While country capital Nashville offers a bold, brash take on Tennessee, Memphis, 340 kilometres to the southwest, strikes a more soulful chord. Meanwhile, on the hem of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the extreme east, country rules the roost again in rural Gatlinburg and flashy, splashy, trashy Pigeon Forge. But music isn't the only thing to sing about round these parts; Tennessee also offers stunning mountain scenery and legendary barbecue, southern comfort food and soul food. This is a state where you'll want to clock off the calorie count and tuck in.
Compared to the hundreds of kings buried in Memphis, Egypt, Tennessee’s version has just one historic king interred — but one who wore jumpsuits far better than King Tut and his kin. Elvis’s palatial pad Graceland gives a dose of king and kitsch, plus décor tips you’ll never forget — even if you try. If you’re staying locally, Marlowe’s Ribs will send a pink limo for you. The foyer contains a trove of barbecue trophies and a 2D cardboard Elvis in his gold-lamé stage.
Downtown Memphis is ramshackle, with a select few buildings slicked up for the tourists. A sign outside Flying Fish demands you “Get Your Tails in Here” for all-you-can-eat catfish specials. If you’re not a fish fan, next door Automatic Slim’s Tonga Club presents towering platters of onion fritters as tasty table centrepieces and dishes such as gumbo and pork chops with Delta Grind grits. Round the corner on famed Beale Street, birthplace of the blues, neon signs vie for attention along a couple of brightly lit blocks. BB King’s Company Store blares blues. The Handy Bar, named for blues legend WC Handy, offers “Big Ass Beers to go.” The bar next door promises “Biggest Ass Beers.” On the same block sits Schwab’s General Store. The stock is indeed general and lacks even a vaguely cohesive theme. Chipped ceramic kittens, cowboy hats and love potions jostle alongside souvenir mugs and eclectic knickknacks.
More genteel Southern society can be glimpsed at the venerable Peabody. However, at 11am or 5pm, things are a little different. At five, a liveried gentleman marches into the lobby and taps sharply on the marble fountain. Its inhabitants, five North American mallard ducks, hop out and march down an awaiting red carpet to the elevator. They reverse their journey in the morning. The tradition started in 1933 when the inebriated hotel manager returned from a hunting trip and filled the fountain with leftover live duck decoys.
For a more contemporary take on this Mississippi-side city, head for Midtown. You’ll find a burgeoning arts scene around the 342-acre Overton Park and worthwhile stops within, such as Rainbow Lake, Brooks Museum of Art and Memphis Zoo. Although the vivacious MidSouth Pride will happen downtown on Saturday, Oct 15, in Robert Church Park and the Beale Street Entertainment District, it’s Midtown that is Memphis’s queer epicentre, home to the Gay and Lesbian Community Center. In hip Cooper-Young, you’ll find happening bars, record stores, bookshops and funky restaurants such as Soul Fish and Beauty Shop — housed in a 1960s salon with refurbished hair-dryer chairs. Each September, the Cooper-Young Festival, with its 400 artisans, attracts thousands.
Nashville’s country credentials still account for much of the lure of the "Athens of the South," with attractions such as the Country Music Hall of Fame, Ryman Auditorium and Grand Ole Opry and legendary venues such as The Bluebird Cafe and Texas Troubadour Theatre.
But it's not all torch and twang. Explore the lively 12South neighbourhood, with its quirky artisans and oddball offerings, such as vintage Western mecca Katy K's Ranch Dressing, custom denim shop Imogene + Willie and gourmet popsicle store Las Paletas. Stock up on antiques in the collector-adored 8th Avenue South area. Delve into the antebellum and modern delights of East Nashville neighbourhoods, such as cutting-edge Five Points, where the lesbian-owned Margot Café is a popular LGBT dining and Sunday brunch spot with Tennessee twists on Mediterranean cuisine.
Downtown you'll find the arresting art deco Frist Center for the Visual Arts, with its old masters, contemporary classics and other collections. The Tennessee State Museum is nearby. Belle Meade Plantation offers plantation tours, a winery and a restaurant on the outskirts of Nashville.
GATLINBURG, PIGEON FORGE &
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
Gatlinburg was simply a small backwoods town until 1934, when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created alongside. Today, the misty 520,000-acre paradise is the most visited of all American national parks. Usually viewed as a jumping-off point for the park, the town of 8,500 offers a slew of popular, if rather more artificial, attractions, such as the Gatlinburg Space Needle, Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies and Dukes of Hazzard homage Cooter's Place. Main Street is a barrage of animatronic dinosaurs, waxworks and pretty much anything else you can think of that comes in neon or plastic, punctuated by gun shops, tattoo parlours and religious T-shirt outlets. It's like an Appalachian version of Niagara Falls, crammed with fast-food joints, pancake parlours and barbecue dives. Locals describe themselves as "redneck people" or "simple mountain folks," and it seems as if everyone in town is Dolly Parton's third cousin. For barbecue, Bennett’s Pit Bar-B-Que is a hickory-smoked must. There are a few nicer eating options, such as the elegant Buckhorn Inn.
Don't get too distracted by in-town attractions, though; there are 1,300 kilometres of trails and incredible natural attractions within easy reach, from Laurel Falls and historic Cades Cove, to the drivable Roaring Fork Nature Trail. If you want to take your hand off the wheel, hop on one of the different Gatlinburg Trolley routes; they'll take you to all town attractions and even the 11 kilometres to Dollywood and Dollywood’s 35-acre water park, Splash Country, in Pigeon Forge. The gloriously gaudy Dollywood is the number-one reason to go to Pigeon Forge, but once you've had your fill of butterflies, barbecue and bluegrass, Pigeon Forge offers a rowdy roll call of country revues and budget motels. For some good southern food, the Old Mill, which dates back to 1830, rolls out all the classics, from country-fried steak to sugar-cured ham.
Don’t be fooled by the Graceland neighbourhood’s sweet-sounding street names, such as Bluebird Road, Singing Trees Drive or Twinkletown Road: this is a purely functional part of town if Elvis stars on your itinerary and you’re on wheels. Go all out and stay in the Heartbreak Hotel, where the desk clerks are, indeed, dressed in black. Downtown, The Peabody is the perfect place to soak up the Old South. Across the river, the historic-meets-hip, super-basic Shack Up Inn is a unique cluster of once-abandoned shotgun shacks and a cotton gin set on an old plantation.
The 122-room, five-star Hermitage has hosted some illustrious guests since opening in 1908, from Bette Midler, to Greta Garbo, to the Dixie Chicks. If you’re in a country state of mind, the Opryland Gaylord is in the thick of things. The hip Hotel Indigo is a good LGBT-friendly option, in a historic downtown building near Vanderbilt University.
Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge
Gatlinburg offers dozens of chain names and plenty of places for people who like their tissue dispensers to come with built-in bottle openers, but for something a little nicer, the Buckhorn Inn is on the edge of the national park, six miles from the bustle of Gatlinburg. To get as close to the Big D as possible, RiverStone Resort offers condos and cabins a mile from the Dollywood gates.
Head to Midtown to measure up Memphis. The main venues include rambunctious sports bar The Pumping Station (thepumpingstationmemphis.com) and laid-back lesbian beer bar Dru's Place. Nashville's Church Street district offers the main cluster of LGBT drinking and dancing dens, including friendly Tribe and dance club Play. In the hip 12th Avenue South 'hood, Rumours Wine and Art is an upscale alternative to the scene. The Lipstick Lounge is an East Nashville girl magnet.