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Delta Blues and BBQ

Walking in Memphis

Swinging blues, smoking BBQ, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash: iFly reporter Iris went on a rockin’ road trip full of soul on the I-40 Music Highway from Memphis to Nashville. This edition contains part one.

Hit the road
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Iris Profile

Text & photography
Iris van den Broek

In a nutshell, country music was born in Nashville and rock ‘n roll in Memphis. It’s not as simple as that, of course, but both cities have played a tremendous role in the development of blues, soul, rock ‘n roll, jazz and music around the world in general. These two cities are connected by the I-40, aptly called the Music Highway. Travelling this road is a journey packed with music, food and history.

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Breakfast with The King

“Elvis liked to sit here so he could see in the mirror if any fans came in.” The waitress places my orange juice in front of me and asks, “Want to try the peanut butter and banana sandwich?” An odd combination, but the favourite of ‘The King’, so it’s still on the menu. It’s eight in the morning and I’m enjoying my breakfast at the Arcade in Memphis, the oldest restaurant in the city where Elvis Presley was a frequent visitor. After all, Memphis is where it all began for one of the world’s greatest icons ever. Nearby Graceland still attracts thousands of visitors every day.

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Nothing has been changed to the retro interior of the Arcade since the 50s, so you feel like you’ve been transported back to the good ol’ days as you sit on a pastel-coloured booth seat. I eat my breakfast under the watchful eye of Elvis. I hope he’s not disappointed that I chose the pancakes – with bananas, of course.

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Memphis = music

From ‘Home of the Blues’ to ‘Birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll’, Memphis has lots of nicknames. The city is synonymous with music and singer Marc Cohn even honoured Memphis with his own song: ‘Walking in Memphis’, which I often have in my head during my trip.

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The ultimate spot to experience the musical history of Memphis is the legendary Sun Studio. Record producer Sam Phillips started the Memphis Recording Service here in 1950, which he later renamed the Sun Recording Company. In 1954, Elvis Aaron Presley walked through the door. The rest is history. But Elvis is not the only star to have launched a career from the Sun. Jerry Lee Lewis (Great Balls of Fire), Carl Perkins (Blue Suede Shoes) and the ‘The Man in Black’ Johnny Cash also had major hits under the Sun label. These four stars once had a jam session here and the iconic picture of this ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ still hangs in the studio. You can take a guided tour of this unique studio during the daytime since recordings are still made in the evening and you can even sing a few lines into the microphone where The King once crooned a tune.

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    The Peabody Hotel

    Ducks in the lobby

    Even my hotel, the elegant Peabody, has its own music history. In the 30s and 40s, this was where the CBS radio network would broadcast its programmes. The Peabody is one of the oldest and most beautiful hotels in Memphis. The hotel doesn’t treat you like a guest, but more like a permanent resident – like the ducks living on the roof and the hotel’s greatest attraction. Every day, people gather in the impressive lobby at 11 in the morning and 5 in the afternoon to see the legendary ducks, who make their appearance during the Ceremony of the Ducks. In this bizarre phenomenon, the Peabody Duckmaster, donning a red tailcoat and top hat, escorts the ducks in the morning from the lift to the lobby fountain and, at the end of the day, sends them back into the lift during a similar ritual, to return them to their palace on the roof. Whereas, in any other hotel, the Penthouse button has achieved the highest possible status, at the Peabody, this is trumped by the ducks and their ‘Duck Palace’ button.

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    Memphis style BBQ

    Memphis is more than just music, but also BBQ. The southern part of the US – the South – is famous for its cuisine. In Memphis, BBQ dominates menus and I’m not talking about backyard grilling. BBQ is a specific style of cooking and meat preparation with special seasoning and smoky sauces. And even though any kind of meat can be used, traditional BBQ in Memphis means lots of pork.

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    When I ask around about the best place to enjoy BBQ, I quickly learn that almost everyone has a local favourite. The most common places mentioned? Central BBQ for nachos and pulled pork, Leonard’s Pit Barbecue for smoked sandwiches and, of course, spareribs at Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous.

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      Spareribs in the basement

      I’m lucky because the latter is located across the street from my hotel. The unmistakable sign for Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous hangs in a somewhat obscure alleyway. The restaurant is located in a basement, where old licence plates adorn the walls and the sounds of delta blues fill the room. It’s usually so packed you have to wait in the alley until your name is called over the sound system.

