We made sure to leave plenty of time to tour the Stax Museum of American Soul Music on our last morning in Memphis. Driving into the parking lot we immediately knew we were in for something special: it was immaculate and there were speakers blasting some very danceable soul tunes throughout the lot. And the speakers had great sound quality to boot. They were robust and clear, not sad and tinny. This was not going to be your average museum, kids.
Stax started out as a small Memphis record store housed in a former movie theater. It grew into an amazing record label, launching the careers of artists like Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, the Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, Luther Ingram, Albert King, the Bar-Kays, Booker T. & the MG’s and more. You might not have realized it, but trust me, you’ve heard a lot of songs from the Stax catalog. The museum covers Soul as a musical genre, so there is plenty on Motown Soul legends, too.
This museum was fun! And jammed with history. Tours start with an excellent short documentary about Soul. I especially loved seeing the footage of several legendary Soul icons talking about how much they’d looked forward to the Grand Ole Opry growing up, about how their whole family would stop everything to tune in to the show. There was something unexpected and delightful about hearing Isaac Hayes sharing his love for the Grand Ole Opry. My mind just hadn’t equated Bill Monroe and Shaft in quite such a fashion, you know? The role of Country and how it influenced genres like Soul and Rock actually seems pretty obvious if you listen to the music, but I don’t feel like I hear Country getting the credit it deserves from people my age (or younger). Somehow that connection seems a bit lost, and it was refreshing to see props given equally to Gospel, Country, and Blues as foundational elements of Soul.
Following the movie, visitors guide themselves through the museum at their own pace. On exhibit are many expected sights. But in addition to things like stage costumes and instruments, there are plenty of thoughtful, less-obvious extras. There’s an entire old one room southern baptist church that was taken apart, transported from the Mississippi countryside, and then rebuilt inside the museum. Above the pulpit inside the church a television plays vintage footage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe rocking out gospel songs on her electric guitar… in a very similar church. It’s a space and a moment that brings the Gospel roots of Soul into sharp, surprising, and palpable focus. I love that they dedicated the space that they did within the museum to bring that point to life.
That’s one of the signatures of this museum: bringing things to life and putting them into historical context in a very inviting, tangible fashion. Another such moment? There’s a room decked out with lights, a large dance floor, and a disco ball where old episodes of Soul Train are projected floor-to-ceiling on one of the walls. Nearby signage talks about the synergy between radio, television, concerts, and the music, and about how each provided inspiration for the other. Further on there’s an amazing space where you can pop on some headphones and listen to the entire Stax catalog…well, not all at once. But still. Awesome.
This place takes you on a real journey: you find yourself dancing to the amazing music, awed by eye-candy like the pimped out splendor of Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac, and then choked up by straightforward reminiscences like one shared by a DJ from the first black radio station in the United States, Memphis’ own WDIA, about how he helped get segregation laws that prevented black ambulance companies from helping anyone in need, regardless of color, changed (because of segregation, the black ambulance workers weren’t allowed to cross color lines even in cases of dire emergencies) after talking about the issue on air.
The balance between lighter, pop-culture stuff and heavy, profound social history is managed deftly. To be able to go from novelty oven mitts (“If it’s too hot to handle, it must be from Stax”) to one of the white members of the biracial Booker T. and the MG’s talking about the impact Doctor Martin Luther King Jr’s slaying had on their band is a tall order, but the Stax Museum pulls it off. This is history that doesn’t feel medicinal. It’s vibrant and immediate.
So what I’m saying is, get yourself to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. It is small but mighty. Your time will be well rewarded. Plus, admission is totally reasonable, the stuff in the gift shop is fun, the bathrooms were pretty lovely, and, as noted earlier, even the parking lot was cool.
I leave you with footage of the aforementioned gilded Cadillac that belonged to Isaac Hayes. This thing was decadent, and I don’t know when I’ve ever looked at a car and thought, “I want to get in that car barefoot and go cruising”. Hold on til the end for the wicked great sign…