A Local Guide to Memphis Music
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
Memphis may be most well known for Graceland, Beale Street, and BBQ; but that just barely scratches the surface. If you dig deeper, you’ll discover so much more! A closer look at the city sitting high on the bluffs of the Mississippi River reveals a city rich in history, art, music and culture that will steal your heart. The best way to experience a city is by immersing yourself in what makes its heart beat. In Memphis, the heart and soul of our city is in its music, and it is one of few cities to have such royal musical blood. From the King of Blues on Beale Street to the King of Rock n’ Roll at Graceland, music is in the air and on the streets!
Visit historic Sun Studios and take a stroll down memory lane to the time when Rock n’ Roll was born. So many famous musicians have recorded at this iconic studio, there are too many to count! B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name a few. See the famous musical artifacts on display, listen to the recording sessions that put Memphis on the musical world map, and stand on the hollowed ground where some of the greatest music in history was recorded.
Speaking of historic music studios, Memphis boasts the legendary Stax Records studio as well! Now operating as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a stop here will transport you back in time to the beginning of Soulsville USA, where artists the likes of Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, and Rufus Thomas recorded the music that created the “Memphis Sound”.
Talk about music royalty! But the real beauty of Stax Records was that despite the racial division of the city, and country at the time, it recognized and celebrated musical talent for what it was, regardless of skin color, age or gender. And that legacy continues today with the creation of the Soulsville Foundation and the Stax Music Academy across the street, a public charter school that offers opportunities for Memphis’s next generation of musicians to find their talent and follow their dreams.
Let’s get back to that Music Royalty. Millions of visitors make the pilgrimage to Memphis every year to visit the former home of the King of Rock n’ Roll. Graceland sits like a shining beacon to all those who loved his music, movies, passion, and genius.
The mansion, still preserved in all of its over the top, flamboyant glory, is a must-see for any music fan who comes to Memphis. As you walk through the house, you get the feeling that time stood still after he died. It’s part of the charm, and I think it plays a big role in why people love it so much.
Graceland is a big business, and it’s a tourist attraction. It will be crowded, especially if you come during the week of Elvis’s death, or birth for that matter. But it’s also an extremely cool and moving experience, and you can’t help but feel a sense of sadness at the loss of his beautiful soul.
Beale Street. Home of the Blues. Made famous by legends such as B.B. King, W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters. Take your pick of famous blues halls and music rooms: B.B. King’s Blues Club, Alfred's on Beale, or the Rum Boogie Cafe.
There’s even an International Blues Challenge held here every year that brings artists from all corners of the world! The Blues is truly a universal language. It isn’t just music, it’s a feeling. No matter which blues club you choose, take your time and stay awhile. Pull up a chair, listen to the words, feel the sweet singing of the guitar, and let the music of Memphis permeate your soul.
You don’t have to search very hard to find local music in Memphis. Scattered in cafes, bars, and stages across the city, there’s always live music to be found here! Overton Square is an awesome place for enjoying delicious food and listening to talented local artists. One of my favorite spots here is Lafayette’s Music Room, where there's always music and a party. They have the best patio on the square, and with two levels of seating inside, there's not a bad seat in the house!
You've got to love a good piano bar, and Overton square has one of my favorites. In the alley that runs between Babalu and the parking garage, the Zebra Lounge is the perfect place for piano music with a flair. It's quirky, and a little cheesy, but that's what makes it so fun! Whether there are five people there, or a packed house of 50, I guarantee you'll have a great time and leave with a smile on your face.
For a quieter scene, you can sometimes catch acoustic artists playing inside the small bar in the back of Bayou Bar & Grill. Consider this a pro tip. A lot of locals don't even know about it. I actually don’t think it has a name, just a small nondescript entrance on the side of the building opposite of Bayou Grill's patio.
Cooper Young is a vibrant area where you’ll find music as well. My favorite spots for great music and yummy eats are Young Avenue Deli, Bar DKDC, and Celtic Crossing.
Down the street just a bit, you can also find live music at Railgarten’s outdoor stage. There’s always a party at Railgarten, a creatively designed indoor/outdoor space at a former rail yard near the corner of Central Avenue and Cooper Street.
