Eating Your Way Down the Music Highway
Eat your way past the “Highway 40 Blues”
Story by Chris Chamberlain
In 1997, the Tennessee legislature designated the 222 miles of Interstate 40 from Nashville to Memphis as the “Music Highway.” This homage recognizes the unique musical heritage of the state’s two largest cities from the soul and R&B of Memphis to the country and Americana roots of Nashville.
There’s no denying, however, that the 3.5 hour drive from Music City to the Bluff City can be extremely dull as the topography transitions from the rolling hills of Middle Tennessee to the flat, flat, flat cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, which historian Susan Puckett asserts actually begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. The highlight of the drive is when you travel over the large bridge which spans the Tennessee River like a single hill of the world’s dullest rollercoaster ride. (Wheee!)
Instead of rushing to put the burden of travel behind you, slow down and enjoy some of the culinary treats hidden along the way! On the western edge of Nashville sits the iconic Loveless Café, a quaint country diner that has fed hungry travelers since 1951 when it started out as a simple roadside stand offering up fried chicken and buttery biscuits. Those two dishes are still what the Loveless hangs its hat on, but don’t miss out on some of the bbq ribs or pulled pork that emerge from the smokehouse tucked in the back of the parking lot or on the traditional Southern sides like smoky greens or creamy mac n’ cheese.
While the Loveless has become so popular that it is often overrun with tourists, there’s another option a little further off the interstate in Bon Aqua that is still a throwback to the days even before the Loveless baked its first biscuit. In fact, Lon Loveless was once an owner of the Beacon Light Tea Room, and the biscuits and chicken at both spots are prototypical of the genre and worth the drive. (Inspirational Bible quotes are in baskets on each table in case spiritual nourishment is needed as well.)
Just across the big bridge is an exit for Lexington, one of the last spots in Tennessee where you can still find whole hog barbecue cooked the old-fashioned way in cinderblock pits covered with sheets of cardboard to hold in the heat. B.E. Scott’s Bar-B-Que used to be named Scott’s Parker’s BBQ after its two longest-tenured pitmasters, Early Scott and Ricky Parker. West Tennessee was once full of whole hog joints, but now B.E. Scott’s is one of the last places where you can still specify which portion of the pig you’d like your sandwich meat pulled from. (Hint: ask for the luscious “middlin’ meat.” That’s where the bacon comes from!)
Your next can’t-miss stop is Mason, home of both Bozo’s Hot Pit BBQ and its neighbor across the street, the original location of Gus’ World Famous Fried Chicken. Bozo’s is known for a fantastic pork shoulder sandwich which you can order either pulled or chopped. For a unique treat, skip the shoulder and order a BBQ bologna sandwich instead. Just don’t tell your doctor about it.
The chicken at Gus’ isn’t as insanely spicy as Nashville hot chicken, and this is quite intentional. There are several locations of Gus’, including one in downtown Memphis, but the OG of spicy chicken is this humble shack in Mason where the kitchen fries up some of the most amazing piquant poultry on the planet. A three-piece dark meat plate with beans, slaw and white bread will definitely fuel you up for the last leg to Memphis.
When you do reach the end of the route, take the I-240 loop around the south side of the city where it meets Interstate 55. (You ARE going to Graceland, right?) Right off of Elvis’ exit is Jim Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Q. In a city full of notable barbecue joints, Interstate stands out for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that its namesake Jim Neely was the first to add his famous family name to the list of great Memphis pitmasters. Neely’s custom pits are designed to keep his ribs moist and the meat tender as they pick up hours of smoky flavor during a low and slow cooking. Another unique Memphis treat is Interstate’s BBQ Spaghetti, a plate of pasta topped with tangy sauce and smoky pulled pork.
That’s a lot of eating considering you’ve only traversed half the state, but the odyssey is quite a foodie accomplishment. Now plan for a really long nap!
Plan A Trip
Read more about the Tennessee Music Highway