10 Southern Rites of passage: your guide to an excellent excursion in the MidSouth
Held annually since 1875 at the historic Churchill Downs race track, the Kentucky Derby promises plenty of hats, horses and fun for the whole family. Kentucky’s most stylish sporting event enforces strict business casual dress code and draws more than 150,000 guests a year. Thoroughbreds speed through the one-and-a-quarter mile of track, with races typically lasting a little over two minutes. Often referred to as the “Run for the Roses” for the garland presented to the winner, The Kentucky Derby garners international attention every year, gathering a selection of guests that include British royalty and numerous celebrities.
West Memphis, AR
While the racers may be smaller, Southland Greyhound Park backs big thrills. This riverside racetrack offers fast-paced gaming and entertainment in the form of the fastest canines on four legs. As the gate opens, nine dogs are heralded by excited announcers as they scurry across the track at nearly 45 miles per hour. One of only 25 dog racing tracks in the U.S., Southland works to remove the stigma formerly associated with the sport by working in collaboration with MidSouth Greyhound Adoption Option to provide homes for retired pooches.
Over the years, NASCAR has slowly built a legacy of racing dynasties and diehard fans in the MidSouth. As home to the NASCAR Sprint Cup and the legacy of Bill Elliot, Jeff Gordon and the Earnhardts, Talladega Speedway represents the Camelot of car racing. Home of the fastest and longest track in the country, this 2.66 mile circular course has played host to countless broken records and triumphant wins. Racers typically travel at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour, with complete laps usually occurring in less than a minute.
Beale Street blends music, food and a soulful atmosphere to produce the most accurate representation of Memphis nightlife. This widely revered downtown party spot plays host to countless Grizzlies after parties, festivals and cultural gatherings. Beale Street amps up as the sweltering summer months approach, with annual barbeque and crawfish festivals and the Memphis in May Music concert series. Beale Street is also home to a variety of local landmarks, including FedExForum, Silky O’Sullivan’s and B.B. King’s Blues Club.
New Orleans, LA
This stylish strip plays host to the largest Mardi Gras celebration in the country and promises fancy attire and plenty of parties. Once a year, New Orleans celebrates its heritage as a former French colony with masks and dress inspired by the yearly Nice Carnival celebration. This Catholic holiday has gained quite a footing in popular culture, so much that secular citizens have appropriated former dogmatic traditions like Ash Wednesday and Lent. More than 200,000 beaded necklaces rain down on goers during the annual parade, which typically draws more than 90,000 attendees a year.
1 Enjoy a day at the races
2 Strut on a famous strip: Whether catching a show, shopping for one-of-a-kind gifts, or simply getting lost in the crowd, a bevy of soulful sights and sounds make these distinctive streets fun to explore
Country Music Trail
This trail encourages travelers to track the birthplaces of Conway Twitty, Chris LeDoux and other country crooners. Unlike the Blues Trail, the markers of the Country Music Trail are located solely in The Magnolia State. The ever-expanding trail currently traces 21 markers that embody the unsung heartland of country music. From the late, great “Father of Country Music” Jimmie Rodgers in Meridian to the vivacious and compelling “First Lady of Country Music” Tammy Wynette in Tremont, this historical Mississippi trail packs an organic encyclopedia of country music’s muddy roots.
Rock ‘n’ Roll
Although Memphis is known as the “Home of the Blues”, it is also home to a ton of Rock ‘n’ Roll history as well. Graceland, Elvis Presley’s lavish Memphis home, has been perfectly preserved over the years to maintain The King’s garish sense of southern style. The myriad of memorabilia regarding The King’s legacy includes outfits from the film “Blue Hawaii,” in addition to several iconic guitars on display. If you’re looking for more rockin’ history, check out Sun Studio. This iconic recording studio has been home to musical greats like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas and many more. “The Killer” can even be seen live almost every year at the Memphis In May Beale Street Music Festival. At 78 years old, his performances are still a great ball of fun.
3 Track the history of southern sound: Whether a die-hard music fan or a casual traveler in search of an interesting trip, the MidSouth offers numerous sites for discovering the region’s music heritage
The Mississippi Blues Trail
The Mississippi Blues Trail showcases why the greatest concentration of blues musicians in the world call the Delta home, with more than 150 markers placed across the country to explore the roots of the blues, most of which are located in the MidSouth. The ever-expanding trail pays homage to the bluesmen and women through stories that highlight their music, the places they lived and juke joints they played. The distinctive blue trail markers can be found in locations that span from city streets to cotton fields, train depots to cemeteries, and clubs to churches.
Mark Twain’s Boyhood Home and Museum
As the author of the original “Great American Novel,” Samuel Langhorne Clemens will likely forever be remembered under his nom de plume, Mark Twain. His slice-of-life novels featuring the loveable scamp Tom Sawyer and his mischievous counterpart, Huck Finn, are indelibly etched into the history of the American South more than a century after being penned. Twain’s boyhood home showcases the history of the writer, from the white Picket fence that Sawyer whitewashed as punishment for skipping class to the homes of many neighbors from which he drew inspiration for his endearing characters.
