Monday, October 10, 2011

South Memphis AKA Soulsville, USA - A&R


I’ve heard a lot of people praise the barbecue from Payne’s Bar-B-Q, but I’ve still never eaten there. I stopped by the location at South Parkway and Elvis Presley Boulevard in South Memphis today but the restaurant was closed. Determined to try some South Memphis barbecue I went a little further down Elvis Presley Boulevard and stopped at A&R Bar-B-Que.

The area of Memphis near the Mississippi River that is south of downtown but north of Whitehaven is one of the poorest urban areas in the United States. Memphis is a major distribution hub for the entire country, which is why the city’s economy has demanded a lot of uneducated labor ever since the steamboat era. In fact, the Wikipedia entry on cocaine mentions that white stevedores in Memphis encouraged black laborers to use the drug for its stimulant effects as far back as the early 1900s, when it was sold by Beale Street drugstores in small five and ten cent boxes.


As a Dirty South riverport town in the middle of the Bible Belt, Memphis always had a rowdy atmosphere that frightens and confuses people who prefer to cling to a more genteel vision of the South. But the poverty seems to have repeatedly blessed Memphians with an uncanny knack for turning their experiences into vibrant music. Area musicians have ranged from Blues legends like W.C. Handy and B.B. King playing Beale Street bars to Sun Studios rockabilly artists like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, to modern rap stars like Three 6 Mafia and Yo Gotti. The street where I was eating barbecue was named after a guy who was living in public housing in downtown Memphis before he began recording at Sun Studios as a teenager. And during the 60s and early 70s, Stax Records in South Memphis was Soulsville, USA, turning out hit records by Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes and many more.


Today the Stax Museum is located at the record label’s former location on McLemore and A&R Bar-B-Que is just two miles away. The meat on my barbecue plate was chopped instead of the pulled variety I prefer, but still tasty. They offered both hot and mild and I was surprised by the relative lack of heat in the hot variety I opted to try although it did have a good flavor to it. I noticed that the restaurant had an old-fashioned cinder block smokehouse behind it for cooking the meat. The plate included a ridiculous quantity of beans and slaw that I couldn’t finish despite how much I enjoyed them. And as the perfect added touch, underneath the cash register was a poster promoting local hip-hop artist Zed Zilla, the self-proclaimed “South Memphis landlord,” who continues to remind people why his neighborhood is known as Soulsville, USA:



EDIT: Since I drove past the Stax Museum on my way to A&R when I did this post and then saw a poster for Zed Zilla in the restaurant it seemed natural to discuss the Soulsville neighborhood's rich musical history. I included the video because I love the song. I've noticed a couple posts on A&R Bar-B-Que's Urbanspoon page reassuring people that the neighborhood isn't that bad. I hope that this post didn't make anybody have second thoughts about visiting the restaurant since that was never my intention. While there are some rough parts of South Memphis, A&R sits on a well-traveled main road. 



A&R Bar-B-Que on Urbanspoon

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