How to do Memphis in May 2014: Beale Street Music Fest, World Championship BBQ Cooking Contest & more

Memphis in May International Festival began in 1977 as a cultural exchange between Memphis and the world. Today, it’s a month-long multicultural party stoked famously by Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. It’s coming. Here’s what you need to know:

Beale Street Music Festival (BSMF), May 2-4 67 acts are expected. Headliners include Kid Rock, Alabama Shakes, Snoop Dogg and Joan Jett. Personally, I’m most excited to hear Jason Isbell sampling his new album and St. Paul and the Broken Bones, including Memphian Al Gamble on organ.

Naturally, BSMF makes a good introduction to the local/regional music scene: About a third of the lineup is homegrown. I saw Jerry Lee Lewis for the first time here, and he’ll be back again this year for his 11th BSMF. Other locals to listen for by genre:

  • Rap and crunk: Juicy J; Lord T & Eloise (featuring Elliott Ives, sometimes-guitarist for Justin Timberlake)
  • Folk/roots: North Mississippi Allstars, Memphis Dawls
Catch The Memphis Dawls at Beale Street Music Festival 2014.

Catch The Memphis Dawls at Beale Street Music Festival 2014. Photo by Erin Jennings.

  • Blues: Robert “Wolfman” Belfour for the old generation; Will Tucker and beat-boxin’ Brandon O. Bailey for the new generation.
  • Rock-and-roll/rockabilly: Sonny Burgess and the Legendary Pacers, who got their start at Memphis’ Sun Records in 1956.

Single-day and three-day passes to BSMF are available through Ticketmaster.

World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (WCBCC), May 15-17 I’ve written a lot to help you maximize the experience (read this and this for Q & A’s with contestants), but to recap:

  • Remember the cardinal rule: Teams are not allowed to feed the general public (health regulations). Bring cash for food trucks onsite.
  • If you’re dying for a taste of competition ’cue, register for the Kingsford Tour of Champions. For $12*, you’ll choose a shift Thursday or Friday; undergo a brief judges’ orientation; taste a few pork shoulder entries and make your judgment. *Admission to WCBCC is separate from this registration fee.

Register for the Kingsford Tour of Champions and you’ll be judging pork shoulder. But keep in mind that the contest smoking around you, which draws 250 internationally-seeded teams, covers categories from rib, whole hog and beef to seafood, exotic and wings. Photo courtesy of Memphis in May.

  • Thursday and Friday of the competition, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., admission is free. These periods are quiet, so if you’re curious about competition cooking or a team’s rig (their cooking setup), now’s the time to ask. Officially, you can join the Cooker’s Caravan during these periods, too. It’s a free, guided tour featuring teams who’ll talk you through their rigs and methods.

AutoZone Sunset Symphony, May 24 Pack a picnic, blankets and chairs for Memphis in May’s signature finale. You’ll be entertained by Stax Music Academy, the extracurricular program that trains students in Memphis’ soul tradition; an air show; the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and fireworks – back-dropped by the Mississippi River.


Soul music, symphonic sounds and the sun setting over the Mississippi = Memphis in May’s signature finale, Sunset Symphony. Photo courtesy of Memphis in May.

All of Memphis in May’s festival events take place in Tom Lee Park along Riverside Drive in downtown Memphis. But don’t let the heavies overshadow happenings across Memphis all May long, each one illuminating the festival’s honored country (Panama in 2014). Expect intriguing stories and creative expressions including:

  • Panama in Color at Joysmith Gallery, a showing of celebrated painter Al Sprague, who turns familiar sights of his native Panama – fishermen, market vendors, women in polleras – into works of art. April 26-May 31, free
  • Viva Panama at The Orpheum Theatre, featuring Panamanian jazz musician Danilo Perez and traditional Panamanian folk dancers. May 8, ticketed
  • A Night of Panamanian Cuisine at Chez Philippe at The Peabody Memphis, featuring guest chef Charlie Collins, food writer, cookbook author and owner of Panama’s Panamonte Inn & Spa. May 10 and 11, reservations required 

One to grow on: Visible Music College opened its downtown Memphis campus in 2011 and has spotlighted students since by offering concerts around the city. In the spirit of Memphis in May, the college will turn its parking lot (navigate to 200 Madison Ave.) into a free fest of live music with food trucks and more on May 9. Pop in anytime 4:30-8:30 p.m.

See this page for a full list of “Salute to Panama” events. What event(s) are you most looking forward to at Memphis in May 2014? Tell us in the comments section below.

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

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