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Explore America’s musical heritage on a road trip through the South

Performers at the Deep Blues Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi Performers at the Deep Blues Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi. | Photo by Peter Lee

Country and rock ’n’ roll. Blues and jazz. Soul and gospel, too. They are the soundtrack of our nation, music invented and perfected right here in the United States, more specifically in the South. From Nashville, Tennessee, to Memphis, down toward New Orleans and back up to Nashville, lies what’s become known as the Americana Music Triangle. Nine distinct musical styles—you can add bluegrass, Southern gospel, and Cajun/zydeco to the list—continue to flourish today in the very places where musicians first played the notes that would become our musical heritage. 

So grab a map, stock up on snacks, and head out on the road. 

Nashville, Tennessee

Outside Robert's Western World in Nashville, Tennessee. | Photo courtesy Robert's Western World

Outside Robert's Western World | Photo courtesy Robert's Western World

It’s a typical night, crowded and joyful, in Robert’s Western World, one of the honky-tonks that line Nashville’s celebrated “Lower Broad.” Brazilbilly is ripping into a cover of “Rock This Town,” the megahit from 80’s rockabilly band Stray Cats. Millennials bob their heads to the music, propelled by the guest vocals of Leslie Spencer, longtime backup singer for Brian Setzer, the Cats’ former leader. Spencer, she tells me later, is visiting Nashville to write an album.

“I’m here because I love this town,” she says. “I love that it’s raw. It’s funny because I’m not a country artist. But country music is soulful. It’s real.”

In a city filled with more than 150 music venues, it’s not easy picking a favorite. Dig bluegrass? The tiny Station Inn presents some of the world’s best. Or check out The Basement, a dive extraordinaire, where superstar metal rockers Metallica once played a secret gig.

Trip planner

Pop superstar Lady Gaga has raised the roof at The 5 Spot, an East Nashville club, which has also been featured on the TV show Nashville. 615-650-9333.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is a jaw-dropping collection of the coolest country music ephemera anywhere. 615-416-2001.

At Husk Nashville, expect a seriously inventive, Southern-inspired bill of fare that changes daily based on what’s available fresh from local providers that morning. The crispy chicken skins with Alabama white sauce are so good you’ll swear Brock hails from the Heart of Dixie. 615-256-6565.

Union Station Hotel, housed in a gorgeous 19th-century train station, is within two-steppin’ distance of Lower Broad. 615-726-1001.

Muscle Shoals, Alabama

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. | Photo by Art Meripol / Courtesy Alabama Tourism Department

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. | Photo by Art Meripol / Courtesy Alabama Tourism Department

I’m in the Claunch Cafe in Tuscumbia, listening open-mouthed to Swampers session bassist and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio cofounder David Hood reminiscing about the old days. 

“There was the time Cher recorded at Muscle Shoals,” recalls Hood. “Sonny was a little bit older, but Cher was about my age. We hit it off pretty well. I took her for a ride on my motorcycle.”

Dubbed the Swampers for their swampy Southern sound, the musicians recorded with other luminaries over the decades including The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, who name-checked them on their hit “Sweet Home Alabama.” But Muscle Shoals isn’t the only spot where the greats came to make music; there’s Fame Recording Studios, Cypress Moon Studios, the Nutt House Recording Studio, and more. Most are still working studios and give dazzled music fans the opportunity to tour the spaces where music history was made.

Trip planner

After seeing the documentary Muscle Shoals, rapper Dr. Dre gave money to help restore the long-dormant Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, which is open for tours. 256-978-5151.

Catch live music at Swampers Bar and Grille, located inside Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa in Florence. 256-246-3662;

Memphis, Tennessee

The lobby and bar at the Guest House at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee

The lobby and bar at the Guest House at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. | Photo by Jeffrey Jacobs

I’m standing in the Memphis sunshine looking at the final resting place of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. A glass-encased flame sits at the head of the long, flat gravestone, which is flanked by flower arrangements. I’m not the world’s biggest Elvis fan, but you don’t have to be to pay tribute to the best-selling solo recording artist of all time—the man who inspired everyone from John Lennon to Justin Timberlake. 