William Faulkner disdained frivolous excursions. The acclaimed American author once turned down an offer to dine in the nation’s capital with former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, stating “That’s a long way just to go eat.” Faulkner’s final resting place has become a popular drinking spot for tourists and Oxford alumni alike to pay tribute to the author of The Reivers and Light in August. His headstone is often accompanied with an empty bottle of bourbon or whiskey (his favorite) placed in memory of the former Nobel Prize winner, who based his fictional Yoknapatawpha County on Oxford’s own Lafayette County.
Byron Herbert Reece Farm
The Peach State plays host to the former farmhouse of poet Byron Reece, where the often bitter and always poignant author labored for four decades until his untimely suicide. His work, often considered the best of southern poetry, focuses on man’s place in the world and nature. From the wilds of Appalachia to everyday toil and hardship that accompanies rural life, a day at the farm shows where Reece drew much of the inspiration for his legendary prose. The Reece Farm, recently restored and unveiled to the public in 2009, offers a glimpse into the life of one of the South’s most revered writers.
4 Experience a literary revival: from legendary nobel prize-winning author william faulkner’s grave at st. peters cemetary in oxford, to the homes of flannery o’conner anD eudora welty, the south is alive with the literary spirits of its past
Belle of Baton Rouge
Baton Rouge, LA
For riverboat authenticity a bit further down the Delta, one needs to look no further than Belle of Baton Rouge. This large riverboat on the Mississippi packs a hotel and several food venues, in addition to three floors of gaming and nightlife. With more than 800 slot and video poker machines across 29,000 square feet of gambling area, The Belle of Baton Rouge offers an expansive avenue for a night on the town.
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino
One of the few Native American-run casinos in the South, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, is famous in the Sunshine State for its towering Mediterranean-style architecture and trademark 50-foot guitar entryway piece. With the recent addition of blackjack to this casino’s array of table games and a score of big-name poker players, this expansive resort is a gambler’s paradise. The casino’s self-contained Hard Rock Live music venue also hosts a variety of musicians, comedians and boxing events year-round.
Sanctioned gambling in the South is a rare occurrence, with only Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana and Missouri offering full-service gaming facilities in the region. The Tunica Strip along the Mississippi River is among the most noteworthy, with a cluster of seven casinos that offer a night of drinks, blackjack and entertainment for a little piece of Las Vegas right here in the MidSouth. One night in Tunica promises bright lights and a classy dining atmosphere, in addition to a bit of down-home southern flair in the form of celebrity personalities like Paula Deen.
5 Win big or lose it all: World-class casino hotels, excellent gaming, gourmet dining and the best live entertainment equal a getaway packed with sizzling action
Southern cooking is a time-honored tradition, with plenty of recipes that have been passed down through families and unique twists on old classics. The secrets of southern cuisine include tantalizing, pan-fried chicken and fish, as well as hot water cornbread and healthy alternatives in the form of southern classics like steamed butterbeans, collard greens and mint tea.
A taste of legendary Memphis ‘que is essential to any southern excursion. Memphis has formed its own unique barbeque branding over the years through a variety of homemade sauces and rubs. Memphis barbeque is famous for its array of tangy vinegar and tomato-based sauces and slow-cooked flavor. Nachos, pizzas, ribs and old-fashioned shredded pork sandwiches are just a few of the advancements in barbeque technology pioneered by Memphians. The Bluff City also is home to barbeque royalty in the form of The Neely dynasty, a southern family who gained infamy in 2008 through The Food Network’s Down Home with the Neelys.
New Orleans, LA
The Bayou State is famous for its cooking, a blend of French and American cuisine comprised of spicy seafood fresh from the Gulf and a bevy of herbs and spices not found anywhere else. Louisiana is famous for a variety of meaty jambalayas, in addition to fresh oysters, crawfish and shrimp that are perfect for seafood seekers. While cooking Cajun style has become a widespread practice well outside of its Louisiana confines, there’s no better place to shuck an oyster, brew a bucket of gumbo or bite into a smoked gator sausage.
6 Savor the south: Culinary riches abound in a region where there’s no bad route to a good meal
This large lake located in the Yazoo River Basin is prime real estate for all manner of bream, perch and other pan fish. The highest lake on the Mississippi, Arkabutla provides an excellent fishing hole at the end of the annual spawn during the late spring months. The best fishing here is in Cold Creek due to its close proximity to I-55. This manmade lake was featured in the climax of O Brother Where Art Thou?
