A Tale of Two Music Cities
By Tim Leffel

To immerse yourself in the roots of popular music, go get schooled in Nashville and Memphis.

Nashville honkytonks

Tennessee is pop music's Mesopotamia. Forget Liverpool, London, New York, or Chicago. If you want to experience the full then and now of the popular music spectrum, you need to head down south. Walking in the steps of giants can be overwhelming, but in taking time to explore Nashville and Memphis, getting overwhelmed has never felt so good.

In basic terms, Nashville gave birth to country. Memphis gave birth to rock & roll. As usual, the story is not really that simple. Both cities played a big part as crossroads for the spread of gospel, blues, soul, R&B, and jazz. Both were way stations where musicians passed through or put down roots, learning from others who were doing the same.

Stax building Memphis

For the past few decades, we have thought of musical styles in terms of sections in a music store (real or virtual), as well as narrowly defined formats on the radio. In the early days of recording in these two cities, however, the music was often just one big stew. They would throw in some new ingredients, stir the pot, and see what happened. Out came Hank Williams, Jimmie Rogers, and Howlin' Wolf. Out came Elvis. Then Ike & Tina Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash. That led to more new concoctions in the form of Al Green, Otis Redding, Waylon & Willie.

It's no secret that Memphis acts such as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins took elements from the black performers on Beale Street to make their music, but it was not a one–way street. A Ray Charles exhibit that once ran at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville had Ray's words on the wall: "I just wanted to try my hand at hillbilly music," he says. "After all, the Grand Ole Opry had been performing in my head since I was a kid in the country." When you go through the Stax museum in Memphis, you hear the same sentiment from people like B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, and Isaac Hayes; they all grew up on gospel and country before finding their own sound.

Beale Street and Lower Broad
The Beale Street of Memphis today is a more packaged and tidy entertainment district than it was in the days of segregation, when the area was the epicenter for the black community. It's still a good bet for hearing a half–dozen bands playing crowd–pleasing music, but in a tourist–friendly package that seldom ventures beyond the 12–bar blues playbook. This is just one option for live music though: on an average night there are four or five rock bands playing in clubs and over 20 venues outside of downtown have shows happening for mostly local crowds on weekends. The best local rap shows can sell a few hundred tickets just on word of mouth.

Nashville's equivalent of Beale Street is hopping Lower Broadway, where rows of honky–tonks feature aspiring country performers working it hard for tips. Whether the performer is average or great, the crowd is an eclectic mix of hardscrabble regulars, conventioneers, and tourists and the show is usually entertaining. One night during a set break at the Bluegrass Inn, the man leading the band on stage implored the crowd I was in to dig down deep for some money to throw in the bucket making its way around the room. "Please be kind folks. We've got a pot roast on layaway at Piggly Wiggly and if they hold it much longer it might spoil."

Robert's Western Wear

It's encouraging that these old–school, unadorned bars have survived and thrived through the decades while a Planet Hollywood and NASCAR Café on the same stretch have shut down after failing to draw big enough crowds. You can get a good beer now instead of your choices being just Bud or Pabst, but otherwise Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and Robert's Western Wear—the latter doubling as a place to buy boots—still retain their dim and tattered feel. They remain steadfastly stuck in time, as if to broadcast their attitude that it's the music and the company that really matter.

Most of the performers playing for hours at a time will never get that lucky break that vaults them to stardom, but it does happen now and then. Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson got their start in the area back when "Lower Broad" was a place respectable people avoided at night. Kenny Chesney and BR–549 launched their careers from there in more recent times. Dozens of songwriter nights are scattered around other parts of the city, each of the writers hoping to get discovered and realize their dream. Here the song is a serious thing: talk too loud during a performance at the Bluebird Café and you'll be ushered out the door.

It's not that hard to take in the whole musical two–city stew in a vacation of a few days or a week. Nashville and Memphis are less than four hours apart. Throngs of visitors from around the world make the pilgrimage each year. During my last visit to Memphis, at my hotel I kept running into a group of 30 college students from Japan. In the Rum Boogie Café on Beale Street I toasted glasses with a group from Liverpool. They told me that a few nights later they planned to be drinking longnecks in the Nashville's bluegrass landmark, the Station Inn.

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