Smoke on the water: Memphis in May's World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest pairs the best barbecue with the best river view in the city. Photo by Marvin Garcia. Copyright © Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau 2011 All Rights Reserved.

Come to Memphis in May for music, ‘cue & river views

We celebrate many things annually in Memphis.

But there’s nothing else like Memphis in May: a month-long variety show of sorts where music, barbecue and art are the stars; and you’re the most-welcome guest.

It’s a party so big, you need to prepare for it. Here’s your primer:

1. Each year, Memphis in May honors a different country by presenting a series of exhibits, performances and business and culinary gatherings. This year’s Salute to the Philippines will bring Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs of that country’s People Power Revolution to the National Civil Rights Museum (May 1-31); Pinoy rockers Sponge Cola to Beale Street Music Festival (May 4); and Bayanihan, the National Dance Company of the Philippines, to the Orpheum (May 10), among other events.

2. Beale Street Music Festival (May 4-6): This is the Memphis in May event I anticipate most – stalking the release of the line-up way prematurely (and devising an elaborate stage-hopping strategy the second it goes public); later spending entirely too much time revisiting the experience on the festival’s video-rific Facebook page. The line-up is so deliciously diverse, mixing local sounds (my picks: Al Green, Jerry Lee Lewis, T Model Ford, Three 6 Mafia, North Mississippi AllStars) with current tours (including Jane’s Addiction, Florence + The Machine, Wiz Khalifa, My Morning Jacket and Alison Krauss) – across three stages, a blues shack and a blues tent in Tom Lee Park (where Beale Street meets the Mississippi). Between sets, check out the posters that have commemorated the festival since 1992 – George Hunt created this year’s, and it’s as full of color and story as you’d expect from the legendary artist. Use these links when you’re ready to create your own line-up and weigh ticket options.

Smoke on the water: Memphis in May's World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest pairs the best barbecue with the best river views in the city. Photo by Marvin Garcia. Copyright © Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau 2011 All Rights Reserved.

3. World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (May 17-19): This competition pits (yeah, I said it) piles of hilariously-named teams (Airpork Pilots, Optimus Swine) against each other for piles of prize money. Competitors are not allowed to serve the public (health regulations), but there are several ways you can enjoy this event:

  • Breathe in the sweet smell of smoky competition surrounding the WCBCC (again, in Tom Lee Park) until you just can’t take it anymore. (At this point, several food vendors will be on-hand to administer emergency barbecue infusions. They prefer cash for their services.)
  • Join the Cooker Caravan, a free guided tour that introduces you to the competitors, their rigs and methods. (If you’re nice, they might even share a barbecuing secret or two, and point you to the People’s Choice Tent.) Tours run every half-hour Thursday and Friday, 11:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
  • Take advantage of free admission hours (11 a.m.-1 p.m. Thursday and Friday), but don’t miss nightly entertainment like the Sun Studio AllStars and the Elvis tribute artist competition.
  • Start planning now to become a judge for the 2013 contest (this links to last year’s process, but gives the gist: You must first attend a seminar on barbecue and how it’s judged to earn your certification and a spot on the list of available judges.) When I asked Mike Ogden, a Memphis-based judge, what he’s learned over the years, he shared these essentials: (a) Layering distinct flavors harmoniously requires real skill (and goes a long way with the judges); (b) “You can make a masterpiece out of anything” (this after realizing he preferred a team that procured its pork from Costco over a team that procured its pork from an organic European farm); and (c) You don’t want to cook for him – unless you really know what you’re doing. “When I eat ribs or pork [outside of the contest], I can’t help but judge it,” he admitted.

    The Sunset Symphony will close this year's Memphis in May with an air show, a concert by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra featuring The Bar-Kays, and a fireworks finale. Photo by Marvin Garcia. Copyright © Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau 2011 All Rights Reserved.

4. Sunset Symphony (May 26): Arrive as early as 3 p.m. with your blanket, lawn chairs and picnic basket – Memphis in May’s marathon finale presents performances by local musicians; an air show by the Commemorative Air Force (6 p.m.); a Memphis Symphony Orchestra concert featuring The Bar-Kays (7:30 p.m.); and a fireworks blow-out (9 p.m.). The best part? Tickets are only $8 in advance ($9 at the gate), and children 6 and under are free.

How to make your Memphis in May rock the most? (1) Bring cash for the vendors who can feed and hydrate you during outdoor events; (2) Don’t let rain ruin your good time (this is for you, music festival-goers: Fight back with ponchos and galoshes); and (3) Download the Memphis in May app for on-the-fly schedules, maps and FAQs. For a thorough explication of these and other tips for experiencing Memphis in May, read this.

Which Memphis in May events are you most anticipating?

Hi! I’m Samantha Crespo, and I am Floridian by birth, Tennessean by heart. Growing up, I vacationed in East Tennessee, so I...Read on



    Sheila Collins

    Please email me with all the information on Memphis in May. I am very interested in becoming a judge as well for the 2013 Memphis in May. I would really like to know the dates and events. Myself and husband will be traveling would like to know entertainment as well and any other information that would make our stay better.

    Thank You

    Sheila Collins

  1. Pingback: MEMPHIS’ SPRING FESTIVAL SEASON IS HERE | Tennessee Triptales

  2. avatar

    Nomie Whitaker

    How do I become a vendor?

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