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The Vintage Cadillac With The Memphis Soundtrack

In the town where I grew up — Memphis, Tenn. — Tad Pierson has made a career out of his love for cars and American music by working as a tour guide. We meet in the grand lobby of the Peabody Hotel, the downtown landmark famous for its ducks and Southern elegance. But it's also considered the starting point of the Mississippi Delta, a region steeped in the blues.

Parked along the curb outside is not just any '55 Cadillac. It's pink and authentic, with fading leather bench seats and no air conditioning. So we head out, windows down on a thick, steamy August morning. Before we've made it a block, the scent of wood-smoked BBQ wafts into the front seat.

Tad Pierson stops at a record store known for featuring local Memphis artists, but finds a "going out of business" sign on the door. Pierson says the city's "cultural collateral" is fading away.
Debbie Elliott / NPR
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Tad Pierson stops at a record store known for featuring local Memphis artists, but finds a "going out of business" sign on the door. Pierson says the city's "cultural collateral" is fading away.

"Man, you know I love the smell of Memphis," Pierson says, "and the sound of Memphis."

Blues, soul, funk, gospel and rock 'n ' roll all have roots here, but one name is by far the biggest draw: Elvis Presley. Pierson's Cadillac might be pink, but don't expect him to take you to Graceland. His American Dream Safari starts at Lauderdale Courts, the former housing project where Presley lived as a young teen, sharing a bedroom with his grandma Minnie.

"Elvis is sort of a prism through which we can look at the American Dream," Pierson says.

After seeing the King of Rock 'n' Roll's humble beginnings, we head to the south side, home to the legendary Stax Records and some Memphis originals. We pass the church where Aretha Franklin's dad was a preacher, and the boarded-up clapboard house where she was born.

"What I have to deal with in my business is what I call 'cultural collateral,'" Pierson says. "I rely on real things in real culture to inspire my customers."

But he's seen some of it fading in the 18 years he's been giving tours of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta.

"There's fewer and fewer real-deal places to go and hear the real stuff," he says.

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