Each episode of Tennessee Uncharted documents the experiences of Erick and his crew across the State of Tennessee. Below is the full text of the short story that resulted from their adventure in Memphis.
It’s May and I’m in Memphis, which where I come from can only mean one thing…It’s time for the Memphis in May International Festival. For the folks around here, that means four fantastic weeks of music, food, fun and culture, celebrating the home of rock’n’roll and the blues. And I’m here to kick it all off with 80,000 of my closest friends at the Beale Street Music Festival.
But, I must admit it’s not just the music that’s brought me to town to kick off our second season, because as I mentioned I’ve heard whispers over the last few years that something magical is happening in Memphis. A renaissance you might say. In fact, the city that was until recently known primarily for it’s tense and turbulent past has rallied to redirect the passion for which it has always been known in a more positive direction. Memphis has always been a city of gumption and grit. And these days, it’s that same gumption that’s giving them the foundation to emerge as a cornerstone of cultural significance for the NEW American South.
And, as is frequently the case with this hopeless romantic, as I’ve looked into the new face of a city I thought I knew well, it’s caused me to look back into my past as well, remembering all the times Memphis, and its many marvels, played a part in making me who I am.
I grew up just 70 miles North of here, so over the years, I’ve been here a lot. Memphis was my first big city. It’s the first place I saw tall buildings. At the time, I had no idea about the blues or who Elvis was, but even as a child, I could feel that this place was special.
We’d often drive into Memphis to see my Aunt Maut and Uncle Dick, and when we did, they would load us up in the back of their blue El Camino and either take us all to Liberty Land or to Mud Island. I have vivid memories of one hot Summer day, walking barefoot through the model of the Mississippi River with my sister and cousin. After spending the day here, I’m so glad to see that it’s still as good as I remember. But as I’ve grown, so has the park. And what once represented a way to cool down from the concrete, now also gives me a glimpse into the genius that made this city what it is today. Positioned as it is on this magnificent muddy highway, Memphis has played a roll in connecting the simple silos of West TN to the entire world, demanding a seat at the table of trade and economics. By curating this history as they have, Mud Island allows Memphians to tell that proud story to not only some of the smallest travelers that pass through, but even seasoned sightseers such as myself.
TWRA on the River:
As a kid, all I really knew about the Mississippi was just how dangerous it can be. Strangely, it was my dad that instilled this healthy fear in me, and I say strange because he, at least in his earlier years, seemed to exhibit no fear at all.
In fact, he and his friends used to water ski on this river-- behind barges. And the way he tells it, they’d catch a wake so big they would completely lose sight of the boat going over the other side. As a teenager, I kept these stories in mind as I sauntered my way into town, set on finding some wild adventures of my own and, if I was lucky, a sweetheart to dance the night away with.
Journeying out on the river today, I realize how much I overlooked during those early escapades, not only in terms of the city, but the biological wealth of the river that acts as its lifeblood. In chatting with TWRA, I see the heart they have for helping folks connect to this incredible resource. From educating boaters on how to safely navigate waters with a set of rules all her own, to acting as stewards of the hundreds of varieties of birds, fish and mammals that call these channels home, these officers strive to serve the visitors of the Mississippi and buoy them as they make memories of their own.
The Mississippi River has a strong affect on people. But, as soon as you catch a whiff of a certain smoky scent that travels on the winds around Memphis, you’ll be hard pressed to argue that there is any pull stronger than the aroma of pork.
At the moment, Memphis is right in the middle of a restaurant renaissance. With as much soul as this city has to offer, they’re serving up scintillating dishes that say as much about the culinary arts as they do the history of the South. And with their tie-dyed tops, BBQ nachos, and lengthy list of local micro-brews, Central BBQ proves they know how to bring the ballads of BBQ to a crowd of even the most distinguished palates.
Beale Street Music Festival:
If you’d been here back in 1996, you might have run into a much younger and, if I do say so myself, less handsome version of me, attending his very first music festival. Looking back on it now, watching all of these bands play their hearts out onstage, it’s quite possible that attending this festival back then helped plant the seed of what would later lead to my career in music.
But just like the city that hosts this celebration each year, this festival has grown and diversified, providing a home for the young and old, rap and rock, the vegetarians and carnivores alike. In doing so, they’ve not only provided an outlet for locals to lie by the shores of the Mississippi shoulder to shoulder with neighbors of every sort, but for visitors to sip a spoonful of the melting pot that makes this city marvelous.
Getting ready for this episode, when I told people I was headed to Memphis, some responded by saying things like, “You better be careful” or “Make sure you hold on to your wallet”. And I must admit, I kind of saw Memphis that way as well. But I was wrong.
Even though I’ve spent a lot of time here, I’ve never seen Memphis like this. It has been redeemed. And in rising up, Memphians have mastered showcasing not just their soul, but their strength as well.
So the question is…Are you ready for a revival? It’s here waiting for you, and everyone is welcome to come join the celebration. If you don’t know how to get here, just follow the soft blue stained neon of Beale Street and you’ll find it. It’s a place that’s still set to the steady rhythm of that old “big river”, where angels dance in blue suede shoes and the wind carries the welcome smell of a whole hog over an open flame. But if you listen close, you’ll also hear a new song emerging.
A song raised up by the hard strum of a sweat soaked rose wood six string, singing the praises of a city that by some, has almost been forgotten. A song that’s shouting out over the turbulent times of it’s past, tired of being overlooked. Many of the words are still being written, but no matter how you sing it, it’s still Memphis, and there are few cities that sound this good.