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Why Drake & Justin Timberlake Love Memphis: Inside Its Bold New Renaissance

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The Memphis skyline, anchored by the Cook Convention Center, where the 2017 Memphis Blues Awards will take place May 11.

Over the past few years, Memphis has been lavished with high-profile praise from pop polymath Justin Timberlake (who grew up in nearby Millington), rapper Drake (who spent summers in town with his father, Dennis Graham) and Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, who crafted much of their megahit “Uptown Funk!” there.

More than just paying lip service to the city, the admiration has also bolstered a renaissance that initially was born out of practicality. Young, upwardly mobile Southerners, priced out by the boomtown costs of Nashville and inconvenienced by the sprawl of Atlanta, have been looking (and moving) to the Bluff City, as it’s known, as an easy, affordable alternative. Others, from industry hubs like New York and Los Angeles, are discovering the city’s charm and rich history. “It’s a place where you can always feel the weight of the past,” says Memphis Grammy chapter senior executive director Jon Hornyak. “That history is a draw.”

Musicians in particular are pulled to the city’s geographically central location (which is convenient as a touring base), low housing costs (median home value: $80,000) and abundant recording facilities that include world-class studios like Phillips, Royal, Ardent and Electraphonic. “Memphis is still a cheap place to make art,” says former Soul Coughing singer and solo artist Mike Doughty, who relocated there in 2015. And despite its visible development, Memphis has, so far, retained its singular character. “It’s truly too weird to ever get gentrified,” says Doughty. “That’s what makes it so attractive to artists.” Billboard walked through the new Memphis’ best haunts.

Stay

1. The Guest House at Graceland

3600 Elvis Presley Blvd.

Part of Elvis Presley Enterprises’ redevelopment of the area surrounding Graceland, this new 450-room, $92 million resort offers high-end hospitality with a royal twist. A hub of Elvis activity -- home to symposiums, auctions and various other fan events -- the Guest House will serve as the home base during the 40th-anniversary remembrance of Elvis’ death in August. 

2. Peabody Hotel

149 Union Ave.

There’s an old saying that the South begins in the lobby of the Peabody. That certainly feels true as you set foot inside the grand dame of downtown Memphis, famed for its ornate first-floor bar, rooftop skyway and nearly 90-year tradition of the marching duck procession, which occurs daily at the lobby fountain. Its charms have made it a home away from home for multiple generations of traveling musicians, ​from Benny Goodman to the Sex PistolsJohn Lydon. “I almost became a resident because I love it so much,” says Lydon, a habitué for several decades. “I’ve forever felt like a family member there.”

3. Westin Hotel

170 Lt. George W. Lee Ave.

Located just off Beale Street, right across from the FedExForum arena and the Gibson guitar factory, the Westin, in the heart of downtown, offers 200-plus well-appointed rooms and a multitude of amenities (including the Bleu Restaurant & Lounge). But the real draw for music lovers? The hotel’s fringe benefit program that lets guests borrow a variety of Gibson guitars to play during their stay.

Eat

4. Catherine & Mary’s

272 S. Main St.

The latest culinary enterprise from James Beard-nominated chefs Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman (whose collection of local restaurants includes Andrew & Michael, Hog & Hominy and Porcellino’s), Catherine & Mary’s is an upscale Italian eatery inspired by the duo’s grandmothers. The postmodern locale is housed on the first floor of the former Chisca Hotel, where pioneering DJ Dewey Phillips broadcast in the ’50s, spinning the earliest rock’n’roll records and giving Elvis Presley his on-air debut.

5. Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken 

310 S. Front St.

This Mason, Tenn.-based fowl emporium has begun to franchise (establishing outlets in Austin and Los Angeles), but there’s nothing quite like experiencing its fried goodness at one of its main Bluff City locations, including the Front Street spot -- a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River -- that has become a required stop for touring bands and artists recording in town.

