Memphis may be famous for its music, but the city’s storied history owes as much to the small towns at its doorstep as it does to the talent in its streets.
These day trips from Memphis will transport you from the production studio to the roots of some of music’s brightest stars. Along the way, you’ll be transported into a natural landscape that formed the foundation of the hard times, hard labor and hard memories that forged the sounds of blues, soul and rock n’ roll.
Hear the blues in Clarksdale, Mississippi
An air of mystique still hovers over this ramshackle Mississippi town that’s said to be the root of one the Delta’s most haunting tales. Clarksdale claims to be home to the legendary crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to learn the blues.
Today, the town is still home to the densest concentration of juke joints in the Mississippi Delta, from the tourist-friendly Ground Zero Blues Club to a hole-in-the-wall beside the town graveyard, Red's Lounge. But Clarksdale is more than just a space for late nights, the town has a bustling food scene built on culinary traditions blended from Memphis, New Orleans and the Delta that surrounds it.
How to get to Clarksdale: B.B. King Boulevard becomes U.S. Highway 61 as you head south from downtown Memphis. Follow the old blues highway for about an hour and a half until you hit Clarksdale. Consider making time to stop at the Hollywood Cafe near Tunica about halfway into the journey.
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Celebrate Tina Turner in Brownsville, Tennessee
The small towns surrounding Memphis are littered with music history that extends beyond the blues and Elvis Presley. In Brownsville, visitors can come face-to-face with another music icon – Tina Turner.
Turner’s one-room schoolhouse has been transported from nearby Nutbush, Tennessee, to the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Museum on the outskirts of Brownsville. Inside, you’ll find a world-class collection of Turner memorabilia from the Queen of Rock n’ Roll herself. Turner’s school sits adjacent to the former home of blues pioneer Sleepy John Estes, another former area resident.
How to get to Brownsville: An hour’s drive east of Memphis on I-40 will put you at exit 56, where you can dive into the museums or choose to venture a further ten minutes into town. Take time to swing by Helen’s BBQ for a small-town feast that’s been featured on Food Network.
Tour Johnny Cash's hometown of Walk Dyess, Arkansas
A short hop across the Mississippi River will take you to the birthplace of The Man in Black. A young Johnny Cash spent his childhood working the fields of Dyess, Arkansas. Cash’s childhood home has been preserved at Historic Dyess Colony, a site administered by Arkansas State University. Inside, you’ll find permanent exhibits as well as a photographic exhibition taken from eyewitnesses at Cash’s famous 1968 Folsom Prison concert.
How to get to Dyess: Take I-55 north for about 45 minutes and venture off onto exit 41. From there, a left on Arkansas Highway 14W, travel five miles and take another left onto Highway 297. Nearby Wilson Cafe offers souped up soul food a few minutes west of the museum.
Jam to Rockabilly in Jackson, Tennessee
The small city of Jackson sits perched almost midway between Memphis and Nashville, and its most famous son reflects that blend perfectly. Carl Perkins – the King of Rockabilly – sat alongside Cash, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis in the Million Dollar Quartet.
Perkins' impact in music history looms so large that Paul McCartney gave him credit for inspiring the creation of The Beatles. In Jackson, visitors can dive into rockabilly history at the Legends of Tennessee Music Museum, a collection that leans heavy on Perkins while incorporating the background of local legends that all paved the way for the sound that overtook the world.
How to get to Jackson: Take I-40 east towards Nashville and take exit 79 towards the city’s old Carnegie Library. For local eats, check out The Blacksmith or Rock N’ Dough Pizza.
Explore US Civil Rights history in Glendora, Mississippi
Glendora is a focal point of the Mississippi Freedom Trail, a section of the US Civil Rights Trail established in 2011 that chronicles some of the most harrowing events of the fight for American civil rights. In Glendora, visitors can confront the tragic events leading to the murder of Emmet Till in 1955.
The Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center is housed in the former cotton gin where is killers took supplies to weigh his body down before throwing it into the Tallahatchie River – a grim reminder that difficult truths can be just as worthy of a trip as lighthearted joy rides.
How to get to Glendora: Glendora sits about 30 miles south of Clarksdale along US Highway 61. A Mississippi Blues Trail marker halfway between the two towns commemorates the spot where W.C. Handy, “The Father of the Blues,” is said to have first encountered the blues at a Tutwiler, Mississippi railway station.
Head to Discovery Park in Union City, Tennessee
In 2013, a $100 million interactive science museum opened in the middle of nowhere. That nowhere is Union City, Tennessee, a 10,000-person hamlet that sits about two hours north of Memphis.
While Main Street Union City offers a quaint reprieve from city life, the main attraction here is Discovery Park of America. Among other oddities, this 100,000 sq ft facility houses a replica of the Rosetta Stone, a 12,000-year-old mammoth skeleton, a simulator for The Big Bang, and an intercontinental ballistic missile.
How to get to Union City: Take US Highway 51 north through Millington, Ripley and Dyersburg. You’ll find Union City about five miles from the Kentucky state line. Los Portales is the area go-to for a quick fix of Mexican food.
Get away from it all at Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
In 1812, a massive earthquake shook the Memphis area so hard that it caused church bells to ring in Philadelphia. That event forced the Mississippi River to flow backwards into what is now Reelfoot Lake, creating a massive haven for wildlife and outdoor recreation.
The lake was a major tourist attraction in the early 20th century, but gradually faded into relative obscurity as boaters and beach-goers flocked to larger, deeper reservoirs constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Today, visitors can rent canoes, kayaks and fishing boats at the lake, and they can still take pontoon boat tours through the swampland that made the area a popular filming location for Hollywood films – including a 1967 Oscar winner, In the Heat of the Night.
How to get to Reelfoot Lake: Take I-55 north, across the Mississippi River and jump back into Tennessee at Caruthersville, Missouri. Follow the Great River Road to TN-78 towards Carl Perkins’ birthplace of Tiptonville. Try the catfish at Boyettes.
Live out your presidential dreams in Little Rock, Arkansas
History hounds and outdoor enthusiasts will find lots to love in Little Rock. The Clinton Presidential Library is the nearest presidential library to Memphis. It offers insight into The White House from 1993-2001, alongside a replica Oval Office and President Clinton’s limousine.
Outside, the Arkansas River Trail provides a 15.6-mile loop through hardwood forests and meadows that’s crowned by the Big Dam Bridge, the longest pedestrian and bicycle bridge in North America.
How to get to Little Rock: Take I-40 west for two hours and take your pick of exits. The Clinton Museum is located downtown off of President Clinton Avenue. The Fourth Quarter in North Little Rock serves up one of the top-rated burgers in Arkansas.
Stop by the birthplace of the King Tupelo, Mississippi
In Memphis, there’s no escaping the shadow of the King of Rock N’ Roll. But before Elvis Presley was crowned, he was a boy living in the Mississippi farm town of Tupelo.
There, Presley’s birthplace has been preserved alongside his childhood church and a part of his story that is often overshadowed by the glitz of Graceland. Visitors to Tupelo can view the two-room house where it all started at the Elvis Presley Birthplace – all within an easy drive of the mansion where Presley’s career came to an unexpected end.
How to get to Tupelo: Take Lamar Avenue south towards Byhalia. This becomes Highway 78 and carries you all the way to Tupelo in just under two hours.
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This article was originally published on March 25, 2021.