ABCs of Memphis In May: 2020 Edition
Update March 19, 2020: All Memphis In May events for 2020, including Beale Street Music Festival, International Salute to Ghana, the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, and the Great American River Run have been postponed until fall 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 27, festival organizers will announce new dates for the event and also provide information on refunds.
May is Memphis’ monthlong civic celebration of music, barbecue, and ridiculous good times.
As is tradition, here are the I Love Memphis ABCs of Memphis in May to help you get prepared for all the festivities, updated for 2020.
A is for Art: Every year, Memphis in May releases a fine art poster commemorating that year’s featured country. The honored country for 2020 is the Republic of Ghana, and this year’s featured artist is Carl Moore.
A is also for app: Memphis in May has two apps that you need to download: the Beale Street Music Fest app (just search “Beale Street Music Fest” in the App Store, a 2020 update is coming in March) and the LiveSafe app, which really, y’all DO download this. The latter is for our safety and is the only way for the organizers to communicate with everybody about schedule changes, weather (the park was on lockdown last year during WCBCC due to lightning), and other concerns.
B is for Barbecue: The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest (commonly called the “BBQ Fest” but it is first and foremost a cooking competition) is a magical time when pit-masters from all over converge on Tom Lee Park to slow cook pork (and chicken and alligator and anything else that can fit on a grill). It’s happening
May 13-16, 2020 and tickets are $10 per day.
C is for Cash: Bring some. You’re going to need it for food, beer, parking and any extras you plan on picking up. In theory, vendors have card machines and there are ATMs, but do not count on those working.
D is for Don’t drink and drive: Finding a hotel room might be kind of dicey at this point, but you have several options for getting around safely if you plan to imbibe.
A) Make a friend who lives in 38103 and make their place your home base.
B) Program this number into your phone: (901) 577-7777 – it’s the local cab company. Pro-tip: If you’re calling a cab, call about an hour before you’re ready to leave since they’re going to be busy.
C) Use ride-sharing apps Uber or Lyft. Just prepare for waiting and surge pricing, which isn’t that bad. I’ve walked somewhere downtown to grab some food and let the surge pricing settle out. Easy!
There is no reason in the year 2020 to drink and drive, so stop letting your friends risk their life and license because they can’t be bothered to wait 15 minutes and pay about as much as it costs to park your car in most cities to call a car home. /rant
E is for Embrace the insanity: Memphis in May is a giant, month-long party, so treat it as such. There’s no point in getting upset about little things (weather, drunk people, waiting, road closures, whatever). Take a deep breath and reach a place of acceptance and tolerance for the festival’s inborn quirks and you’ll have a great time no matter what.
F is for food: There are food vendors of all kinds – ice cream, vendor (not competition) barbecue, tacos, funnel cake, lemonade, Pronto Pups – at all of the MIM events at Tom Lee Park. Make it your mission to try one of everything. Check out some of the awesome food vendors from BSMF 2019 here.
G is also for galoshes, aka Rain Boots: The weather is unpredictable, and you’re not going to want to walk around in flip flops (or heels – c’mon people, use some common sense) so go with some sneakers you don’t mind getting muddy, or the traditional shoe of Memphis in May: the mighty rainboot. I’d take some plastic ponchos as well.
H is for Have a plan: Don’t depend on cell service to connect you with pals, because the last few years it’s basically impossible to get through via text or phone calls, especially during Beale Street Music Fest. Instead, make a plan of when and where to meet or what to do if you get separated from your group. Some folks even bring walkie talkies.
I is for International Festival: The “I” in Memphis In May stands for “International”, and each year a country is recognized with events, food, music, educational programs and more. For 2020, Memphis In May will honor the Republic of Ghana throughout the month. Check out the cultural events, performances and eating opportunities and be proud that you learned something during the festival.
J is for Judges at
Barbecue Fest World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest: It’s a cruel irony when all of Tom Lee Park smells like a barbecue sandwich and you can’t technically have any of it. Due to health department rules, barbecue contest cooking team tents are treated like private parties (meaning they’re invite only, and you can’t just walk in and buy food and eat). The only people who get to sample the teams’ cooking without an invite are the festival’s highly trained team of judges.
