Food & Music on the Tennessee Music Highway
Story by Chris Chamberlain
The famed Tennessee Music Highway, more prosaically known as Interstate 40 between Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee, connects two of the nation’s greatest music cities plus has some pretty cool attractions along the way.
If your goal is to get from Graceland to the Grand Ole Opry as quickly as possible, go ahead and set the cruise control on 75 mph and burn up the miles. But we suggest taking your time and checking out some of the great attractions along the way—plus, being Foodie Travel USA, we suggest worthwhile eats near each musical stop.
Start your journey in Memphis, a city known as the early cradle of numerous musical genres including rock n’ roll, jazz, blues and soul. The famous Sun Studio is best known as the site of many of Elvis Presley’s earliest recordings. But B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner pumped out hits from that tiny studio before Elvis ever shook his pelvis for the first time, plus other noted performers cut records there, too, including Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. The studio is open for 45-minute guided tours every day from 10 a.m.to 6 p.m.
While you’re downtown in the Bluff City, drop by Sunrise Memphis, a partnership between the chef/owners of two other Memphis institutions: Central BBQ and Sweet Grass. The owners brought together their culinary talents and love of breakfast to create an eclectic diner specializing in classic breakfast dishes that stretch through the midday meal.
Located just a short drive southeast of downtown is The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, colloquially known as “Soulsville U.S.A.” Situated in a former movie theater that still displays its colorful marquee out front, Stax Museum pays tribute to the scores of musical acts who recorded in the small back room and created the unique funky Memphis Sound that birthed the soul revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Displays of more than 2,000 artifacts including costumes, instruments and Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac fascinate fans of music and history. You may wonder how all these amazing songs could have come out of one place, like a southern-fried version of Motown. Now an affiliated Stax Music Academy next door offers at-risk youth mentorship, high-quality music education and performance opportunities.
Equally funky and delicious as their Stax neighbors is the famous soul food restaurant, The Four Way. Pick from a list of classic Southern meats like country fried steak or neck bones along with a variety of veggie side dishes such as smothered cabbage, pickled beets, pinto beans or boiled okra to create a memorable plate lunch. Save room for a slice of sweet potato pie!
Heading east from Memphis along the Music Highway, it’s a pretty short trip to Brownsville, home to American blues music icon Sleepy John Estes. His former home is open to self-guided tours and is the highlight of the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center where you can also view the school where Nutbush native Tina Turner attended. The one-room schoolhouse is now filled with memorabilia from throughout her illustrious career.
While in Brownsville, don’t pass up the smoked meats at Helen’s BBQ where Helen Turner (no relation to Tina) puts out some of the best pulled pork, ribs and smoked bologna that can be found anywhere. Another option for a meal is Mindfield Grill where the menu is surprisingly upscale for such a tiny town, featuring steaks and seafood along with inventive salads. Luckily, the prices aren’t like in the big city, so you can have a great meal on the cheap.
Jackson is the biggest city between Memphis and Nashville, and it has a lot to offer a music/foodie traveler. Home to Carl Perkins, it is the natural spot for the International Rockabilly Hall of Fame Museum. In addition to historic displays of genre stars, the museum also houses an extensive collection of memorabilia and a video library. The facility also hosts dance classes and live performances by rockabilly bands.
Fora nice meal in a cozy setting, consider the Chandelier Café, an eclectic little eatery south of downtown. Brunch service is a particular highlight with elevated Southern dishes accompanied by a darned fine Bloody Mary (or mimosa, if you don’t happen to enjoy vodka with cold tomato soup.) For dinner, Chandelier Café features high-tone cuisine served in a comfortable small town setting, plus a menu of creative cocktails.
Another popular tourist destination in Jackson is Casey Jones Village, a railroad whistle stop and shopping opportunity named after the legendary local engineer who gave his life trying to save passengers in a massive train wreck in 1900. His musical connection is that his heroic act was immortalized in songs by many musicians through the years, including Mississippi John Hurt, Pete Seeger and the Grateful Dead.
In addition to a railroad museum based around Jones’ life and legacy and some fun little souvenir shops, Casey Jones Village is also where you’ll find Brooks Shaw and Sons Dixie Cafe, a quaint country store offering old school Southern food for dining in or take-out. Belly up to the counter for a quick country ham biscuit or head to the buffet to fill your lunch or dinner tray with your picks from a dizzying array of Southern classics. Options vary daily, but don’t worry: fried chicken always available.
Small Town Sweet Treats
Thanks to its location about midway between the two major cities at either end of the Tennessee Music Highway, Parker’s Crossroads is home to the Music Highway Crossroads Amphitheater which hosts occasional live music performances.
If you want to take a little detour off the interstate to Camden and a short hike into the woods, you can visit the memorial at the site where country music legend Patsy Cline died in a plane crash at the height of her fame in 1963.
It’s not all sad, though, because a trip to Camden puts you near The Day Maker Café, a local treasure right on the Courthouse Square. This popular coffeehouse is known for its friendly staff and fantastic food made with fresh ingredients. Don’t miss the sweet treat of homemade ice cream.
Loretta Lynn, the Queen of Country Music, is the most famous resident of Hurricane Mills, and her ranch is a very popular tourist destination. Take your time browsing through shops, riding trails on horseback or in Jeeps, or even enjoying special events like concerts (if your trip timing aligns with one). You can even book an overnight stay in a cabin or at the RV park & campground.
In addition to plenty of dining options at Loretta Lynn’s Ranch, there’s a fun family restaurant closer to the Music Highway exit. It’s named The Log Cabin, and the kitchen puts out some of the best fried catfish to be found anywhere in the state. Fill up your plate with country-style sides like fried green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy for a meal that will definitely stick to your ribs.
Even with all the great food and music history you may have discovered on your drive from Memphis, it only gets better when you pull in to Nashville. After all, it is known as Music City. The absolute top destination for country music fans is the Country Music Hall of Fame, which is located downtown in the city’s growing SoBro district. In addition to exhibits honoring all the hall of fame inductees, the Country Music Hall of Fame also features rotating exhibitions of the history of the genre that focus on different eras and performers who exemplified those times. A particularly popular exhibit that has been held over for months shares stories of the heroes of ‘70s “outlaw country” including Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.
With so many great dining options in downtown Nashville, it’s hard to pick just one. If you’re hungry for lunch but want to save room for a big dinner at a fancy restaurant, just sneak around the corner from the Hall of Fame for a sandwich at the Southernaire Market. With shelves stocked to the ceiling with all sorts of fun local and regional food items ranging from barbecue sauces to hot chicken spices, it’s a perfect spot to shop for some culinary souvenirs to take home for friends and family. But the Southernaire is also a working butcher shop, providing meats for the massive Southern Steak and Oyster, its sister restaurant up a set of stairs from the store. The Southernaire staff uses those same meats to create some fantastic sandwiches and paninis for a quick snack, and the smoked potato salad is an excellent accompaniment to their brisket.
The 200-mile stretch of the Tennessee Music Highway is packed with music history and delicious dining options, so start planning for a journey soon!