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Memphis

Nashville may refer to itself as Music City, but Memphis’ contributions to the music world are at least as significant. Even country music fans will find some fascinating nuggets of music history in Memphis.

When to Visit

Each of my trips to Memphis were in winter or early spring, and downtown was pretty quiet on weeknights. Bars closed by 10 pm around downtown. Many close on Monday, and some also on Tuesday. Even Beale Street was a ghost town. Weekends tend to be more lively. On my next trip, I will likely plan around a music event such as one of the many music festivals.

Memphis Music Festivals and Events

Overton Park Shell – May to October
Photograph of the Overton Park Shell in Memphis during a free evening concert at dusk.
Overton Park Shell, previously known as Levitt Shell. Photo courtesy of Victor Carter.

The legendary Overton Park Shell, where Elvis performed his first concert, has been presenting live music since 1936. These days, from Memorial Day weekend until mid-October, the Shell hosts free concerts featuring local and touring acts. In addition, there are several ticketed events throughout the year.

Beale Street Music Festival – Memphis Fairgrounds (late April/Early May)

With over 60 acts on 3 stages over 3 days, the Beale Street Music Festival is the biggest festival of the year in Memphis. The festival emphasizes international touring acts across multiple genres. An additional stage on Beale Street offers FREE live music all weekend with an impressive list of headliners.

Soulsville USA Festival – Memphis Slim Collaboratory (mid-October)

The Soulsville USA Festival “aims to capture the spirit of soul music within Memphis and the surrounding area.” Featured talent is primarily local artists, bands, and organizations.

GonerFest – Railgarten (late September)

GonerFest began in 2005 around a record release event for Goner Records. The festival has grown to become one of Memphis’s “unique cultural events” according to Commercial Appeal, a local publication. They feature mostly punk and indie rock acts.

MEMPHO – Radian Amphitheatre (early October)

Held at the Radian’s Amphitheatre over 3 days, MEMPHO features big-name national headliners like Black Keys, Widespread Panic, Wilco, and Jason Isbell.

Check with Memphis Travel for additional festival ideas and updates. Keep in mind that the weather in Memphis is typically hot and humid in the summer. If that is not to your liking, you may prefer late spring or fall. There’s a reason why they hold these festivals when they do!

Where to Stay in Memphis

The historic Peabody Hotel has traditionally been the premier hotel in Memphis. It still is a nice place, with the daily duck walk, fountain-adorned lobby bar and proximity to downtown draws around Beale Street.

Several newer hotels with contemporary décor and modern amenities provide nice alternatives. A couple are located on Main Street in downtown Memphis.

ARRIVE Hotel
Photograph of the Lobby Bar at ARRIVE Hotel in Memphis during early afternoon when it is not busy.
Bar Hustle, the lobby bar at ARRIVE, in the early afternoon.

I highly recommend ARRIVE. The rooms are contemporary cool, with concrete flooring, area rugs, and a walk-in shower in the uniquely designed bathrooms. The cozy lobby has a great communal feel. You are sure to encounter folks from all over the world as you sip your morning coffee or enjoy an early evening cocktail.

The ARRIVE front desk doubles as Virtue and Vice Coffee with decent coffee and excellent fresh baked goods from the hotel’s Hustle and Dough bakery. There also is a lobby bar, Bar Hustle, located along one wall of the lobby. The basement is home to Longshot, a gastropub with shuffleboard tables. This hotel has a lot to offer in a compact space.

The Central Station
Photograph of the 8 & Sand Bar a The Central Station Hotel in Memphis on a busy night.
8 & Sand on a busy night. On other evenings the atmosphere was not nearly as lively.

Part of the Hilton Curio Collection, The Central Station has contemporary décor like ARRIVE which is located one block away. As the name hints, the lobby bar, 8 & Sand, is attached to an active train station, although there is not a lot of train traffic these days. If you take a train to/from New Orleans or Chicago, you would use the platform upstairs. The food at Bishop, the adjacent restaurant, is first-rate, yet priced as you would expect from a hotel chain restaurant.

If modern hotel bars are not your scene, Main Street is also home to a special dive bar across the street from Central Station (pictured).

Photograph of the exterior of Earnestine & Hazel's bar in Memphis. The bar is closed but the sign is lit.
Earnestine & Hazel’s on a Monday night when it is closed.
Vacation Rentals

There are many attractive vacation rentals in downtown Memphis as well as in neighborhoods like Cooper-Young and Midtown/Overton Square. If you need more space or just want to get more of a local experience, check out the link above.

Note: Trips ‘n’ Tunes receives a small commission on any bookings or items purchased through the links on this website at no additional cost to you. 100% of this compensation in 2023 will be donated to non-profits identified throughout this site. Support these worthwhile organizations by booking your travel through these links.

