Apologies for the long delay in between posts. The post-vacation lull at work ended, so I had to tend to those projects for a bit. Then I started picking up music again, and then I said to myself: “I wonder how I could get my old shtick the Paris Buns booked for a virtual gig.” You know how it gets when several hobbies fight for your attention. But I’m here now to tell you about Memphis, one of our favorite stops on the trip and a city that we didn’t give nearly enough of our time.
We were up and out of Houston at the crack of dawn, navigating the halls of Becca’s sister’s apartment building in a coffee-deprived daze. When we pulled out of the lot and headed toward the interstate, we decided that our stop for breakfast would be Whataburger, the mythical fast food chain of yore by which Becca’s friend from San Antonio swore. Just about anyone we knew who lived in the South raved about Whataburger, and so we figured we’d see about all the fuss.
I can’t speak for Whataburger’s burgers, and according to the news from our Texas friends, no one goes to the place for burgers. Folks go at 4:00 am to get a couple of jalapeno cheddar biscuits and a honey chicken sandwich, which is what we did. By God. Would that the entire world could feast on these works, we would achieve peace. We washed it all down with a couple of Dr. Peppers and realized that we had experienced something truly Texan. It was the perfect sendoff to our time in the Lone Star State. But we were moving back up north and east. It was time for Tennessee.
However, we had to make our way north through the length of East Texas toward Arkansas. After driving for four hours across near empty interstates and down dusty state roads, and after stopping yet again for gas and Whataburger (this time in tiny but charming Mt. Enterprise, a city with not even 500 people), we made it to the state line of Texas and Arkansas, which exists in that grand city suitably known as Texarkana.
Anyone who goes to Texarkana will learn that the city has a growing arts scene, some lovely restaurants downtown, and a community that’s blossoming due to the influx of folks from Charlotte and the Northeast. But they’ll know it first off because of its post office, which sits right on the state line separating Texas and Arkansas. We, of course, took excellent pictures in front of this grand building, as we had to assert our dominance in not just one state, but two states at the same time.
After this pit stop, we continued deeper into Arkansas, driving past red lands and down two-lane highways crowded with trucks. Two hours later we made it to Little Rock, which struck us immediately as a quirky little city. As the center of commerce and culture in the state, Little Rock has much to offer, especially in its downtown along President Clinton Avenue. (Arkansas loves its native son.) Unfortunately, we didn’t stay too long in Little Rock, as we had a deadline for getting to our lodgings in Memphis. But we stopped for lunch at a wonderful restaurant called the Flying Fish, home to the Billy Bass Adoption Center.
Yes, folks: This Cajun restaurant is home to hundreds of dead animatronic singing fish. The restaurant has taken in these relics for over twenty years, and all of them are mounted on the wall celebrating their many years of entertaining families and friends. These fish no longer sing, so while the silence is welcome, their blank unmoving eyes staring down at you from above seems a little unsettling. Still, it’s a sight to behold, and the Flying Fish’s buffalo gator bites and po’ boys were excellent as well. If you’re ever in Little Rock for whatever reason, make sure you go say hi to the Billy Basses and grab a bite. (They bill their spicy gator po’ boy as “The World’s Most Dangerous”. Folks, it’s fried gator in mild buffalo sauce. You’ll love it.)
After our quick bite, we hit the road again, this time making one quick gas stop in Brinkley, AR before finally pulling into Memphis at 3:15 pm, after just under eleven hours of driving. While exhausted from the ride and looking forward to settling down in our AirBnB, we decided to drive past Graceland, Elvis’s old estate, if only to get a picture in front of the gate. After all, we’d gone to his birthplace in Tupelo; why not check out another Elvis landmark? Turns out that you can’t even get to the estate by car, or at least that how it seemed when we got to the parking lot. You pay an exorbitant fee to park your car in a crowded lot, then take a bus to Graceland, and then after all of that, every move you make through the smaller-than-you’d-expect house is watched by a uniformed guide. The whole thing didn’t seem authentic or worth the parking fee to us. We’d seen where the man was born; we didn’t need to see his mansion. We made a U-turn through a nice neighborhood and wondered how much the residents near Graceland hated living so close to a tourist trap.
