Associated Press/Photo by Mark Humphrey

A city where angels and demons wrestle

Lighting Out | As we roll into Memphis and make a stop at Graceland, I reflect that memories are often opportunities for growth and grace

MEMPHIS, Tenn.—From Nashville we continued on Interstate 40 toward Memphis. Rolling hill country gave way to the flat plains of the Mississippi Delta.

It’s only 200 miles from Nashville to Memphis, and both cities are in Tennessee, but the cultural distance is greater than that. Winston Churchill once said England and America were “two nations separated by a common language.” The same might be said of Nashville and Memphis, though that common language is music. Nashville’s country and Christian music scene gives way in the Mississippi Delta to gut-bucket blues. Nashville’s Music Row vs. the Memphis of Beale Street and Sun Records. As some Memphians say, “Nashville is for the angels. Memphis is where the devils live.”

I know because I was raised in Memphis. I went to kindergarten at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church on the southside. When my little sister Jackie went to the same kindergarten, one of her classmates was Phoebe Lewis, the daughter of Jerry Lee Lewis, who would sometimes drop Phoebe off at the church bleary-eyed, driving a shiny Cadillac—an unusual sight in our working-class neighborhood.

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Nashville has always been a more gentile town than Memphis. That difference was one of the themes of the brilliant book A Summons To Memphis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by one of my former teachers, Peter Taylor. That book is also a road-trip story, of sorts. The plot revolves around two spinster daughters—and other extended family members—who drive from Nashville to Memphis in an attempt to stop their octogenarian father’s marriage to a much younger woman. Maybe there’s something about Memphis and younger women: Jerry Lee Lewis, also known as “The Killer,” had his career derailed when the public found out his first wife Myra (Phoebe’s mother) was just 13 when they married. Lewis was 22 at the time, and he always insisted that Myra was 15, not 13. Whatever. Myra was also his first cousin.

Like I said, Nashville is for the angels. Memphis is where the devils live.

But God did not give up on Memphis. Remember, after all, that another of Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousins was televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. A bit closer to the center of the theological bulls-eye is Adrian Rodgers, the long-time pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, and one of the nation’s first megachurches. Hope Presbyterian Church is one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the country. According to the website Sperling’s Best Places, about 50 percent of Americans claim a religious affiliation. In Memphis that number is 63 percent. Indeed, the city has always been a place where Ephesians 6:12 did not sound like an abstraction or a metaphor, but rather a line from a reporter’s notebook. I quote the King James Version intentionally (emphasis mine): “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

Memphis’ most famous son was, of course, Elvis Aaron Presley, and it is perhaps fitting that his home was called Graceland. When I was a kid, we lived only about 10 minutes from Graceland. If we happened to be driving by and had a few extra minutes, we would pull over and wait to see if we could catch a glimpse of him. I don’t remember that we ever did, but I have many memories of seeing Elvis’s legendary and tyrannical manager, Col. Tom Parker, drive around Memphis in a jeep. He supposedly drove the jeep to remind people of Elvis’s military service. Everything about “The Colonel” was designed to burnish the image of his meal ticket. Lots of people in Memphis and elsewhere blame The Colonel for Elvis’s death. Elvis, that sweet boy from Tupelo who loved Gospel music so much his back-up singers were The Jordannaires. The pressure The Colonel put on him was just too much. It would be too much for anybody, they say.

That’s why calling Elvis’s home Graceland is, paradoxically, both fitting and ironic. If you’ve ever been to Graceland, you know it’s simultaneously fascinating, ridiculous, gaudy, and sad. Social critic Albert Goldman, in a 1981 book on Elvis, said the house “appears to have been lifted from some turn-of-the-century bordello down in the French Quarter of New Orleans."

But it is, nonetheless, irresistible. After the White House and Asheville’s Biltmore Estate—the entrance of which is less than a mile from WORLD’s headquarters—Graceland is the most visited private residence in the country. It is pure Memphis, and pure Americana.


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