As a born-and-raised Middle Tennessee guy, Franklin will always have the majority of my heart, but I spent my youth making the road trip to Memphis to visit family and then spent 10 years in West Tennessee. I went off to college for a four-year visit and stayed for 10! (I’m not the only one that’s done that, right?)
For some, that drive down I-40 between Franklin and Memphis can seem like a flat, boring ride. However, if you jump off the interstate, there are countless adventures, surprising history, and not to mention, incredible food along the way!
Next time you are in Memphis and feel that Franklin is calling for another visit, let these tips guide your best trip down I-40!
MUST SEE MEMPHIS
So, assuming you have been in Memphis for a visit, it’s safe to say that you’ve likely already hit the big must-see music spots around the Bluff City like Graceland, Beale Street, and Sun Records.
With those assumptions in place, there are just a few others that you must make sure of and cross off your list before heading east. Whether you are staying there or not, you absolutely must see the Peabody Ducks take their daily stroll to the fountain, which sits in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel. After you see them march, head up the same elevator to check out the Duck Palace on the roof. Incredible views and the most elaborate duck home you’ve ever seen! (Full disclosure, I’ve seen this duck march countless times in my life, and I still can’t get enough of it. It is easily my favorite thing in Memphis!)
The Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum are just a short walk down from the Peabody. The Loraine, of course, is the location of Martin Luther King’s untimely assassination and gives you a visual of the horrific events of that night.
Next door is the National Civil Rights Museum, which was fully renovated in time to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death. If you’ve never been, this experience takes you through a historical and powerful civil rights journey in the United States.
It shows the good and the bad, but it is nearly impossible to visit this museum and not come away with a more profound respect for both how far we’ve come as a nation and how far we still have to go.
Lightening the mood a bit, make sure you stop at Jerry’s Snow Cones before you hit the road. A vibrant pink building on the corner of Wells Station Road still has the look of the gas station the building once was, but now it produces the sweetest, most refreshing snow cones you’ll find on this side of a shaved ice stand in the Hawaiian Islands!
Just outside of downtown Memphis, detour off the interstate to the community of Collierville. Like you’ll discover in Franklin, a distinct southern charm centered around a classic Main Street filled with great shops, restaurants, museums, and art awaits.
You’ll quickly notice Collierville’s railroad history with both a steam engine and a caboose parked near the town square that you can get up close to and visit. Leave time for a quick stroll around the town square too. As you pop into the shops around town, you’ll understand why Parade Magazine named it their top Main Street in America back in 2014.
BOZO’S & GUS’ IN MASON
Memphis is world-famous for its BBQ. As a life-long Tennessean and self-declared BBQ connoisseur, I’ve made it a mission to try as much of the BBQ in Memphis and the South as possible. With all that research, my house’s only BBQ sauce constant comes from Bozo’s in the tiny town of Mason between Memphis and Jackson.
Bozo’s itself is what you would expect in a roadside diner. It’s a healthy mix of regulars and travelers who’ve all come to experience the incredible smell that greets you before you even park the car. In addition to a plate of BBQ, pick up a few bottles of their sauce to take home. Fair warning, though, it’ll become your go-to for almost everything!
Don’t fill up on BBQ only. While Mason is a town small enough to see from one side to the other, its food history continues beyond Bozo’s. Just across the street is the original Gus’ Fried Chicken. You’ll find locations around Memphis and read about it in almost all the food and travel magazines, but we all know that experiencing the original is best.
Saunter over to this tiny little outpost, and discover the spot that united a community during the heart of civil rights unrest in the South. Mr. Napoleon “Na” Vanderbilt created a chicken recipe that all people in Mason, black or white, couldn’t resist. As he and his wife Maggie were selling their chicken out of the back of a local tavern, the townspeople collected money and supplies for Mr. Vanderbilt to construct the tiny building on Hwy 70.
It initially opened as Maggie’s Short Orders in 1973, and when it was passed down to their only son – Gus – he has carried on the tradition ever since and taken it to a world-famous level.
