Memphis is just a few hours' drive from Nashville, but in many ways it seems worlds away. Though conservative and traditional, the city has spawned several of the most important musical forms of the 20th century -- blues, rock 'n' roll, and soul. And although it has been unable to cash in on this musical heritage (at least to the profitable extent that Nashville has with country music), Memphis still seems like a scrappy underdog in its fight to proclaim musical superiority. Less progressive -- or, some might say, polished -- than Nashville, Memphis still proudly proclaims its significance as the true mecca of American music.
Lay of the Land -- Located at the far western end of Tennessee, Memphis sits on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Directly across the river lies Arkansas, and only a few miles to the south is Mississippi. The area, which was long known as the "fourth Chickasaw bluff," was chosen as a strategic site by Native Americans as well as French, Spanish, and finally American explorers and soldiers. The most important reason for choosing this site for the city was that the top of the bluff was above the high-water mark of the Mississippi and thus was safe from floods. Although Memphis started out as an important Mississippi River port, urban sprawl has carried the city's business centers ever farther east -- so much so that the Big Muddy has become less a reason for being than simply a way of distinguishing Tennessee from Arkansas.
Memphis Today -- Memphis is primarily known for being the city where Graceland is located, but how long can the Elvis craze sustain itself? A city needs diversity and an identity of its own. To that end, in the past few years Memphis has made considerable progress. One of the greatest hurdles to overcome has been the legacy of racial tension that came to a head with the assassination here of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rioting that ensued. Racial tensions are still frequently named as the city's foremost civic problem, even though the casual observer or visitor may not see any signs of these difficulties. Racial tensions combined with post-World War II white flight to the suburbs of East Memphis left downtown a mere shell of a city, but today, this is changing.
These days, downtown is the most vibrant area in metropolitan Memphis. A new baseball stadium, the renovation of Beale Street (known as the home of the blues), and a spate of newly constructed museums, hotels, restaurants, and shops are breathing fresh life into downtown Memphis. This has succeeded not only in keeping office workers here after hours to enjoy the live music in the street's many nightclubs but also in luring residents in the outlying suburban areas to flock downtown -- a concept that was unheard of 10 years ago.
For the time being, though, Elvis is still King in Memphis. A quarter-century after the entertainer's death, Graceland remains the number-one tourist attraction in the city. Throughout the year, there are Elvis celebrations, which leave no doubt that this is still a city, and a nation, obsessed with Elvis Presley. Less popular, but equally worth visiting, are such attractions as Sun Studio, where Elvis made his first recording; the Rock 'n' Soul Museum; and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, which has displays on Elvis and many other local musicians who made major contributions to rock, soul, and blues music.
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