The city has more to offer than just The King, however. Memphis is where soul caught fire in the ’60s, as everyone from Otis Redding to Isaac Hayes recorded at Stax Records. Of course, the blues reign here, too, on venerable Beale Street, where music spills out of clubs nightly.

B.B. King’s Blues Club All-Star Band is the place for music pilgrims to begin their tour of Memphis.

Lafayette’s Music Room is good, too, with live music nightly and a menu that includes soul food, such as sweet corn and jalapeño hush puppies. Also check out smaller places, such as Club Love at Winchester and Riverdale.

Trip planner

Elvis Presley Memphis is a $45-million, 200,000-square-foot entertainment complex filled with everything from The King’s car collection, memorabilia from his movies, and even an Elvis fashion exhibit. 800-238-2000. 

The Rev. Al Green, now an ordained pastor but better known as the crooner of “Let’s Stay Together,” leads a crackerjack choir on Sundays at the Full Gospel Tabernacle.

Nothing beats the dry rub ribs at Charlie Vergos’ Rendevous, even better when slathered in the restaurant’s house-made zesty sauce. 901-523-2746.

The Guest House at Graceland, a sleek and sharp inn designed with help from Priscilla Presley, has 430 rooms, 20 suites, and a dose of Southern style. 800-238-2000;

You may also like: A lifelong fan heads to eastern Tennessee in search of Dolly Parton

Clarksdale, Mississippi

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi

Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi

They don’t call it Red’s Lounge for nothing. This one-room juke joint is lit with crimson-colored bulbs, many of the stringed Christmas variety. Underneath their glow, guitarist Anthony “Big A” Sherrod is playing the blues the Delta way, with one raw note after another sliding in a cacophony of sound so rich it raises the hairs along the back of my neck. Legendary bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul for his uncanny musical ability at a Clarksdale crossroads, or so the story goes. As I listen to Sherrod shred his way through “Born Under a Bad Sign,” I wonder if he’s made his own pact.

If Red’s feels like the real deal, Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by Morgan Freeman, former executive director of the Blues Foundation Howard Stovall, and former Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett, features reliably phenomenal musicians. According to Luckett, his club is so named because Clarksdale, where bluesmen Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, and John Lee Hooker all lived, “is ground zero for blues music. The Delta blues is what influenced many British rockers, such as The Rolling Stones and Cream, in the ’60s. This music started right here in Clarksdale.”

Trip planner

Get your blues fix with more than 25 acts at the Deep Blues Festival. held annually in October. 

Check out for monthly music events. 

The funky Shack Up Inn, located on the old Hopson Plantation, offers accommodation choices that include updated sharecropper shacks. 662-624-8329;

You may slo like: A road trip along Mississippi’s Blues Trail

New Orleans, Louisiana

Performers at The Spotted Cat Music Club in New Orleans. |  Photo by Chris Granger / Courtesy New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau

Performers at The Spotted Cat in New Orleans. | Photo by Chris Granger / Courtesy New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau

Rhythm and blues singer Ernie K-Doe once said of his birth town, “I’m not sure, but I’m almost positive that all music came from New Orleans.” 

As I walk down Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, it feels like K-Doe must have been right. White-hot bands playing blues, soul, and rock pull me toward the open doorways of clubs strung one after another. But it’s the jazz I can’t resist, so I end up in The Spotted Cat Music Club, packed to the rafters on a Monday night. The venue was featured on HBO’s Treme, but it’s still free to get in there, like most places on Frenchmen Street. I order my drink, and jazz quintet Dominic Grillo and the Frenchmen Street All-Stars launch into an elegant version of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and the place falls quiet. 

While Frenchmen is where music lovers in-the-know go, other popular venues including The Jazz Playhouse and Tipitina’s are sprinkled throughout the city.

Trip planner

Head off the beaten path for reimagined Southern fare at Riverbend neighborhood’s Carrollton Market. 504-252-9928. 

The historic Hotel Monteleone features luxurious accommodations and the revolving Carousel Bar and Lounge, with live jazz five nights a week. 504-523-3341;

Be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol.

You may also like: 6 must-visit museums in New Orleans

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