K is for Know someone on a Barbecue Team: These are the solutions to the problem presented above.
a) Know someone on a BBQ team: If you do know someone, though, don’t abuse it. If your buddies are willing to let you in, awesome, but don’t try to bring a pack of friends with you. Also, mind your manners: your barbecue team friend is doing you a favor, so you should be as low maintenance as possible and definitely tip.
b) You can also buy “BBQ Alley” tickets in addition to your $10+fees Barbecue Cooking Competition admission ticket. This relatively new portion of the event started in 2017. Read all the fine print and get tickets here once they are released (scroll down to the BBQ Alley section).
L is for Lineup: Or at least part of it. After years of making us wait (and teasing us with weird clues on social media), Beale Street Music Festival organizers released some of the bands in December, and the rest announced in February. See the full lineup of Memphis In May music fest bands here.
More than 60 artists and bands that will grace the stages on the banks of the Mississippi. Headliners for BSMF 2020 include The Lumineers, Lil Wayne, Weezer, Three 6 Mafia, DaBaby, The Avett Brothers, Three 6 Mafia, and The 1975. See more rock, hip hop, blues, and pop bands on the full lineup.
M is for Music Fest: The Beale Street Music Festival (
May 1-3, 2020) is the official start of the Memphis in May madness. Check the lineup list here. The times and stages schedule will be shared closer to the date of the event.
M is also for Mighty Lights: We got fancy lights on our bridges, now, y’all! There’ll be good views of these nightly light shows from Tom Lee Park during Memphis in May events.
N is for You Need To Bring Some Things: OK, this is probably not the most clever N phrase, but I wanted to let you know what you’re allowed to bring into the park: Read the rules about what you can/can’t bring to BSMF here. Read more about WCBCC permitted items here.
O is for Overheated: You’re going to be outside in a park with little shade in Memphis in May. Even if it’s not crazy hot outside, it’s still easy to get overheated. Drink water, find a cool place to sit, and quit when your body tells you to.
P is for Parking: Parking in one of the downtown lots or garages for Memphis in May can get a little pricey, so bring cash. If you’re willing to walk a bit, there might be some free parking to be had on the northern and southern ends of downtown. Usually the trolleys are running late. Better yet, don’t fool with parking and and head back up to letter “D” above for tips on using rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft.
Q is for Que-related Dance Contest: Don’t miss the Miss Piggy Idol contest on Thursday at the Barbecue Cooking Contest. There are costumes, there are props, there are men in dresses singing songs whose lyrics have been modified to be about pork. I am still laughing about a rendition of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” that became “Beans ‘n’ Slaw” several years ago.
R is for Run, Great American: The Great American River Run is a 5K, 10K, and half-marathon on
May 23, 2020 with a course taking you through downtown and along the Mighty Mississippi in all its glory. Learn more here.
S is for Shoes, Sunscreen, and Sunglasses: Wear real shoes. Memphis in May is no place for cute footwear. No flip flops, no heels. Think old sneakers, all-weather boots, something like that. The park is a mile long, and I’ve seen many a sad, abandoned single flip flop languishing in the mud. Also, don’t be one of those people “working on your tan” and just go ahead and wear that sunscreen (and sunglasses!) They will have sunscreen stations this year, too.
T is for Tip in barbecue fest booths: Barbecue team booths are crazy expensive. If you get a tent invite, the least you can do is toss a $20+ in the jar for the bartender (especially if the drinks are free).
U is for Umbrellas not allowed: Wear a poncho or modify a Hefty Bag instead if rain gear is needed.
V is for Vendors: Beale Street Music Fest will have vendors of kinds selling festival merch, apparel, accessories, and more, in addition to plenty of food and drink.
W is for Water: Dehydration sucks, and it’s easily preventable. Start hydrating a few days before you head to Music Fest or BBQ Competition. During the festivals, a good rule is one bottle of water / big glass of water for every big beer.
X is for X-citing to see all those bands: I know I’m cheating with the X on this one, but the point is that the lineup has a lot going on. See the list here.
Y is for You’re going to need a break: At some point, you will need a break from the festival. It’s more than ok to leave Tom Lee Park for a little bit and grab a snack (and a seat) at any of the restaurants downtown. You can leave and re-enter the park one time, just be back at least two hours before it shuts down.
Z is for Ziploc baggies: Put your phone (and anything else that doesn’t need to come in contact with water) in a Ziploc baggie before you stash it in your pocket or bag. It sounds low tech, but isn’t a bad idea especially if you don’t want to bother with a purse.
If you’ve got any other tips, please leave them in the comments.
All photos by Joey Miller unless otherwise noted.