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A look at Memphis in May: most polled liked return to the river

Another Memphis in May International Festival is in the books. The newly redesigned Tom Lee Park saw more action than it’s seen in years as thousands returned to the river for the Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

Dru Hill performs at Beale Street Music Festival in Tom Lee Park on Sunday, May 7, 2023. (Ziggy Mack/Special to the Daily Memphian)

We conducted a quick snapshot poll of our readers on social media, and about 74% of those who attended Music Fest (and voted in the poll) liked the “return to the river,” while 17% had mixed feelings and 8% didn’t like the location. A similar percentage of barbecue fest attendees felt the same: 70% who attended (and voted) liked the location, 21% had mixed feelings and 9% didn’t like it. A majority of readers polled said they didn’t attend either event: 60% didn’t attend BSMF, and 55% didn’t attend the WCBCC.


Festival goers attend Beale Street Music Festival in Tom Lee Park on Sunday, May 7, 2023. (Ziggy Mack/Special to The Daily Memphian)

The Daily Memphian’s Alicia Davidson talked to BSMF attendees on the first night — Friday, May 5 — and some felt like Tom Lee Park’s twists and turns around newly landscaped areas made navigation difficult. But others felt like the river vibe was crucial: “Being right on the banks of the Mississippi is definitely a vital part of the festival,” said festival vendor Wallace Harding. As a bonus, Tom Lee Park’s new pavilion offered a respite from the heat on Sunday.

The Daily Memphian’s Chris Herrington attended the festival and attempted to answer two questions: Can a consumer-friendly music festival be held in this new space? And, can this festival, in something like its old form, be viably staged here? His answer was a “resounding yes.” 

Music fans listen to a performance while others stand at the Blues Tent barricade at W.C. Handy Park on Saturday, May 6, 2023. (Brad Vest/Special to The Daily Memphian)

Memphis in May officials said Tom Lee Park’s new design didn’t afford as much space as in year’s past, and the Blues Tent was relocated to Beale Street’s Handy Park and made free without a ticket. That was a move that caused logistical issues for some going back and forth from Tom Lee to Beale. But blues fan Jeff Colvin was a fan: “Last night at Tom Lee was OK, but you’re all crammed in there, everyone’s kind of jostling, and it’s too far for a beer. I like being in smaller places.”


The Daily Memphian’s photojournalists Mark Weber, Patrick Lantrip and Ziggy Mack captured photos from the first day’s activities including The Lumineers and P.J. Morton sets; day two’s hometown hip-hop acts Big Boogie, Finesse2Tymes and GloRilla; and fans enjoying Dru Hill, Los Lobos and Jazmine Sullivan on the final day.

Hung Nguyen and Chris Coles grapple in The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest’s Sauce Wrestling event on May 17, 2023. (Patrick Lantrip/The Daily Memphian)

The same space issues affected the WCBCC, with Memphis in May cutting 100 barbecue cooking teams this year, moving the “Patio Porkers” contest to Beale Street and making the latter free to the public. Nick Newman of Swiggin n’ Piggin told Davidson that, though he liked the updates to Tom Lee Park, the new design made setup more difficult. Barbeque Republic’s Jason DeLany said it was disappointing that some teams were cut, but he was glad to be back on the river: “I really don’t want to compete anywhere else,” he said.

Cedric the Entertainer and Anthony Anderson taste test ribs made with their new line of barbecue sauces and seasonings at Tom Lee Park on May 18, 2023. (Patrick Lantrip/The Daily Memphian)

The WCBCC even drew some celebrity guests this year. Hollywood stars Anthony Anderson and Cedric the Entertainer were there to launch their new line of AC Barbeque rubs and sauces. And restaurateur/Netflix star Melissa Cookston competed for the last time. The “winningest woman in barbecue” told our own Jennifer Biggs that she’s retiring from competition: “I don’t want to be Brett Favre,” she said.


John Dalton Wheeler with Ribdiculous Bar-B-Krewe carries the top prize in the ribs category at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest on May 20, 2023. (Patrick Lantrip/The Daily Memphian)

As for the WCBCC winners, the Grand Champion prize went to Ribdiculous Bar-B-Krewe, making this the first time in 22 years that a team in the rib category won the top prize. The Daily Memphian’s Holly Whitfield has this look at the winners.

Looking ahead, if you’re planning to attend the WCBCC next year, Biggs said the VIPit Pass is the way to do it. It’ll cost you $500, but you get your own hospitality tent stocked with plenty to drink. This year, those pass holders got to sample Anderson and Cedric the Entertainer’s new product line.

Runners line up at the half-marathon start of the Great American River Run on Beale Street on Saturday, May 27, 2023. (Brad Vest/Special to The Daily Memphian)

And finally, MIM wrapped up on Saturday, May 27 with its annual Great American River Run race through Downtown. The race included a half-marathon, a 10K and a 5K, and the weather was unseasonably cool, which made for ideal running weather. Davidson talked to male 10K winner Elliot Knernschield, who said “The energy is great out there.” Here’s a list of the top male and female finishers in each race distance.

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