Featured image: Mural by Birdcap at Wiseacre, Photo: Amanda Hill
Guest post by Kellan Bartosch
“Isaac Hayes used to wear chainmail for shirts and owned the market on baby making music with jams like ‘Do Your Thing’ in the late 60s – c’mon dad, that had to be the most amazing time to live in Memphis?”
I’ve often asked my dad questions like these because that seems a true contender for the best time to live in Memphis. Isaac Black Moses Hayes and the other stars of the STAX-Soulsville catalog were laying down Hot Buttered Soul all over Memphis.
Welp, my dad moved here from St.Louis in the mid-70s and one of his first jobs was moving furniture, recording equipment, and more, out of STAX records after they closed. Not only that, but he noted the city very much felt the lingering effects of MLK’s assassination and the Memphis Sanitation strike which preceded that. So there was a rainy cloud over what seemed a groovy time in Memphis.
Oh, I know! “Was it larger than life to be in Memphis later in the 70s when Big Star was creating music and writing songs that would greatly influence decades of musicians?” The nonchalant genius and effortless cool of Alex Chilton seems tangible, dripping off their album covers, and absorbed into the skin of Memphians who happened to graze a copy of #1 Record. Looking back on history, it appears one could blow his or her nose with the liner notes of Radio City and accidentally transform into a vessel of authentic hippy chic. But hindsight is 20/20 and mom always said, “ I see the world through rose colored glasses.” But nay, it wasn’t so in the late 70s here in Memphis. Henry was aware of Big Star and definitely a fan, but (as documented) their success at the time was minimal and it wasn’t until the late 80s when bands like R.E.M. counted them as major influences that their work starting receiving major credibility. Their albums now fill the Top 500 Albums and Songs lists of all time in every major music magazine, but there was no major ripple on Memphis at the time in music, culture, or otherwise (check out their song Mod Lang for my current fav). So…strike 2 on the best time to live in Memphis.
Not that it only has to do with music I dig, but what was the best time for Memphis?
Anything before that first STAX question has to be struck off the list of consideration for the best time to live in Memphis. Why? Because I don’t buy into that Leave it to Beaver “…it was a Golden Age in the 50s when there were family values and you felt safe walking to the store to buy a vanilla milkshake” mentality. Reason being that there was institutionalized racism around the country, the volatile Crump machine politics dominated our city, and a yellow fever epidemic somewhere in the late 1800s killed thousands while thousands of others fled. So even if it felt like Memphis was the fingertip spinning the world like a basketball when Sam Phillips and Sun Records exploded Elvis and the rest in the late 1950s (so much so the Ed Sullivan show would only show Elvis from above the hips while performing live fearing that his dancing gyrations would impregnate hapless females simply by watching TV)…the world was still too messed up in general to think “that was the best time for Memphis.”
Speaking of basketball, I grew up in Memphis in the 80s and 90s when every Memphis State point guard from Andre Turner to Elliot Perry to Penny Hardaway to Chris Garner and even Tony Matlock were my heroes. I wore my Tiger Cub Club shirt to home games all the way up to the Tomb of Doom at the 8th Wonder of the World – the Bass Pro Pyramid – was built. That’s right, the living spirit of the Pyramid intrinsically knew that while it would initially house the greatest Tiger of All (Penny!), its true destiny was an outdoorsman’s paradise. But those homegrown teams rocking the house all the way to the Final Four with Keith Lee weren’t happening in the greatest times for Memphis either. As a city that runs west to east without 360 to draw from downtown, suburban sprawl hurt us more than most. Downtown suffered and was bleak then. The city still ached.
In my post college diaspora vagabond existential years, I moved from Knoxville to Yosemite National Park for rock climbing, later to Nashville to enter the beer businesses and more school at night, and then back out west to work for Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Opening Wiseacre consumed every fiber of my being when I returned to Memphis 4-and-a-half years ago, but I wondered about our decision. Yes, I believed there was a great opportunity for Wiseacre. My brother was bringing a wife and child back from Chicago, and I felt the weight of their decision too.
Shortly after coming back, I moved to an apartment off Overton Square…but nothing was open save longtime residents Bosco’s, Bayou, and a few others. At night it was a bit dismal, but the days were bustling with construction workers, contractors, MLGW employees, artists, and the like. What a sight to see! Hope in the form of hard hats.
Everyday I’d drive down Madison to East Parkway over to Broad Avenue as we were working on the brewery and taproom. In the 3+ years since then, every day has seen construction on Overton Square, the Shelby Farms Park Greenline, and Broad Avenue. I’ve seen daily progress on now open restaurants like Lafayette’s, Schweinhaus, Bounty, Second Line, Robata, City & State, and more. It took weeks to put up the arch of multicolored bikes that welcome motorists from Sam Cooper and bikers via the Greenline into the heart of Memphis, but I had the privilege to see somebody on a scaffold every day. Construction continues in Crosstown, South Main, Broad, and Shelby Farms Park with rumors/plans in the Medical District, the Edge, Midtown, and Downtown making our minds wonder what our city is going to be like in a few years.