Looking for music venues? Memphis has that too! The beautiful Orpheum Theater is close to 100 years old and is on the National Register of Historic places. While known mostly for touring Broadway productions, the Orpheum hosts a variety of musical artists throughout the year as well. The design of the theater with its tiered seating, gold leaf ornate decor, and sparkling crystal chandelier will take you back in time to the 1920's, and makes a spectacular setting for artists looking for a more intimate setting.
Minglewood Hall is a small venue that hosts local acts, up and coming artists, and a throwback band every now and then. For those with alternative musical taste, you can find some gritty rock and rock and urban funk at the Hi-Tone Cafe. It’s not actually a cafe, but it is a long-standing music venue that anyone who’s been around here for a while will know.
Over on the Highland Strip near the University of Memphis you’ll find The Bluff, a revamped venue that used to be known as Newby’s, with great local bands that will have you singing along and dancing the night away! Memphis has made a name for itself in the big music venue field as well, with the FedEx Forum bringing in major acts that attract people from miles around.
Outdoor Concerts and Festivals
The music season lasts all year long here, with festivals and a multitude of concert series that serve up musical talent for whatever gets your feet tappin’ and your booty shakin’. Let's start with the Levitt Shell’s summer outdoor concert series, a free line-up of over 50 shows from May to October every year. Bring your own chairs or blankets, and enjoy the music in the heart of midtown, just down the road from the Memphis Zoo.
Next up is Live at the Garden, an outdoor concert series at the Memphis Botanic Gardens. This one isn’t free, but it still sells out every year! The series is comprised of five concerts from June through September, playing country, pop, and classic rock shows with favorite current artists and some pretty well known blasts from the past! I'm not ashamed to admit that the REO Speedwagon show a few years ago had me all giggly and singing along like it was 1984 again. It’s the perfect mix of live music with a community feel, so grab your friends and pack your coolers and lawn chairs, and head down to Live at the Garden!
The Cooper Young Festival is a lively street fest held in September, with local arts and craft booths, street food, and live music stages that feature the best of Memphis’ local musicians. Memphis loves its street festivals, and you will always find music playing at them.
I thought nothing could top the Cooper Young Fest, until up popped the Memphis Spirit and Soul Fest. Ingeniously set up in the South Main Arts District, this street festival is a collaboration between Old Dominick Distillery and the Tennessee Distiller's Guild. The Spirit and Soul Fest is a celebration of total debauchery with whiskey, moonshine, food trucks, and Memphis Soul Music. I mean, can it get any better?
The music isn't just playing in the city, either. The Mempho Music Festival at Shelby Farms Park is the new kid on the block in the Memphis music fest scene, and it deserves all the props in my book. Bringing new life to this former penal farm turned urban park,
this music fest takes full advantage of the sprawling acreage and scenic views. Only in its fourth year, Mempho has already made a name for itself with some major acts, and tributes to a different local music studio each year.
The absolute highlight of the music season in Memphis is the Beale Street Music Fest, a three day marathon jam-packed with back to back concerts that hit the musical mark every year. Held at Tom Lee Park with views of the mighty Mississippi River in the background, this downtown music fest is a party like no other.
Beale Street Music Fest has included past legends Neil Young, Paul Simon, and the Indigo Girls (my personal favorite), heavy hitters such as Green Day, the Dave Matthews Band, and Train, as well as a staggering line-up of current artists like Bastille, Hozier, Khalid, Post Malone, and Ed Sheeran.
If you come to Memphis for this massive music festival, be forewarned it has earned the nickname Memphis Mud Fest. Rain must make the music better, because it rains almost every year. But a little rain doesn’t stop this party. Pack your wellies, grab a poncho, and rock on!
Looking for more reasons to visit Memphis? Check these out, and come on down!
A Local Guide to Memphis: Best Bars, Breweries and Patios
A Local Guide to Memphis: Best Eats
The Ultimate Guide to Family Activities in Memphis
A Historic Sightseeing Tour of Memphis