Words and photos by Ken Billett
Wearing a royal blue golf shirt, featuring a logo or nametag on the chest, the woman beckoned to us from the front steps of a tiny white-clapboard church. We’d stopped on the sidewalk just a moment before to take in the Center’s surrounding gardens and to read the various placards celebrating the life and achievements of a hometown king.
Somewhat reluctantly, Vicki and I decided to see what this woman wanted. As we approached the front steps, piano music and singing could be heard from inside the small church. The woman, one of the Center’s docents, said that something truly special was going on inside and welcomed us in. Apparently, an impromptu gospel concert was in full swing, compliments of a visiting church group. The chorus of “How Great Thou Art” resonated inside the restored old church where a younger version of that hometown king attended Sunday services with his parents.
As we listened to the performance, the docent, standing to my left, had tears streaming down her cheeks. “I love this song,” she whispered, fanning her face. “Always brings out my emotions.”
After the last stanza had been sung, Vicki and I crossed another sidewalk towards a more modern-looking structure, attached to the Center’s main complex. Small stained-glass windows lined the top of the entryway to this memorial chapel, while larger stained-glass windows covered the chapel’s outer wall. Those beautifully colored windows, created for a then grown version of the hometown king, and known worldwide simply as “The King,” were designed by the Laukhuff Stained Glass studios in Memphis.
Pointing to the Laukhuff inscription at the bottom of one colored pane, I smiled and said, “Always a connection to home, even when we’re ninety miles away.”
“Well,” Vicki replied, “it is Tupelo.”
We rolled into Tupelo, Mississippi on a sunny, but pleasant, Friday afternoon in mid-September to see the incomparable blue guitarist Buddy Guy, who would perform that evening. After settling in at our Airbnb one-room garage guest suite (Yes, a guestroom inside a garage.) in Tupelo’s Highland Circle Neighborhood, we ventured out to get the lay of the land and locate those spots we wanted to visit during our short weekend getaway.
For all our thirty-four years of living in Memphis, we had never visited Tupelo, which is only an hour and a half away on I-22, formerly US 78. Tupelo, with a mid-level population of almost 38,000, was surprisingly spread-out even with a redeveloped downtown core. While we had no trouble getting around, several of our must see/must do spots were located at opposite ends of town, so transportation was a must while visiting.
Tupelo was incorporated in 1870 and claimed to be the first American city powered by TVA electricity. The Natchez Trace Parkway headquarters and visitors center, part of the National Park Service, were located on the north side of Tupelo. The 444-mile parkway stretches from Natchez, Mississippi to the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee.
After a bit of exploring by car, we ended up in the downtown area at The Stables Downtown Grill. The Stables, as it’s known by the locals, was at the far end of an alleyway off North Spring Street. Rustic was a good description for The Stables, which reminded me of a basement-style dive bar or speakeasy with a cool atmosphere and terrific food. Their menu consisted of traditional pub grub with a bit of variety; and everything was fresh, well-seasoned and with huge portions.
We were off to a good start exploring the birthplace of a king.
Following Friday night’s tremendous concert (more on that later), Saturday morning brought some exploration by foot of the Highland Circle neighborhood before we headed out to find those “must see” spots Vicki had researched online prior to our visit. First, however, was a somewhat early lunch at a place that I had stumbled across on the internet just a few months earlier.
Clay’s House of Pig (C.H.O.P.) on South Veterans Boulevard was not only a local institution (where the C.H.O.P. abbreviation originated) but had been profiled and highlighted by numerous news outlets, magazines, and online food reviewers. Yes, Clay’s was also a bait and tackle shop and, yes, the place resembled every other smalltown Southern eatery, right down to the scuff marks on the floor, but once you’ve had your first bite of a humongous BBQ sammich or those delicious street tacos, you realize why Clay’s was considered one of the best barbecue joints in Mississippi.
While we didn’t eat at the Amsterdam Deli and Grill on West Main in downtown Tupelo, we loved the cozy atmosphere and welcoming attitude of the staff and the other patrons. Amsterdam Deli was a family-owned establishment and, literally, everyone in the family helps out. Their menu was a mix of flatbreads, standard bar fare, and pizzas with some Mediterranean twists. Definitely a place to sit and have a beer, or a quick bit to eat, or to simply hang out.
After a few more tourist stops on Saturday, we made our way to The Blue Canoe, located on North Gloster Street, which was on Tupelo’s north side.
