Chris Johnson serenaded us with a smooth distinct voice that, at one time, captured the hearts of American Idol fans around the country. Chris wasn’t actually serenading us, but we happened upon him playing an acoustic set for Mother’s Day brunch at the Hyatt Centric Beale Street in downtown Memphis. Vicki and I were staying downtown during Mother’s Day weekend for The Blues Foundation’s 2022 International Blues Challenge, which was held on Beale Street.
The last time we saw Chris perform live was at the former Dirty Crow Inn located at Crump Boulevard and Kentucky Street in the old Warehouse District. That encounter was on a Mother’s Day as well…several, several years ago. The Dirty Crow, which billed itself as a five-star dive bar, was one of the best kept secrets on the south end of downtown.
We weren’t Hyatt Centric guests, but interlopers (i.e., hotel crashers) who had spent Mother’s Day morning wandering Front Street, taking in all the new buildings, condos, and restaurants in the immediate area.
As most Memphians will tell you, Memphis is the biggest small town in America. Just about everyone knows everyone else, or has a connection to someone you know. So, bumping into Chris Johnson, whom we keep up with online, is no surprise.
That small town feel, however, has diminished as Memphis continues to become a big city, or a bigger city, than it was just a few years ago. Shedding some of its suburban doldrums, Memphis has embraced in-filling, as I call it, much like many other cities in the South, by redeveloping its downtown core and surrounding urban neighborhoods.
Memphis continues to grow up, with downtown leading the way.
Toto, We’re Not in Dallas Anymore
In 1989, we moved to Memphis from Dallas, Texas and soon learned that no one went downtown. Frankly, at that time, there wasn’t much to do in downtown Memphis. Beale Street continued to slowly re-establish itself as an entertainment destination, drawing tourists in search of those Memphis Blues. The Peabody Hotel, with its grand lobby, was perhaps the only reason to venture downtown on the weekends.
Back then, downtown was not home to the Redbirds and AutoZone Park. The Grizzlies had yet to migrate south from Vancouver. The Pyramid was still a couple of years away. Harbor Town’s gorgeous homes would soon be under construction, and many of the old buildings along South Main sat empty or were used for storage.
The first time I mentioned visiting Beale Street, some native Memphians replied, “Why would you want to go down there?” Or, “It’s dirty and nasty.” Locals even expressed disdain for Graceland and, oddly enough, for all things Elvis. (Elvis!) Others confessed that they had never been to Graceland or to Sun Studios, had never driven by the Lorraine Motel, and certainly had no idea where Stax Records was located.
I have never understood Memphian’s lack of self-esteem and pride. Self-conscience doubt seeped into everyday encounters, and, many times, normal conversations ended with earnest apologies for the city. “Yeah, that’s Memphis. Sorry.”
Coming from Dallas, known as the Big D, the 1980s epicenter of kitsch, trendy, and excessive—think big hair, ostrich skin boots, J.R. Ewing, and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders—civic insecurity seemed strange. Weird. Much like putting coleslaw on top of barbecue.
A Memphis thing.
Texans, by and large, have an over-sized view of themselves and of the Lone Star State. The saying “Everything is bigger in Texas” is repeated with religious fervor. Folks from Texas are full of bravado and certainly not lacking in self-esteem.
Settling in Memphis required a lot of adjustment. Early on, we couldn’t find decent Tex-Mex and had to resort to Chili’s for fajitas and margaritas. (Sorry native Memphians, but even with that delicious queso dip, Pancho’s didn’t cut-it with us.)
Yes, Toto, we weren’t in Dallas, anymore.
South Main Shuffle
Fast forward to the summer of 2016, and I’d started volunteering at the Blues Hall of Fame, across South Main Street from the National Civil Rights Museum (Lorraine Motel). Apartment complexes and condominium developments dot the state street section (Tennessee Street, Georgia Avenue, Florida Street, Carolina Avenue, Kentucky Street) of the Warehouse District.
Those old buildings along South Main were now businesses, condos, and galleries. Development and excitement had come to this part of downtown. A couple of years later, the trolleys returned to their tracks. I was awestruck by all of this change and soon fell in love with the idea of working downtown.
Sidewalks. Cement. Parallel parking. Tourists asking for directions.
Remember, I’m a suburbanite living in Far East Memphis, and while there might be some advantages to suburban living—lawns, private backyards, maybe your own pool—there’s something cool, hip, urban, and big city about walking from your car, or from the trolley station, past storefronts and old buildings, passing by other pedestrians, picking up a coffee or pastry, then settling in for your workday while humanity streams by the window.
Very cool. Very urban. Very grown up.
Early Saturday morning, and no one’s awake. South Main’s a ghost town, which is okay with me. I love exploring in solitude and quiet. No distractions. When no one’s around and nothing is going on, you find the true soul of a place.
We’re staying in an Airbnb right above the new South of Beale (SOB), right across the parking lot from SOB’s original location. The new locale’s building is part of the historic Ambassador Hotel complex—three buildings that served travelers using the Central and Union train stations in the early 20th Century.
Historic buildings being redeveloped and repurposed.
Downtown living. Big city living.
I love it.
Beale Street Beat
Today, downtown’s Entertainment District encompasses more than the two blocks of Beale Street. From Old Dominick’s Distillery on South Front Street to Automatic Slim’s and Kooky Canuck on 2nd Street to Blind Bear on Main Street and Bar Dog Tavern on Monroe Avenue, downtown Memphis has definitely grown up. These old favorites of mine, along with other established bars and restaurants and many newcomers, all now all compete for customers—many with packed tables on a weekend night.
A Redbirds home game, the Grizzlies playing at the FedExForum, a play at the Orpheum Theatre, or a performance next door at the Halloran Centre brings Memphians, Mid-Southerners, and tourists downtown not only on the weekends but during weeknights as well.
While Beale Street remains the main draw for entertainment, it’s clear that as downtown has grown up, there are more and more great reasons to visit, hangout, and even stay a while. That big city metamorphosis has brought more pride and, hopefully, removed much of our self-doubt.
After all, Memphis is the home of the blues, the birthplace of rock and roll, an early incubator of country music, and the originator of a unique homegrown soulful sound embraced all over the world.
Much to be proud of with much improvement to be made.
And all grown up.
After his first number, Chris uses his microphone to ask a young woman behind the serving counter if he can a glass of water. He smiles and lets everyone know that his throat’s a little parched. The young woman brings him his ice water. Chris takes a sip, then sets the glass down next to him. He prepares to play his next song, but before he begins, Chris leans into the microphone and tells the woman, “Thanks, darling.”
Darling came out a little husky, but smooth, sounding much like another young Memphis singer, who, years ago, captured the hearts of teenage America.
It’s a Memphis thing.
Note: Downtown Memphis: All Grown Up, another staycation edition of my Get Out of Town column, is the final installment of the Spring Travel Memories series.
Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.