Obion County, TN
Most of the crappie in Tennessee are caught at Reelfoot Lake. In fact, one might be hard pressed to find an angler seeking anything else. This high-limit lake is perfect for the serious fisherman looking to hone trolling techniques and enjoy the beautiful West Tennessee landscape. Reelfoot also contains several lakeside restaurants that will cook the day’s catch for hungry fishermen. This former Cherokee land is situated in the middle of the bald eagle’s natural flight path, with several guided tours focused on their nesting and migratory habits.
This Mississippi lake located off the Little Tallahatchie River is popular with area anglers in search of white and striped bass near the shallow inlets. May provides prime long pole fishing around the structure of the edges and great boating and skiing toward the dam. The waters of Sardis are also home to an Indian burial ground that is subject to many local legends.
7 Hit the lake: From largemouth bass to crappie, the south’s opulent fishing holes are a sportsman’s paradise
New Orleans, LA
The roots of jazz contain a rich history that is closely tied to Southern heritage. Although it was originally a low-class form of entertainment performed in brothels and seedy bars, jazz is now a deeply treasured musical style that can be found throughout the MidSouth. Jazz aficionados should check out Preservation Hall in New Orleans. This historic building features live Jazz every night with an old-timey look that will make you feel as if you’ve taken a trip back in time. This building serves as a venue, touring band, record label and a nonprofit organization. Preservation Hall has hosted many jazz legends including George Lewis, The Humphrey Brothers and Sweet Emma Barrett. In the words of the great Louis Armstrong, “Preservation Hall. Now that’s where you’ll find all of the greats.”
Today’s most famous juke joint is the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, a former cotton-grading warehouse co-owned by MidSouth native Morgan Freeman that was recently featured on the Discovery Channel documentary The Last of the Mississippi Jukes. Ground Zero combines an old timey style with plenty of big bands, blues and a heaping helping of southern soul. Its strategic location next to the Delta Blues Museum ensures that tourists and locals alike flock to this blues barn.
The origin of countless southern singers and songstresses, Opryland offers a chance to boot scoot with the best. The heartland of country music is home to famous crooners like Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings, as well as young upstarts like Josh Gracin and Lady Antebellum.
8 Lyrical locales: Blues, country, rock-n-roll – it all started here. Find your rythm in the sounds and stories of the south
Arkansas has more than 9,000 miles of stream, perfect for canoeing and rafting trips for adventure seekers. The prime rivers of the region include Big Piney Creek, Buffalo National River and the Illinois Bayou. Experienced rafters may want to try the Class IV rapids of Cossatot Falls, a fast-paced and scenic river path that offers plenty of excitement.
Float the Ghost River
This iconic section of The Wolf River near LaGrange, Tennessee gained its name from the eerie ambience of the nearby woods and shares the title with local brewing company. Ghost River has gained popularity with local kayakers seeking an expansive outdoor experience just outside of Memphis.
Tunica, MS; Memphis, TN; New Orleans, LA
The MidSouth offers plenty of opportunities for a leisurely paced Mississippi River tour. Old-fashioned Steamboats have become somewhat of an emblem for several southern cities and offer the best way to see the river in all its glory.
10 Visit a historic haunt: for those brave enough to venture, these spooky spots offer several surprises
Indian Burial Mounds
Walls, MS; Hardin County, TN
The MidSouth was once home to several flourishing Native American tribes, including the Cherokee, Apalachee, Chickasaw, Seminole and Choctaw. Today, the Mississippian burial mounds of the region are one of the few geographic remnants of these once-thriving cultures. The manmade rolling hills used to store ceremonial burials tower several stories high and now house lush foliage and tall trees. The mounds overlooking the bluff in Walls, Mississippi and the ones located around Chucalissa Indian Village on the outskirts of Memphis are the most noteworthy sites in the area, a perfect destination for the archaeologically inclined.
Civil War Battleground
Fort Pillow was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War during the spring of 1864. This strategic structure is a relic of a bygone era, with pyramids of cannonballs arranged to greet guests before crossing a long steel bridge to gain entry to the fort. The trails surrounding the fort are the same ones that Confederate soldiers used to retreat during one of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s final battles, and are perfect for a slightly spooky overnight backpacking trip through the rolling hills of Tennessee. Fort Pillow also plays host to an annual reenactment, where the descendants of Civil War soldiers stage a mock battle.
When the gates of Elmwood first opened in 1852, the bustling urban sprawl of Memphis was just a few scant lodgings connected by dirt pathways. The city’s first communal funeral site has been the subject of countless legends regarding its many Civil War and yellow fever burials. Particular interest drums up during the autumn months, as the superstitious flock to Elmwood by the masses in hopes of an ethereal experience. Elmwood is the subject of an upcoming Discovery Channel documentary about infamous black widow Alma Theede, a curious piece of Memphis history from around the turn of the 20th century.
9 Ride the river: From the mighty mississippi to the winding rapids of arkansas, wet & wild fun is just a short boat ride away