Our AirBnB in Memphis was in the Central Gardens area of the city, which is filled with beautiful old houses. Pixie and Richard welcomed us to their home and showed us to our lodgings, a carriage house out back which they’d turned into a one-bedroom studio. When we walked in, we saw the walls filled with wonderful painted portraits, still life paintings, and landscapes. It turns out that the studio had belonged to Pixie’s mother, the artist Billy Price Carroll, who was known worldwide for her work. We had no idea that was the case when we booked the place, but you know that while we tried to play it cool, we were flipping out that we were staying where a world-famous artist had once created masterpieces.
(A million thank yous to Pixie and Richard for their hospitality; you have a wonderful home and family, and we hope that you both, your kin, and the pups stay healthy and happy in the new year.)
Once we got things settled with Pixie and Richard, and after they gave us recommendations and coupons for places to eat around the city, we laid back on the bed, showered after our long drive, and changed out of our car clothes and into outfits that would suit walking up and down Beale Street. You bet we listened to Marc Cohn’s “Walking In Memphis” while we got ready. When in Rome, etc.
Beale Street – the main drag of Memphis’s music scene since the city’s inception – was alive for a Monday evening. One of the locals we talked to said it was because of the Liberty Bowl happening the next day, on top of the holiday. There was music blasting from every bar and restaurant as we walked past, all of it blues, jazz, and soul performed by some of the best musicians Memphis had to offer. Marquees and sandwich boards advertised drink specials and performance schedules, and without a real agenda, the amount of opportunity got us feeling a little overwhelmed.
After walking up and down Beale, we settled into The Rum Boogie to listen to the house band. We ordered drinks and an appetizer of fried green tomatoes while the music played; the early evening performers jammed like they were headlining the Beacon Theater. The place was filled with folks wearing Mississippi State garb, on account of both the fanbases for that school and Texas Tech being in town for the big game. So the atmosphere in The Rum Boogie was more electric than I imagine a normal night offers, since the music plus the pregame rush of football fanaticism was in the air.
We spent about an hour at The Rum Boogie before heading up to B.B. King’s, the original joint opened in 1991 as part of the rehabilitation of Beale Street. You may know B.B. King’s as a chain, so again, you might think we’re cheating by going to a place that’s also in Orlando, New Orleans, Nashville, and formerly Times Square. But the original’s the original, folks, as the man Riley B. King himself cut the ribbon on the place thirty years ago. We got a prime table on the mezzanine overlooking the stage, ordered a full rack of ribs to share and far too many Mr. Pibbs, and we waited for the music to begin. (Folks, Becca had never enjoyed the pleasure of a Mr. Pibb. It’s like a cherry Dr. Pepper. I have not found a Mr. Pibb in a restaurant since the early 1990s. Memphis! You place among places! You’ve held out on me all this time!)
The B.B. King Blues Club All-Star Band varies in lineup from location to location, but the A-list crew must handle the original spot, because folks, we were shook. Shaken! We only intended to eat our ribs, listen to the band for a while, and then go find a headliner at another bar. Instead, we stayed at our table either glued to our seats or on our feet for all of three and a half hours. We got there at 6:30 and left at 10:00. Yes! Our server kept the Mr. Pibbs coming as the band worked the crowd, pointed up to us, got us dancing, and did a rousing rendition of “Proud Mary” that lasted about twenty minutes and ended way too soon. I counted out B.B. King’s. I should not have counted out that mecca of music.
We got back to the AirBnB later that night, wishing we didn’t have to leave so early in the morning for Nashville. While planning our trip, we didn’t give much thought to Memphis. Maybe we’d see Graceland, we thought, or at least get some barbecue and keep things chill. But Memphis had so much more to offer in the most unsuspecting corners that we didn’t get a chance to see. We already plan to go back soon to explore the city’s many museums, its homages to blues and soul music, and the many other clubs – dive bars and dazzling theaters alike – that line the streets downtown. And of course we’ll say hi to Pixie and Richard when we’re there, too. I don’t think we had more generous hosts (who weren’t immediate family) on our entire trip.
But when we went to bed in Memphis, we did so expecting to wake up and drive to Nashville for a full day of adventure. There was plenty we wanted to do in the city: Eat Bolton’s hot chicken, explore the music scene downtown, and get Becca a pair of genuine cowboy boots. We did all of this, but by God, folks. When I tell you maybe we should have done two days in Memphis, I promise you: We should have done two days in Memphis.
More on that next time. Thanks for reading.