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A Southern sound check

From Elvis' Graceland to the Grand Ole Opry, America's legends sing a siren song along the Memphis-to-Nashville `Music Highway.'

July 22, 2007|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

Memphis, Tenn. — KNOWING how obsessed Elvis fans can be, I wasn't surprised when my wife and I drove up to the Heartbreak Hotel and found, true to the song's lyrics, that it was actually "down at the end of Lonely Street" and that the desk clerk was "dressed in black."

Our room was lined with photos of the King, and two TV channels were devoted 24/7 to Elvis Presley's music and movies. And, as expected, the souvenir shop contained such Elvis novelties as "Love Me Tender" tea sets and copies of the work shirt that a teenage Presley wore when he drove a truck for Crown Electric. (Guess which one I bought.)

But one thing that did surprise me on this, the first night of our five-day Memphis and Nashville music tour, was the Elvis look-alike chatting it up in the lobby. You might expect an official greeter in a Vegas skyscraper but hardly at a modest, 128-room place like this.

It wasn't until I saw him chowing down on biscuits and gravy at the complimentary breakfast the next morning that I realized the laugh was on me. The guy wasn't a hotel employee but another guest, which brings us back to the point about obsessed Elvis fans.

More than 50,000 of them are expected to flock to Memphis for Elvis Week, which runs Aug. 11 to 19. Besides a candlelight vigil at Graceland marking the 30th anniversary of Presley's death, a concert at the FedExForum will feature members of his Vegas band playing live while Elvis performs via video on a giant screen.

But you don't have to wait until Elvis Week to get a dose of the King. He rules here year-round. For $100, at one of the official souvenir shops across from Graceland (Elvis' home), you can play pool on the same table that Presley and the Beatles used during their meeting in L.A. in 1965. And just 15 minutes away at the Arcade cafe, you can have one of Elvis' beloved peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Fried, of course.

Once you get past the carnival atmosphere, you can find an inspiring story in the music history of Memphis and Nashville, linked by Interstate 40 -- the "Music Highway." Thanks to nearly a dozen museums and historical sites, there is no richer, more illuminating showcase of musical roots in the country than in this 220-mile stretch of highway.

And we're talking more than simply the land of Elvis. The region's heritage also includes such landmark figures as Hank Williams, Otis Redding, Patsy Cline and Al Green.

When you follow the music trail through Tennessee, including a visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, you realize that the music was part of a wider social and cultural revolution that involved race, class and politics.

Whether you're just after good-time nostalgia or pop-culture history, the trip is a joyful, illuminating experience.

But health-conscious pop fans, beware. I swore I would eat only one bite of that fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, but I didn't count on it being soooo good. I ended up using half my day's calorie allotment on just six bites.

Funny. Years ago, I used to count my pennies on vacations. Now it's calories.

On to Graceland

Elvis may have been rock's greatest star, but I wouldn't want him decorating my house. Graceland's living room, with its 15-foot-long white sofa, is tasteful enough in a formal '50s way, and the black baby grand piano adds a nice touch to the music room.

But brace yourself before entering the den. The jungle theme, complete with a waterfall and an overload of wooden exotica, may have reminded Elvis of relaxed times in Hawaii, but the decor is more likely to remind visitors of dated scenes from a tacky '60s comedy. I felt dizzy after seeing the wildly conflicting patterns on the multicolored drapes covering the billiard-room ceiling and walls.

While touring the Colonial Revival-style structure, which attracts 600,000 visitors a year, you'll see lots of Elvis' personal items as well as gold records and colorful jumpsuits from the Vegas years. Yet there's a more affecting side of Graceland: the rags-to-riches saga of the young man from the housing projects buying the home of his dreams, partly for his financially struggling parents.

Looking at the garden (where he now rests) and the horses in the pasture, you understand how the property was a source of pride and a sanctuary.

Figure on spending three to four hours at Graceland, the various museums and the souvenir shops, but skip the restaurants. There are better choices, including Neely's, a family barbecue operation, and, of course, the Arcade cafe.

For some reason, those chunky peanut butter and banana sandwiches, which come with 2 pounds of steak fries, aren't on the menu at the informal Arcade; you have to ask for them. Cross your fingers when you do, because they're only available when the bananas are ripe.

Next stop: Sun Records and, for rock fans, guaranteed goose bumps.

Heart and soul

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