BROWNSVILLE & TINA TURNER MUSEUM
As you get back on I-40, pull up the Tina Turner playlist on Spotify and let the classic refrains from ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ take you back to a glorious time in Motown music.
Then hop off the interstate in Brownsville to see the area that Tina called home as a young girl. Her hometown – the tiny unincorporated area of Nutbush, Tennessee – sits just a few miles down the road. Immediately off the interstate exit sits the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, and part of it includes the only Tina Turner museum in the world.
The one-room Flagg Grove School that Tina (known as Anna Mae Bullock at the time) attended was in danger of being torn down before it was moved to its current location. It’s now filled with artifacts from Tina’s career and a history of how her hometown helped shape her life. Tina donated several items on display at the museum, including costumes, gold records, and even her high school yearbook!
You’ll find a few more gems less than 10 miles away in nearby Brownsville. If you didn’t get your fill of BBQ at Bozo’s, it would be criminal not to stop at Helen’s BBQ. It’s not much to look at from the road, but the unassuming two-story pit house is where Ms. Helen Turner has been one of the nation’s only female pitmasters for nearly three decades. People travel the world to go to Helen’s; food legends like Southern Foodways Alliance John T. Edge have documented it on shows like SEC Network’s TrueSouth, and the restaurant has been written up in almost every major food publication. Ms. Helen is that wonderful, and the food is that good!
On your way out of Brownsville, you’ll see a rather unique art installation called Billy Tripp’s Mindfield. Mr. Tripp is building a lifelong and ever-growing gigantic sculpture constructed of metal scraps, abandoned boats, machine parts, and much more. If that’s not enough, the absolute must-see sits just in front of it: the “Mindfield and One of a Kind Menagerie & Master Barbershop Museum.” The title is a mouthful, and that is just the beginning; stepping inside, you’ll find an expansive collection of “history, art, wisdom, and a million dreams,” as described by its owner Anthony Turner, a high school classmate of Mr. Tripp’s. Every item in the museum has a connection to the local area and the visitors who stop in. Mr. Turner has meticulously tied them together literally with fishing lines strung throughout the museum to theoretically tie everyone to enter the museum together. If one item were to fall, it would be supported by the other items tied to the line. Details like that are abundant throughout the tiny space, but the pop culture history on the walls and shelves is unmatched. As for that Master Barbershop part of the name, Mr. Turner is also a master barber himself and has amassed an extensive collection detailing the barber industry’s past, too — and if you have time, you can, of course, hop in the chair from a trim from Mr. Turner himself.
Aside from Nashville, Jackson is the largest city you’ll pass through on your way to Franklin from Memphis, and like so many others in Tennessee, it is filled with musical history. If you were wondering, yes, it is, in fact, the same Jackson that Johnny Cash was going down to! Johnny was taking June Carter Cash down to Jackson’ to see the famed Carl Perkins, and you, too, can still see the legacy of Mr. Perkins throughout the city.
The International Rockabilly Hall of Fame is located in Jackson, and inside, you’ll find artifacts and history from some of the biggest names in Rockabilly music. Outside you can check out the incredible mural painted along the exterior of the building depicting so many of those legends. Nearby is the Carnegie Tennessee Legends of Music Museum. You’ll see history from some of Jackson’s most famous native sons: Perkins, Wink Martindale, and Sonny Boy Williamson.
These aren’t the only rock legends that have a history in Jackson either; so does the famed Hard Rock Cafe. Yes, that same spot you see in London, New York, Las Vegas, etc.! The first North American location of a Hard Rock Cafe was opened in 1971 inside the Old Hickory Mall in Jackson, Tennessee, by Jackson native Isaac Tigrett!
While that original location is no longer there, several unique pieces and decor can are inside the Legends of Music Museum.
Before you get out of town, if you need a snack, stop by the Casey Jones Village to step back into the railroad history books with Casey Jones himself. Aside from railroad history, the restaurant is said to have the best’ Cracklin cornbread’ in the world.