People continue to move into the city (especially Midtown and Downtown) and local business are surging as Memphis folks continually become more community minded. We at Wiseacre can certainly vouch for the importance of hometown support; Memphis has been both amazing and essential to Wiseacre. Memphians are drinking our beer and we love those conversations with consumers who are passionate about imbibing Wiseacre, but shoutout to the bars, restaurants, and stores in Memphis whose enthusiasm and employees carry the Wiseacre torch too. Many local organizations are both imparting pride and recruiting talent to do their part in making Memphis great for the future. We have world renowned chefs at both fancypants white tablecloth restaurants and casual eateries – the food scene is incredible. The beer culture is thriving. The Grizzlies are consistently rated a top 5 organization in pro sports and now you got the shiz with the Griz gettin coach Fiz and Chizzle Parzizzlee…so 2016-17 looks fantastic. So is this the best time for Memphis? No!
Let me tell you exactly when the best time for Memphis will be: when the 2027 NBA All-Star Weekend is hosted in Memphis after the league finally says we have enough hotel accommodations (have you heard how many are under construction right now?). I will have a staycation weekend at the Chisca and we can take a Commuter Transit Rail public transportation system from neighborhood to neighborhood attending the tertiary All-Star weekend festivities that showcase how great our city is to the flocking masses and television crews. Galvanized by our city’s music history and influence, Led Zeppelin will have a reunion show at the FedAutoServiceZoneExMaster Mega Music Fest where John Bonham’s son will break into a drum solo on “Whole Lotta Love” which will then be rapped over by local legends 8Ball & MJG with a Rufus Thomas in a pink tuxedo hologram dancing like a maniac during Breakdown (take that Coachella 2Pac hologram). Memphis native Hollywood stars Kathy Bates and Cybill Shepard will have insane tea time parties in Tom Lee Park with spiked lemonade and a Sunset Symphony featuring James Earl Jones dressed as Darth Vader to sing the traditional “Old Man River.” Justin Timberlake, Penny, high flying Michael Wilson, and local street legends like Jimmy “Snap” Hunter will dominate the NBA All-Star Pro-Am game on Thursday night and beat the non-Memphis team 173 to 19. A slimmed down 47-year-old Z-Bo will come out of retirement to win the dunk contest on Friday. The All-Star game is on Saturday and there will be countless parties hosted by famous people after.
On Sunday, after realizing its proper home is here in Memphis, The Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame will get airlifted here from Cleveland by helicopters with Rocket 88 blasting out of their loud speakers spraying Tiny Bomb from fire hoses raining on people below. When it lands at its new home, there will be a Trojan Horse sized Piñata hanging over the entrance filled with BBQ Nachos spewing out onto the crowd after Prince Mongo breaks it open by shooting the Griz’s t-shirt gun filled with rubber chickens. TUMS sales in Memphis that evening will break a national record. After the weekend is over, the Monday Night Main Event will feature Memphis native UFC Star Quinton “Rampage” Jackson knocking out and body slamming naysayers one after another while “Whoop That Trick” plays on repeat in the middle of the damn Bass Pro Pyramid. OK…maybe not those last few…but the rest are going to happen!
If you haven’t figured it out yet the future is going to kick ass. We may not have flying cars or hoverboards like the jerks who made Back-to-the-Future 2 led us to believe we’d have by now, but things are looking up here in Memphis! We live in Midtown and have fun picturing what the future looks like for Memphis and our growing family. Right now is a great time to live in Memphis, but the best is yet to come. Yes – Memphis is my hometown and I love it, but I’ve lived plenty of other places for comparisons sake.
I don’t have a blind love nor do I get the “we’re the best city in the universe” ra-ra mentality that can exist here or anywhere else for that matter. Every city has its own set of positives and negatives; people who live in those cities can choose to be positive or negative.
Memphis is a great culture city in the sense that it truly has its own persona. There is a truly unique way of talking and eating, a real history of music/culture full of amazing stories, and with a nostalgic texture to our buildings and cityscape. Wild Bill’s, Ernestine & Hazel’s, Raiford’s, the BBQ joints, and the like just can’t exist anywhere else and they couldn’t be manufactured no matter how hard you tried.
Memphis is authentic; we are not plastic or pretentious.
STAX and Sun are vital pieces of musical Americana that were birthed out of neighborhoods, local culture, and Memphis’ personality that spurred communal and individual genius and changed the world. Elvis walked to Sun to record a song for his mama and the STAX musicians lived in the neighborhood around the studio. Yes that’s right; the culture of Memphis changed the world.
These days, a newer generation of people, businesses, organizations, buildings, and neighborhoods are poised to set their mark in defining Memphis. It’s time for us all to set our sights high and be positive as we grow towards the best time ever to live in Memphis. Just brace yourself for the NBA All-Star Weekend in 2027 – it’s gonna be too crunk! And we’re going to have to simultaneously explain to the whole world what “too crunk” means while reaching newer, higher levels of crunk not yet believed to be possible.