed, it seems that every few blocks there's a Tops Bar-B-Q, a local chain that tempts passersby with its hand-painted pig signs.
There are a gazillion options when it comes to finding pulled pork or ribs in Memphis. Some swear by Rendezvous (52 S. Second St.), famed for its dry ribs; others tout the succulence of those made at Cozy Corner (745 N. Parkway).
In Midtown, dinners can't seem to get enough of barbecue nachos and spaghetti at the Bar-B-Q Shop (1782 Madison Ave.). Pulling the meat from the bone costs a quarter extra, but it's worth the lack of a mess.
Marlowe's (4381 Elvis Presley Blvd.), a late-night roadhouse near Graceland, was the place where the King liked to order his ribs and the wait staff still talks about how an Elvis visit could shut down the bar. The restaurant is hard to miss, with a giant pink pig trailer parked out front.
At Ellen's Soul Food (601 S. Parkway), folks flock to the fried chicken platters, though the adventurous can try turkey necks. Sides of butter beans, mac-n-cheese and yams are yummy, but the star of the table is Ellen's take on corn bread, fried into pancakes and oozing with buttery appeal.
Save room for dessert as 7-Up and Sock-It-To-Me cakes — glorified pound cake with glazes made with soda pop and sprinkles — are Southern originals.
If you're in need of a break from all that eating, hit the Peabody hotel (149 Union Ave.) at 5 p.m. to watch the ducks walk the red carpet from the main lobby fountain to the elevator in a show that delights both young and old. The mint juleps aren't bad, either.
Regardless of whose ribs end up tickling your palate, be sure to bring some Alka-Seltzer. With indulgence like this, you're going to need it.