Nashville and Memphis are pop cultural hubs that in their own ways epitomize Americana…and not just music. The I-40 (a.k.a. “The Music Highway”), meanwhile, not only connects these cities, but also boasts a surprising variety of museums, lush green spaces and an eclectic assortment of restaurants serving up everything from barbecue and comfort food to contemporary bistro, ethnic, and vegan fare.
Memphis Milestones and Stops Along the “Music Highway”
No matter your perspective on Elvis Presley, you can’t deny his influence or the impact of his contemporaries who first set down their musical roots in Memphis and its nearby towns. The perfect place to start is at Graceland (graceland.com), which like the “King” himself has become larger than life and impossible to contain in one building.
While the mansion he called home is smaller than some may expect, Elvis’ “castle” is a most entertaining time capsule for the 1960s and 70s. Some interiors are as over-the-top as you would expect them to be (the “Jungle Room,” the basement entertaining areas), though others such as the dining room and upstairs living room, and his parents’ bedroom are surprisingly low-key, even with the baroque-influenced style of the day. When sizing his life up through his belongings on display, there is no question that the Elvis was complex but endlessly creative and genuinely loved his family and friends.
Because there is physically and psychologically more to the man, it was perhaps inevitable that a larger, well-organized museum and entertainment complex would open, ensuring Elvis would never leave the building, at least in spirit. In 2017, the Graceland expansion continued the “Elvis” experience in a way which will more than satisfy diehards while keeping more casual pop culture fans engaged with separate rooms focused on his autos and vehicles, trophies, work in films (the trailers viewed in chronological order are a blast), and a wardrobe of iconic late career jumpsuits and stage costumes. Another room, “Icons,” displays original designed created for other artists from Elton John to James Brown, Bruce Springsteen, and KISS.
The Guest House at Graceland (guesthouseatgraceland.com), also opened in 2017, provides a satisfying AAA-rated Four Diamond resort extension of Graceland. A few parts of the real Graceland are recreated within the hotel, including the main stairway, complete with a chandelier purchased for the home that did not actually fit the space. However, aside from presidential level suites lavished with late 60s flash, most of the private and public areas are remarkably tasteful, hinting at Elvis’ love for luxury without screaming it. Other fun touches include a nightly complimentary peanut butter sandwich bar as well as a full-size theater where one of the “King’s” movies is screened on nights when it is not in use for a corporate function.
Beale Street, in the heart of Memphis, is a must for any blues fan and barbeque connoisseur, while restaurants such as The Liquor Store (thebroadliquorstore.com) and The Beauty Shop Restaurant (thebeautyshoprestaurant.com) repurpose local institutions into cheeky eateries with excellent updates on comfort food and inspired mixology. On the other hand, if you are craving a true southern breakfast and want to go whole hog, Sunrise Memphis (sunrise901.com) is where you want to start your day, down to the buns and biscuits.
The National Civil Rights Museum (civilrightsmuseum.org) is one of the most powerful and timely explorations of contemporary American history and race relations in America. The restored exterior of its home, the Landmark Motel, is sobering and uplifting at once, given that it was already famous as the only lodging for black travelers, including top entertainers, before Martin Luther King’s fateful final public appearance on April 4,1968. Once you hit the “Music Highway,” you can continue your exploration into modern U.S. history and Tennessee’s music history at The Tina Turner Museum inside the Flagg Grove schoolhouse at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center (westtnheritage.com).
While the section of the museum dedicated to Tina may not be as lavish as Graceland, what’s inside—her famous costumes, gold records, and childhood mementos—tells one of America’s great rags-to-riches stories, especially given her personal experience growing up in the south. The visual documentation of the future superstar’s life provides an insightful look into life for African-Americans coming of age in the 1940s and early 1950s, and the young Anna Mae Bullock’s determination to rise above the day’s social and societal restrictions. The site is also home to the West Tennessee Music Museum, where fans will find more Elvis Presley memorabilia as well as items from fellow rock pioneer Carl Perkins, bluesman “Sleepy” John Estes, and others.
With roadhouse diners still a popular subject for food- and travel-oriented television cable channels, the Grind Mac and Cheese Burger Bar in Martin (facebook.com/eatthegrind.com), meanwhile, is the perfect stop during an I-40 road trip. The 80s rock-themed restaurant offers a prolific menu of America’s favorite comfort foods, reinterpreted with recipes pushing the boundaries of flavor and presentation to delicious heights. Owners Alan, Mark, and Lisa Laderman and their peppy staff members stretch the definition of “family restaurant” by creating an environment that transcends welcoming and warm that’s at once modern and nostalgic.
The Pinson Mounds Archaeological State Park (tnstateparks.com/parks/pinson-mounds) is another example a labor of love paving the way for a must-visit place that preserves history and culture for future generations. During the 1950s and 1960s, several residents banded together to convince the state to purchase the land to protect 15 Native American mounds used for burial and ceremonial purposes. Those efforts led to it becoming a Tennessee State Park in 1974, and later, be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The park also features bike and walking paths, trail maps, guided tours, seasonal special events, and a permanent museum with artifacts and a timeline of local Native American history housed by a structure replicating the Indian mounds.