If you are still on a BBQ kick, pull off the interstate at Exit 87 for a relative newcomer to the West Tennessee BBQ game. Exit 87 BBQ is run by a guy known simply as Josh, who had a great BBQ recipe but didn’t know how to get the word out. Things changed when he grabbed a CB Radio and started having fun with truckers rolling up and down I-40 every day.
He’s had conversations of all types with these road warriors, but they often turned to food. With that in mind, he put a BBQ trailer just off Exit 87, and from there, the legend began to grow. While still just a BBQ trailer located right off the interstate, the word is certainly out about Josh and his BBQ.
A little more than halfway through your drive, you’ll come across the town of Linden. While it is home to less than 1,000 people, what they lack in the number of stoplights, they more than make up with historic charm. Sitting right on their Main Street is the Commodore Hotel. This gem has been in Linden since 1939, and while you may not be looking for a place to stay for the night, a stop into the lobby to see the classic decor is still a must.
This little jewel also has a restaurant and speakeasy that make for an incredible lunch! If you also happen to be passing through during the first weekend of October, head one town over to the National Banana Pudding Festival in neighboring Centerville.
I don’t know how much more convincing you need other than a national festival devoted to the best pudding ever created is there. Still, from personal experience, I can guarantee that anyone who loves banana pudding will be in heaven. The number of tastings, competitions, and options to go home with various banana puddings alone is worth the visit!
HURRICANE MILLS: LORETTA LYNN RANCH
Country music fan or not, everyone can respect when someone is one of the absolute best in their craft, and that for sure goes for the incomparable queen of country music, Loretta Lynn.
The famed Coal Miner’s Daughter has had a ranch in the quaint town of Hurricane Mills since the 1970s. While Loretta didn’t call the ranch her primary home for the last 30 years of her life, it is still unmistakenly hers, and she was no stranger to the property.
On the ranch today, aside from a lodge, you’ll find a recording studio, museums, several shops, restaurants, and a recreation of an entire western town. One of the museums is a replica of the famed Butcher Hallow, Kentucky home she grew up in.
When you stop in to see the ranch, you’re sure to catch music of some variety, and if it’s the right weekend, you might also find the annual motocross race that bears Loretta’s name.
NARROWS OF THE HARPETH
The last stop before you reach Franklin is all about one thing – spectacular views! Just off of I-40 in the quiet town of Kingston Springs sits Harpeth River State Park and the Narrows of the Harpeth. The Narrows of the Harpeth include one of the oldest man-made tunnels in the United States. Montgomery Bell (yes, the same one you’ve seen another Tennessee State Park along I-40 named after) was a big shot in the iron industry in the early 1800s.
He had the 100-yard tunnel hand-cut through solid rock to create a waterfall that would power his water wheel. This was considered one of the incredible engineering feats of the day and is still registered as an industrial landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.
The hand-cut waterfall isn’t the only spectacular view in the Narrows of the Harpeth. A trail winds up the bluffs and overlooks the Harpeth River below, providing an outlook for miles.
This is a particular favorite of mine as it is mere miles from the home I grew up in and was the site of countless hikes, canoe trips, and fun excursions as a kid. Once you navigate the relatively short trek less than half a mile up the trail, you’ll find spectacular foliage – especially in the fall – and you’ll notice several Indian mounds spread over a 7-acre area. Native Americans used them as burial grounds dating back to approximately 1300 AD.
The trail also makes an excellent stop for your furry friends. If your pup is making the trip with you, the path to the top is easy for them. Fair warning, though, you may have difficulty convincing them to leave the vast play area in the river right next to where you park the car.
Now that you’ve made it to Franklin and stopped for several snacks, it’s time for a nightcap!
Before heading to one of the incredible hotels around town that you undoubtedly found on our accommodations page, stop in the heart of Main Street at O’ Be Joyful to discover one of Franklin’s most robust whiskey lists. If you’re feeling adventurous, stop in at Kimbro’s Pickin Parlor for some late-night music in what will feel like one of the best house parties you’ve ever been to.
After a day of adventure like that, it’s probably time to call it a night. That way, you’ll have all the energy you need for an incredible day in Franklin, discovering its extensive history, the charms of America’s Favorite Main Street, and more.