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      The ribs at Vergos have been famous for more than 70 years. For three generations, the standard for notorious Memphis style ribs has been set in this basement. What makes them so special? “We grill them on coal,” explains Bobby, the chef. He opens a large oven door to show the ribs and the overwhelming heat and a cloud of steam hit my face. “We go through an average of 3,700 kilos of ribs in five days,” he says. But it’s not just the coal that makes these ribs so unique; the dry rub (dry seasoning mix) that is sprinkled on them makes these ribs one-of-a-kind. It’s even been said that this place invented dry rubbed ribs. Either way, they’re finger-licking good. And now that I’ve eaten my share, I’m ready for an evening of music.

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        Swinging Beale Street

        The beating heart of Memphis has always been Beale Street. Bands played here even back in 1860 and, around the year 1940, the street was filled with jazz and blues clubs. Elvis also came here often before his breakthrough to get inspired by the countless musicians. And although the number of clubs has increased, little else has changed. As I walk down Beale, I’m surrounded by a cacophony of music. It’s not even Saturday night, but live bands are performing everywhere. Whereas it’s normal to go bar hopping in other cities, here you go music hopping.

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        I start at the corner at the B.B. King Blues Club, featuring blues with ambiance, continue to the King’s Palace Café for some jazz and, finally, end up at the Rum Boogie Café. With a plate of traditional southern fried catfish (‘They got catfish on the table…’ Marc Cohn pops in my head again) in front of me, I enjoy a showstopping performance by men with beards and guitars. Going to bed in Memphis is simply not an option.

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        Soul-filled museum

        The next morning, I get ready to leave Memphis. Luckily, I still have a visit to the Stax Museum of Soul on today’s schedule. Stax began as a record shop in an old cinema building, but ultimately grew to become one of the world’s most influential record labels in the 1960s. The museum is housed in the original Stax building and is an homage to soul music. Inside, the walls are covered in records, you can dance to Stax tracks on a special dance floor and gaze in admiration in the recording studios. The soul of soul is clearly tangible here.

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          Lunch under a hair dryer

          After all the pulled pork and ribs I’ve eaten the past few days, I’m ready for a light lunch, but at a unique location. The Beauty Shop is located in the trendy Cooper-Young district and used to be the salon where Priscilla Presley, Elvis’ ex-wife, had her hair curled and dyed. The hair dryers and sinks are still here and part of the interior. The original sinks have been placed in the bar and the hair-drying areas have been converted into cosy booths.

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          A customer confides in me that some of the hair dryers still work: “Handy if you’ve just been caught in the rain,” he laughs. It turns out that the restaurant is also often called by people wanting to schedule a beauty treatment. Unfortunately, that’s no longer possible, but the menu more than makes up for it. The appropriate motto of The Beauty Shop is ‘Look Good. Eat Good’ and the menu is aptly filled with healthy but delicious dishes – American cuisine with a sustainable twist.

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            From Elvis to Tina Turner

            Leaving Memphis, I get on the I-40. The Music Highway continues to Nashville and there are plenty of musical stops along the way. My first destination is Brownsville, where Tina Turner was born. Just off the freeway is the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, an institute devoted to the music and history of the Tennessee delta, but best known for the Tina Turner Museum. The old wooden schoolhouse where the young Anna Mae Bullock, Tina’s real name, attended school has been converted into a mini museum and is filled with her eccentric sparkly outfits.

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            Fire, smoke and meat

            In terms of culinary culture, Brownsville also happens to have another famous Turner: ‘Queen of BBQ’ Helen Turner. This lady smokes her meat on an open pit in the smokehouse in the backyard. It’s BBQ in its purest form – no frills, just fire, smoke and meat. Every day, Helen prepares the meat for the next day in the extremely hot smokehouse. “The smoke hurts my eyes, but I’ve been doing this so long that I’ve learned to deal with it,” she says. Helen’s Bar-B-Q opens at 10 in the morning and closes when that day’s portion of meat is gone. Considering her popularity, that usually doesn’t take too long.

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            Part two of the road trip to Nashville

            Curious about the rest of my road trip to Music City? Read part two here!

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