6. Payne’s

1762 Lamar Ave.

Hidden away at the edge of South Memphis, tucked among a row of auto and tire shops, Payne’s has become a hot barbecue destination for savvy travelers and locals since it opened in 1972. The family operation, led by matriarch Flora Payne, continues to tantalize with its famous Day-Glo-yellow slaw atop what’s regarded by many as the best chopped pork sandwich in the world.

Drink

7. Bar DKDC

964 S. Cooper St.

Situated in Midtown’s thriving Cooper Young neighborhood, DKDC bills itself as a rum bar, specializing in exotic cocktails and a variety of South American street food. Late at night, DKDC’s intimate confines become a place for local acts -- including Zydeco songstress Marcella Simien, Stax Records-signed soul-blues band Southern Avenue and Mike Doughty’s improv troupe Spooky Party -- to try out new material.

8. Earnestine and Hazel’s

531 S. Main St.

A former pharmacy and brothel that’s now a supposedly haunted blues club, this beloved South Main dive bar has become a cinematic city staple featured in films by Cameron Crowe and Wong Kar-wai. Renowned for its live music (the venue was a favorite of The White Stripes), signature “soul burger” and upstairs quarters that are a key stop on a local ghost tour, it offers character and characters in abundance.

9. Lafayette’s Music Room

Overton Square, 2119 Madison Ave.

The anchor of Midtown’s once again thriving entertainment center Overton Square, Lafayette’s history dates back to the early ’70s. Its original incarnation hosted rising acts (Billy Joel, Barry Manilow). A new version of the venue opened in 2014, focusing on food, drink and a seven-day-a-week live music schedule heavy on local blues and roots, with acts like The Joe Restivo 4 and John Paul Keith.

Shop

10. City & State

2625 Broad Ave.

The Binghamton nabe was once a disused industrial stretch east of Midtown. But it has become one of Memphis’ burgeoning commercial neighborhoods, with local breweries (Wiseacre), restaurants (Bounty) and galleries dotting its Broad Avenue thoroughfare. City & State sits in the center of it all, offering a barista-centric coffee bar, paired with American-made craft goods and regional artisans’ ceramics, jewelry and textiles.

11. Stock & Belle

387 S. Main St.

One of the newer tenants in downtown’s South Main arts district, Stock & Belle is a multipurpose retail complex that owners Eryka Smith and Chad West bill as “His. Hers. Home. Hair.” The main showroom offers hip clothes, artwork and furnishings. It also boasts a coffee shop and gourmet market called 387 Pantry and an upstairs salon and barber.

12. Lansky Brothers

149 Union Ave.

Hailed as the “Clothier to the King,” Lansky Brothers has been in business since the ’40s. The store is most famous for dressing Elvis Presley, though it has also styled everyone from Count Basie to the Jonas Brothers with its often outré fashions. With a boutique location inside the Peabody Hotel and another store just off Beale, Lansky remains the go-to for music types. “Everything I wear at events comes from Lansky’s,” says Grammy-winning “Uptown Funk!” engineer (and store regular) Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell. “It’s Memphis style personified.”

The Top 5 Music Venues In (And Around) Memphis

1. FedExForum

Venue Capacity: 20,000
Total Gross: $8,835,994
Total Attendance: 121,344

  2. Landers Center

Venue Capacity: 8,500
Total Gross: $2,758,690
Total Attendance: 51,507

  3. Mud Island Amphitheatre

Venue Capacity: 5,200
Total Gross: $654,723
Total Attendance: 12,473

  4. Orpheum Theatre

Venue Capacity: 2,377
Total Gross: $457,994
Total Attendance: 8,466

  5. Bluesville at Horseshoe

Venue Capacity: 1,375
Total Gross: $337,703
Total Attendance: 10,059

Venue ranking based on reports to Billboard Boxscore for January 2016 through April 2017.

 


This article originally appears in the May 13 issue of Billboard.