Star Power

Truly rare is the city that becomes a celebrity.


From Mozambique to those Memphis nights. 
— “Life is a Highway,” 
Tom Cochrane

I’ve got family in New England and the Pacific Northwest, so I spend my share of days a time zone or two away from the Bluff City. Since moving to Memphis 20 years ago, I’ve taken memorable trips to such farflung places as China, Peru, and Nova Scotia. When globe-trotting, I’ve discovered that Memphis actually travels with me, for the further you are from the city I now call home, the more impressive it becomes. It’s a baffling proportional scale, particularly when the national media periodically includes Memphis on lists of all that’s wrong with modern America. The fact is, Memphis is a star.

Heard he came from Memphis / Somewhere down south. — “Way Cool Junior,” Ratt

The stardom often starts with Elvis Presley, of course. During a two-week press junket in China, I was taught no more than three or four expressions to get by should I find myself disconnected from the English-speaking group with which I traveled. But throughout the trip, the Chinese whom I encountered (young and old) would smile — and sometimes shake with glee — at the discovery that these curious tourists were from Memphis, the land of Elvis. Both words were easily managed by natives of Beijing or Xi’an, and served as instant ice-breakers. Had I worn a Seventies-era jumpsuit, I might own property in Hong Kong today.

Cleaned a lot of plates in Memphis. 
— “Proud Mary,” CCR

There’s a grit to Memphis’ stardom, though (just ask the Grizzlies’ Tony Allen). There’s a sense that if you can make it in Memphis . . . well, you’ve earned it. No hand-outs, no hall passes for those with some extra glitter or a fancy sales pitch. One of my favorite Memphis celebrities is Kathy Bates. Undeniably one of the finest actors of the last quarter century, Bates didn’t become a national star until she played a Grade-A psycho in Misery, after her 40th birthday. I’ve yet to meet Bates but I’m willing to bet she knows the Memphis I do, a town that may have helped shape her style, but also her toughness.

I met a gin-soaked bar-room queen in Memphis. 
— “Honky Tonk Women,” 
Rolling Stones

Whether it’s William Faulkner or Mick Jagger using them for inspiration, whiskey and women are as much a part of the Memphis identity — particularly from afar — as the river, cotton, or barbecue ribs. Everyone loves a party, and Memphis is associated with revelry, the kind of living that, once behind you, lends itself to storytelling (or rock songs). And let’s not forget the element of danger (with both women and whiskey) all but endemic to this city. Rarely will you hear or read of a man reflecting on a journey that included an unplanned dalliance in Cincinnati, or Phoenix, or Charlotte (wonderful cities, all). But Memphis is the kind of town that, if you don’t have a good story to share . . . well, you make one up. John Grisham made an industry of this.

I keep thinkin’ ’bout the night in Memphis /Lord, I thought I was in heaven. 
— “My Head’s In Mississippi,” ZZ Top

When Memphis hits the Orpheum stage next month, the Tony Award-winning production will have come home. And it will surely be celebrated here for the same virtues that have captivated Broadway now for two years. But there will be a self-awareness for Memphians watching a performance on the stage at Main and Beale. The tale will seem familiar, the tunes easy to make a toe tap or a knee jiggle. But whether or not you recall Dewey Phillips, the star of the show is no deejay. Whether or not “Memphis Lives in Me” resounds on a personal level, the songs will be merely soundtrack. Stealing the spotlight once again — whether or not you consider it a slice of heaven — will be an icon we know and love as Memphis. 

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