Back on a lighter note, the “Music Highway” also has something special for fans of classic movies and nostalgic television shows. Rusty’s TV & Movie Car Museum in Jackson (rustystvandmoviecarmuseum.com) is home to both originals and rebuilds of cars from “Wayne’s World,” the original “Ghostbusters,” “The Fast and the Furious,” and Scooby-Doo’s “Mystery Machine” van. Owner/founder Rusty Robinson makes himself available and is game to tell the stories behind the cars and vehicles, both on their respective sets and how they made it to the museum. Although it is open only on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, its also one of the best roadside attractions with its $5 admission fee and owner’s knack for deft storytelling.
Places of “Notes” in Music City
“Nashville” often comes to mind when the term “country music” is uttered…and, perhaps, a nighttime soap opera bearing the same that ran for five seasons. Even if you aren’t a fan of the genre (or the television show), it can’t be denied that country music and its artists collectively have had a profound influence on America’s overall cultural heritage as well as other artists in the pop, rock, and soul genres. The Omni Hotel Nashville (omnihotels.com/hotels/nashville?utm_source=GMBlisting&utm_medium=organic) personifies that mindset along with the city’s current renaissance, including status as a “LEED Silver Certified” property.
The lobby is a real show stopper. Take a closer look at the ceiling’s lighting fixtures, curves of the floors and walls, natural woods, opalescent marble accents and even furniture arrangement and you realize you are inside a “guitar.” It’s a tribute to Gibson U.S.A., which has its electric guitar manufacturing facility in town and indelibly influenced Nashville’s music culture and musicians all over the world.
The Omni’s smack-dab city center location is a big asset, with shopping, dining, Lower Broadway’s music clubs and honkytonks, and individual museums dedicated to Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and George Jones a short walk away. Other must-dos, including Music Row and The GIG (The Gallery of Iconic Guitars) at Belmont University, are readily accessible by car. However, this hotel does several better. For starters, the multi-floor Country Music Hall of Fame (countrymusichalloffame.org) is fully integrated into the hotel as Hatch Show Print (hatchshowprint.com). The shop not only houses a boutique selling replicas of American pop’s most iconic show posters, but also classes and workshops allowing the creative to compose their own masterpiece.
Upscale boutiques have proliferated in Nashville’s up-and-coming neighborhoods, offering a mix of clothing, jewelry, and home wares. They put the city on track to become one of America’s best shopping destinations. Following that lead, the hotel’s Five and TENN boutique, replaces the thrown-together souvenir and sundry hotel boutique with a “general store”-inspired 3,000 square-foot emporium stocked with a “greatest hits” selection of mostly-locally crafted goods for the entire family. In-tune selections include Col. Littleton’s fine leather goods, Lucchese boots, and home accents from Spirit of Nashville.
True to the blueprint of other Omni properties, food venues have a distinctively local flavor. They run the gamut from live entertainment venue Barlines (where parents can reward themselves on date night with a rollicking show), to proper sit-down dining at Bob’s Steak & Chop House, to grab-and-go goodies at Bongo Java Coffee Shop. The centerpiece, however, is the three-meal Southern restaurant, Kitchen Notes, which updates tried-and-true southern fare (vegetarian breakfast biscuit sandwich, anyone?). Vintage interior enhances Kitchen Notes’ appeal, rendered with repurposed materials that include accents discovered from nearby antique stores and flea markets.
Honkytonks, show bars, and dive bars along main drag South Broadway and elsewhere pack locals and visitors in every night of the week for many good reasons—rousing live music, quirky décor, and tried-and-true well drinks and beer at (mostly) fair prices. As long as spirits are high and the environment remains fun, those saloons are not going anywhere. Case in point: Landmark bars such as the long-running Dolly Parton-adorned Dino’s, Robert’s Western World, and the quirky Santa’s Pub.
Just as curious non-country fans can visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and The Grand Ol’ Opry and like what they see and hear, customers coming in for their usual can be convinced to get out of their comfort zone. Bars at Omni Hotel Nashville and trend-setting establishments such as sister restaurants The Farm House and Black Rabbit, The Green Pheasant, and 5th & Taylor are broadening their play lists with that same mindset, not only pushing bourbon to the limit but also playing with a number of trends such as the gin craze, fresh ingredient focused menus, draft cocktails on tap, and more.
While we’re on the subject of what’s on tap, there are plenty of cool discoveries beyond the downtown core, whether your objective is to happen upon some truly unique eats, land some cool fashion finds, or check out a surprisingly diverse bar scene. Notable neighborhoods include The Nations, Belmont, and Hillsboro Village, each with shops and restaurants infusing a global sensibility into Nashville’s all-American milieu. Some businesses double as museums while others are as interested in community enrichment as they are in setting fashion and lifestyle trends.
There are numerous guitar shops around town, as one would expect, but nothing like Carter Vintage Guitars (cartervintage.com) in “The Gulch,” known for its antique shops and Arnold’s Country Kitchen (arnoldscountrykitchen.org), a humble cafeteria with down-home food that just happened to win recognition from the James Beard Foundation. While serious musicians come here when they want something more than a guitar to practice on, others come to appreciate some of the rarest guitars and stringed instruments in the world, as well as their role in the lives of legendary musicians and songs.
With so many Vanderbilt University students in the vicinity, it is no surprise that Hillsboro Village is a style hub. Shops in the area run the gamut from Posh, stocking contemporary fashion for young men and women at a variety of price points, to a branch of New Orleans-based UAL (a.k.a. United Apparel Liquidators) choc-a-bloc with designer finds. The brick-and-mortar location of The Grilled Cheesery (grilledcheeserie.com), an outgrowth of a food truck empire started by former husband-and-wife Los Angeles residents, is an essential place to rest and refuel after a morning of power shopping.