MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) _ Barbecue, blues and bankruptcies. All have become Memphis traditions.

The per capita rate of personal bankruptcy filings in Memphis is the highest in the country and more than 3 1/2 times the national average, according to SMR Research, a Hackettstown, N.J., company that tracks bankruptcies.

Bankruptcy filings are at an all-time high nationwide, and Congress is working on the most sweeping changes in bankruptcy law in 20 years. But the reasons some areas have more bankruptcy filings than others are still unclear.

Memphis has topped SMR's bankruptcy list since 1989 when the company started gathering such figures. SMR's Stuart Feldstein said he can't explain why, but he does have some ideas.

``Once bankruptcy becomes widespread, it loses its stigma because everybody knows somebody who has filed and they're still alive, and they're doing well,'' Feldstein said.

In the year ended June 30, 1.42 million people filed personal bankruptcies nationwide, or roughly five filings per 1,000 people.

In Tennessee, the top state in per capita bankruptcies, the rate is nine per 1,000. Memphis has a rate of 18.45, leading the way, while Jackson, Tenn., is second nationally and Chattanooga is eighth.

Macon, Ga., ranks third, followed by Birmingham, Ala.; Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Savannah, Ga.; Lawton, Okla.; Chattanooga; Pine Bluff, Ark.; and Jackson, Miss.

Nine of the cities are in the Southeast, but Feldstein said that may be coincidental.

``You can't blanket the whole Southeast and say there's a huge bankruptcy problem and why isn't something done about it. There are exceptions to the rule. Florida is not as bad as the others, and South Carolina is actually good,'' he said. ``You have to take it on a case-by-case basis.''

While critics complain current rules allow too many people to file for bankruptcy rather than pay their debts, Memphis bankruptcy lawyer David Monypeny said he rarely encounters clients seeking to take advantage of the law. Rather, they use it to try to get back on their feet, he said.

``If not for bankruptcy, these people would be destitute for the rest of their lives,'' Monypeny said. ``Sure, there's an opportunity for people to take advantage, but it's there to help people who've made a mistake have a second change.''

Two of Monypeny's clients, James and Barbara Henley, came to him after they had already lost their house in Somerville, Tenn., near Memphis to bank foreclosure and were faced with insurmountable debts.

Henley's small construction business, which had been struggling for years, finally went under when he suffered a stroke two years ago.

``I mean we were in a spot. We were threatened with losing everything we had,'' Mrs. Henley said. ``We were just at the bottom and there was no way to go.''

The reasons people file for bankruptcy range from general economic downturns that hurt most citizens to individual troubles, such as divorce.

Tennessee's divorce rate is more than 40 percent higher than the national average _ 6.3 per 1,000 residents to 4.4 nationwide.

Tennessee also is among only a few states not requiring automobile insurance, and lawsuits from traffic accidents often force people into debt. Gambling losses are another reason.

Memphis is just 30 minutes from Tunica County, Miss., one of the largest casino centers in the country. But the city's bankruptcy rate was the nation's highest even before the first casinos opened in 1992.

Creditors say it's too easy for debtors to skip out on what they owe, while consumer advocates say banks and credit card companies give out too much credit to too many people.

Both the U.S. House and Senate have passed separate legislation that would make it harder for people to sweep away debts by filing for bankruptcy court protection. The House-passed bill was significantly more stringent than the Senate measure.

A compromise bill, which the White House has threatened to veto, could pass the House as early as today.

The most common form of bankruptcy is filed under the federal code's Chapter 7, which can leave unsecured creditors out in the cold because filers don't have to pay them anything. Businesses that file under Chapter 7 sell off all assets and cease doing business.

A much smaller percentage of filings nationwide are under the code's Chapter 13, which allows debtors to repay creditors in installments for up to five years.

In Memphis, the vast majority of filings _ 80 percent _ are under Chapter 13.

Thomas Layman, chief economist for Visa USA, said if 11 percent of the Chapter 7 filers nationwide had filed under Chapter 13 last year they could have repaid almost $4 billion.

Reformers want the courts to pressure debtors to find less drastic ways than bankruptcy to straighten out their finances, such as financial planning and consumer counseling.

``With bankruptcies continuing to grow at such a rapid rate, something's got to be fundamentally in error,'' Layman said. ``The incentives today actually are in favor of filing bankruptcy, particularly Chapter 7.''

While credit card companies and other creditors decry the growth in bankruptcy filings, critics say they must share some of the blame.

Federal bankruptcy trustee George Stevenson said it is not uncommon for people in the midst of bankruptcy to receive solicitations from credit card companies and other would-be creditors.

``My experience 10 to 15 years ago was people who filed bankruptcy could not get credit,'' he said. ``If people aren't going to pay you, then don't lend money to them.''