Things to Do in Memphis

In a place so steeped in music history, there are many historic sites and places of interest to see. Some are in the downtown area which I will detail in a Memphis Walking Tour later this year. Most require a car and are covered in my self-guided Memphis Driving Tour.

Memphis Mojo Bus Tour

The Mojo Bus Tour is a nice alternative to renting a car. Led by a professional musician with an instrument in tow, this highly rated 1.5-hour ride on the Al Green-inspired “Love & Happiness” bus will take you on an entertaining trip, passing many historical sites around town.

Sun Studio Tour – 706 Union Avenue, Memphis
Photograph of the exterior of Sun Studios in Memphis. A one story tall guitar is affixed to the second story of the building above the entrance.
The entrance to the Sun Studio tour lobby/gift shop (pictured) was once a diner where Elvis signed his first recording contract.

Ever visit a place for the first time and been flooded with memories and emotions? Sun Studio, like a baseball fan entering Wrigley Field or Fenway Park for the first time, did it for me. This is the place where (arguably) the first rock ‘n’ roll song was recorded, and where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison each began their recording careers. They do a great job with this docent-led tour.

Tip: Add Sun Studio admission to your Mojo Bus Tour, providing you with transportation to and from Beale Street. Buy your tickets in advance of your stay through this link as the tour frequently sells out.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music – 926 E McLemore Avenue, Memphis

The original Stax studio was demolished in 1988 but you would never know it to enter the Stax Museum. The façade (featured image) was painstakingly recreated as was Recording Studio A, complete with the slanted floor from the theatre which previously occupied the site.

Highlights of this self-guided museum include a real, circa-1906 Mississippi Delta church, reassembled inside the museum, the Express Yourself dance floor where you can dance to vintage episodes of Soul Train, and Isaac Hayes’ custom gold-plated Cadillac El Dorado which spins on a stage. Of course, there are also lots of Stax artifacts. Purchase your tickets at the museum.

Check out Stax online to learn more about the museum and the worthwhile educational organizations which the Stax Foundation supports. It’s organizations like this that Trips ‘n’ Tunes aims to support.

Graceland – 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis
Exterior photograph of the main residence at Graceland in Memphis.

Graceland has evolved into a kind of the Disneyland of the mid-South. The 120-acre grounds house not only the mansion, but a variety of attractions including Elvis Presley’s Memphis which includes his automobiles and other memorabilia, “Interactive Experiences,” Elvis’s Airplanes, a Meditation Garden (aka Presley family graveyard), a wedding chapel, and even a Beyond Van Gogh Immersive Experience. It’s truly remarkable to consider that 60 years after his creative peak and 45 years after his death, over 650,000 people still visit Graceland each year.

Memphis honors its musical history with several other museums – Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul, Blues Hall of Fame, and Memphis Music Hall of Fame.

National Civil Rights Museum – 450 Mulberry Street (Lorraine Motel), Memphis
Photograph of the exterior of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis facing the second story balcony where MLK was assassinated.
MLK was shot on this balcony, now part of the National Civil Rights Museum. Your visit includes a look into the room where he stayed.

As much as music is an attraction to Memphis, the city’s race history and role in the civil rights movement provide essential context to the music. Visiting the National Civil Rights Museum is a deeply sobering experience, along the lines of the 911 Memorial and Museum in New York. Plan to visit this exceptional museum when you are in town.

Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum – 826 N. 2nd Street, Memphis

If you have not visited an underground railroad museum before, this is a worthwhile stop. Constructed in 1849 by abolitionist Jacob Burkle, who earned his wealth as a livestock trader and bakery owner, the Buckle Estate was a stop in the Underground Railroad. The home has been converted into a museum. The tour features the hidden cellar where the runaway enslaved took refuge while waiting for boat transportation up the Mississippi River.

To learn more about the rich history of Memphis and the characters for which many city streets and places are named, I recommend reading Preston Lauterbach’s fascinating book Beale Street Dynasty. Militant journalist and civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells and entrepreneur Robert Church are two of my favorites.

Record Stores and Instrument Shops

It should be no surprise that a city with such great music history would have some excellent record stores that honor Memphis music heritage. Before we get to some of those, I want to highlight another remarkable place.

Memphis Listening Lab – 1350 Concourse Avenue, Memphis
Photograph inside the lobby listening area of the Memphis Listening Lab in Memphis.
The lobby listening area at the Memphis Listening Lab where archivist Jim Cole is on hand to help you find your selections.

Remember the days when you could go into a record store and listen to an album at a listening station before purchasing? That’s a big part of what the Listening Lab is except, as a non-profit organization, they have nothing to sell. John King, one of the founders of Ardent Records, donated his massive collection of 12,000 albums, 30,000 45s, 20,000 CDs, and 1,000 books for people to enjoy, for free. The 3,000-square-foot space features individual listening stations as well as separate listening rooms for groups to explore the collection.