Like Clay’s, The Blue Canoe not only has a devoted local following, but, as a live music venue—their website boasts live music every night—The Canoe has hosted local, regional, and national acts on their unique stage. The Canoe’s atmosphere was five-star dive bar with great food combinations and a generous craft beer selection.
We hung around outside on the covered deck and enjoyed the rich, eccentric vibe. The food and the service were excellent. Out front, painted on The Blue Canoe’s corrugated metal awning was “Free Local Color” and posted next to the front doors was their unofficial motto—We Support Good People.
Definitely our kind of place with an attitude that turns on its head all those small Southern town stereotypes.
Sites & Sounds
Buddy Guy, now 87, along with fellow guitar gunslinger Eric Gales, who hails from Memphis, put on a heck of a show Friday night at the Cadence Bank Arena, located on one end of Tupelo’s historic downtown district.
Our ears continued to ring long after the show ended.
Following our early lunch at C.H.O.P., we spent most of Saturday afternoon visiting those must see/must do spots in and around the downtown core. Tupelo has a lot of well-maintained and accessible green space. Parks, featuring rec centers and baseball diamonds can be found on both sides of town. Veterans Park was home to the Vietnam Veterans Wall Memorial, a 300-foot black-granite replica of the original memorial located in Washington, D.C. The memorial and the accompanying historical placards were quite moving and thought-provoking.
Our next stop was a peek inside the windows of the Tupelo Hardware Company, at the corner of Main and Front Streets. Popular music would never be the same after an eleven-year-old hometown king received his first guitar, purchased by his mother at Tupelo Hardware.
Then there are the guitars…everywhere in and around town. Think Memphis Tiger statues or those Germantown horse statues. Everywhere. Called the Elvis Guitar Trail by the visitors’ bureau, there were 25 themed guitars in Downtown Tupelo. (Although I’m pretty sure we saw more than 25 guitars scattered throughout the city.)
And, of course, there’s Elvis Presley, the hometown king, who’s likeness was also everywhere, and I mean everywhere: on pictures, in photos, full-sized cut-outs, wall murals, and as statues.
As I’ve written many times, Elvis is everywhere…especially in his hometown.
Every time I shook my head at the sheer Elvisness of the place, Vicki would remind me, “It is Tupelo, honey.”
Paying Homage to The Hometown King
The Elvis Presley Birthplace reminded me of the grounds and buildings of a historic locale run by the National Park Service. Where Graceland and its surroundings may come across as kitschy and, many would say, tourist tacky, the Birthplace has a rather dignified and reverent feel to it. Even the giftshop, full of various types of Elvis memorabilia, was underwhelming when compared to the shops at Graceland in Memphis.
The fifteen-acre grounds had a park-like feel to them, and, interestingly enough, without paying any admission, you can wander around, read those placards, step inside the old white-clapboard Assembly of God church, and walk through the more modern Memorial Chapel, with all those beautiful stained-glass windows. (Of course, there’s an admission charge to tour the Elvis Museum and the inside of his boyhood home.)
Even a replica of the green 1939 Plymouth sedan, which brought the Presley family to Memphis, was on display outside the main entrance—for no charge.
It’s Tupelo, honey.
Standing in the Memorial Chapel, as the sun beamed through the colored glass, while the singing of “How Great Thou Art” bounced around inside my head, and that white-clapboard church stood just outside, I wondered what a young boy of thirteen thought about his future and what his place in this world would eventually become.
There was certainly a sense of peace and reverence in this place that celebrates the life of the hometown king.
Sunday morning brought a quick exit from our garage suite and one last spin through Tupelo’s redeveloped downtown core. Vicki wanted a final picture of Elvis…the famous “Homecoming Statue” found in Fairpark right next door to the Hotel Tupelo. We took our pics and then crashed Hotel Tupelo. (We always crash hotels on our trips.) The property was a modern boutique-style hotel with reasonable rates that we’ll have to check out for our next trip to The King’shometown.
Yeah, it’s Tupelo, honey.
Note: Curiously enough, Tupelo honey has nothing to do with Tupelo, Mississippi. There’s the famous song (“Tupelo Honey”) by Irish singer Van Morrison, the Tupelo Honey Café restaurant chain (We’ve enjoyed the café in Cool Springs, outside of Nashville.), and, obviously, actual Tupelo honey, which is harvested in Florida from Tupelo gum trees (like in the movie Ulee’s Gold starring Peter Fonda).
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.