What do you get when three single girlfriends drive the Music Highway from Memphis to Nashville? New memories—and a few lessons in love along the way.
The sun is setting as my friends Mary Ellen and Julia and I roar out of the airport in a convertible. We've had a rough time of it lately: Julia and I have gone through divorces, and Mary Ellen is a widow. We feel like we're living the story lines of so many blues and country songs, so we decide to spend our annual getaway immersing ourselves in the land of love and heartbreak. Our plan is to cover Tennessee's stretch of Interstate 40, with stops made famous by musicians from Elvis to Keith Urban. Maybe we can learn a thing or two.
Sun Studio You'd never guess this small, humble-looking studio had such a rich history. But the minute the tour guides launch into tales of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison recording songs here, the worn edges recede right into the background. 706 Union Ave., 800/441-6249, sunstudio.com, $12.
Graceland As expected, Elvis's mansion is one over-the-top moment after the next. (Jungle-motif furnishings! An indoor waterfall! The King's jewel-encrusted jumpsuits!) Across the street at Graceland Plaza, I buy a pair of Elvis socks. 3734 Elvis Presley Blvd., 800/ 238-2010, elvis.com, audio tour from $28.
Heartbreak Hotel Given the state of our love lives, this place seems like the right fit. At check-in, we're upgraded to the Hollywood Suite. Our luck is already changing. 3677 Elvis Presley Blvd., 877/777-0606, elvis.com/epheartbreakhotel, from $112.
Tater Red's Lucky Mojos As dusk settles, neon signs straight out of the '40s light up Beale Street, Memphis's hottest party strip. Among the music venues like B.B. King's and Blues City Cafe sits a shop called Tater Red's. The store is rife with curiosities, including a wall devoted to cures for curses. I'm torn between the Ex-Husband Stay Away oil and the Come To Me candle. 153 Beale St., 901/578-7234, taterreds.com, oils from $2.
Stax Museum of American Soul Music This museum is a fitting tribute to the label that launched the careers of greats like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. The first stop is a 103-year-old gospel church from Duncan, Miss. From there, you step onto a Soul Train–inspired dance floor, see a re-creation of a Stax recording studio, and scan the Hall of Records, where the 180 selections on the jukebox read like a list of relationship woes, from "Never Can Say Goodbye" to "Try a Little Tenderness." 926 E. McLemore Ave., 901/946-2535, staxmuseum.com, $12.
Arcade Restaurant No Memphis trip would be complete without a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich, Elvis's favorite snack. We order one at Arcade, Memphis's oldest restaurant, and it's as satisfying as it is calorie-laden. No wonder Elvis packed on the pounds. 540 S. Main St., 901/526-5757, arcaderestaurant.com, sandwich $7.
Casey Jones Village About an hour east of Memphis, off exit 80A, this village is a tribute to Casey Jones—he died in 1900 while trying to stop his train from crashing into another but managed to save all of his passengers. Jones has been immortalized in song by Pete Seeger, among others. The village includes a museum, a country store with a Southern-food restaurant and an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor, and a sweeping lawn—site of free bluegrass jam sessions on Thursday evenings. 56 Casey Jones Ln., 800/748-9588, caseyjones.com.
International Rock-A-Billy Hall of Fame In an 1880 brick building in downtown Jackson—considered the birthplace of rockabilly—this hall of fame displays a growing collection of memorabilia (Carl Perkins's blue-suede boots), videos of interviews with legends like Johnny Cash, and 16 life-size paintings of stars, including Jerry Lee Lewis and Brenda Lee. 105 N. Church St., 731/427-6262, rockabillyhall.org, $10.
Patsy Cline Memorial Patsy Cline died in 1963 at age 30, when her plane went down near Camden. There's not much to the memorial—a big rock with her name on it and a display with newspaper clippings from the day she died—but that doesn't stop serious fans from making the 18-mile detour off I-40 to pay their respects. We honor her by singing along to her rendition of "Crazy." Mount Carmel Rd. off Hwy. 641, 731/584-8395, free.
Coal Miner's Daughter Museum Cline and her pal Loretta Lynn commiserated about their marriage troubles. Lynn has a ranch in Hurricane Mills, 30 miles from Camden, and the museum on the grounds is the perfect tonic for anyone who thinks she's had it bad. The 18,000-square-foot space chronicles her life. Her early years—impoverished childhood, married at 13, four kids by 18—will make you grateful for your "problems." 1877 Hurricane Mills Rd., 931/296-1840, lorettalynn.com, $10, open April–Oct.
Loveless Cafe By the time we make it to Nashville, we've heard so much about the down-home Southern fare at the Loveless Cafe that we have to stop. I don't even really like biscuits, but the Loveless version (buttery, flaky, and made from scratch) is famous, so I try one...and another, and another. I like them so much that I buy a package of biscuit mix at Hams & Jams, a shop next door. 8400 Hwy. 100, 615/646-9700, lovelesscafe.com, breakfast from $7, biscuit mix $5.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum With all the sparkly costumes, big hair, and exaggerated twangs, country music is anything but understated. Same goes for the Country Music Hall of Fame. The 130,000-square-foot building takes up an entire city block, and its curved façade and tall windows (designed to look like piano keys) help the structure command attention. Inside, you can hear about all manner of heartache at the six listening booths, see one of Dolly Parton's famously flashy gowns, and read up on the hall's 108 honorees. 222 5th Ave. S., 615/416-2001, countrymusichalloffame.com, $20.
Hutton Hotel The Hutton Hotel has been open for only nine months, but it's already becoming the go-to spot for big names in the music industry. (LeAnn Rimes has been spotted at the bar.) The hotel's mid-century modern decor, 300-thread-count sheets, and granite baths are just indulgent enough to make you feel pampered after a long day. And Lower Broadway, where you'll find several of the city's top music venues, is only about a mile away. 1808 West End Ave., 615/340-9333, huttonhotel.com, from $159.
Grand Ole Opry For the grand finale of our Music Highway tour, we've bought tickets to see Keith Urban at the Grand Ole Opry. Who better to school us on love troubles than the man with an album called "Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing"? Shows at the Opry are lineups—the acts rotate on and off with head-spinning speed. By the time our heartthrob gets onstage, we're on our feet singing along to his hit single "You Look Good in My Shirt." I wonder if he's thinking about wife Nicole Kidman as he sings the lyrics. The song feels like the perfectly optimistic endnote to our heartbreak tour. If Urban found domestic bliss, surely we can, too. 2804 Opryland Dr., opry.com, from $38.