The Crosstown Concourse where the Memphis Listening Lab is located is a former Sears department store warehouse that has been converted into a mixed-use development. The multi-story building also houses a music venue (The Green Room), a theatre, an art gallery, and WYXR radio, a non-profit free-form radio station that plays an eclectic mix of music genres and eras with a tilt toward the legacy and current scene of Memphis music.

Shangri-La Records – 1916 Madison Avenue, Memphis
Photograph of part of a wall of the Memphis music section at Shangri-La Records.
Part of the large Memphis Music section at Shangri-La Records.

Located in Midtown’s Overton Square neighborhood, Shangri-La prides itself on carrying hard-to-find music, books, and “obscurities.” The store will inventory any recording made in Memphis as well as thousands of other new and used releases.  Co-owner John Miller also co-hosts a monthly podcast that is broadcast from the Memphis Listening Lab.

A couple of very knowledgeable Memphian music journalists also moonlight at Shangri-La. Each also host shows on KYXR radio. Ezra Wheeler is the host of “Dead Wax” and also the “Memphis Musicology” podcast and Sam Shansky hosts “Shansky Shuffle.” Check ’em out.

Goner Records – 2152 Young Avenue, Memphis

Located in the Cooper-Young neighborhood, Goner carries new and used LPs and 45s in all genres. Co-owners Zac Ives and Eric Friedl of the garage punk band Oblivians also run the record label Goner Records. Since 2005, Goner has held the GonerFest music festival at the Railgarten featuring local and touring punk and indie rock bands from around the world. Zac Ives also hosts the weekly show, “Box of Records,” on KYXR.

River City Records – 101 S. Main Street, Memphis

The newest of these shops is River City Records, located around the corner from the Peabody Hotel. River City Records stocks new and used vinyl records, including Memphis music, regional blues, classic rock, hip-hop, alternative, modern rock, and country music.

Memphis Drum Shop – 878 S. Cooper Street, Memphis

Drummers will find a huge selection of both new and vintage drums in the six showrooms of this family-owned shop. Serious drummers may be familiar with the shop since they do a lot of business online. They also carry drum sets for beginners.

If you are not a drummer, the drum shop still has a lot to offer with performances and workshops in the upstairs performance area. Displays of famous drum kits such as Ringo Starr’s vintage Beatles-era Ludwig kit, and “Sound Journeys,” a meditative practice designed to promote relaxation and stress relief draw visitors to this shop. Sound Journeys are a popular spa alternative for Memphians and sell out weeks in advance. Check the Memphis Drum Shop website to learn more and see the events schedule.

Evening Entertainment in Memphis

Hernando’s Hideaway – 3210 Old Hernando Road, Memphis
Exterior daytime photgraph of Hernando's Hideaway. There is a 1950s era car parked in front.
Hernando’s Hideaway offers live music on Wednesday-Sunday nights.

Ameripolitan artist Dale Watson, known for his deep association with Austin, Texas, purchased this historic roadhouse in 2019 and now splits time between Austin and Memphis. Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, each performed here. Jerry Lee Lewis was such a regular fixture that he referred to Hernando’s as his office.

Hernando’s hosts touring and local acts and offers a solid menu of appetizers, burgers, and sandwiches on Wednesday through Sunday nights. Watson developed the Ameripolitan concept to preserve the legacy of classic country, rockabilly, honky tonk, and western swing music. An annual awards dinner is held in Memphis.

Wild Bill’s Juke Joint – 1580 Vollintine Avenue, Memphis

This place is the real deal. A down-home, bare-bones juke serving solid food, cold beer, BYOB setups, and live blues. Cash only, of course. Wild Bill’s Juke Joint is open Wednesday through Sunday.

Lafayette’s Music Room – 2119 Madison Avenue, Memphis

Lafayette’s Music Room is an historic Memphis music venue. The club opened in January 1973 with little-known local act Big Star played shortly after releasing their debut album. Upon release of his “Piano Man” LP the following January, Billy Joel played 4 nights at Lafayette’s. Kiss also recorded a live album there.

The sound is fantastic in the intimate, two-story dinner house venue, and the food was decent. Ray Wylie Hubbard, who we saw there, commented on the sound quality twice during the show.

Check the Memphis Flyer calendar for live music listings, including bars and other smaller venues.

Traveling Beyond Memphis?

Clarksdale, Mississippi, less than 1.5 hours south of Memphis, provides a great home base for exploring the Mississippi Blues Trail. Be sure to check out my Clarksdale Travel Guide and Delta Road Trip.

Nashville, Tennessee is only a 3-hour drive on the music highway. Alternatively, you can make a day of it by driving from Clarksdale with a lunch stop in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. A scenic drive taking in part of the Natchez Trace and including possible stops in Tupelo or Oxford, Mississippi will take 6-7 hours of drive time. Either way, check out my Nashville Travel Guide if you are headed to Music City.