A Southern road trip that traces the musical history of America.
Waylon Jennings once said: “I’ve always felt that blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and country are just about a beat apart.” And a few miles. Get your motor runnin’ on this musical tour of the South, where country, rock ‘n’ roll, blues and jazz were all born within 500 miles of each other.
First stop: Music City, Nashville – undisputed home of country music, with more musicians per capita than any other US city. Nashville’s honky-tonk history begins at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (222 5th Ave, Downtown). This enormous facility will teach you everything you need to know about the origins of country music, from its humble beginnings in rural Tennessee to where it is at today.
Just down the road is historic Ryman Auditorium (116 5th Ave, Downtown), originally built as a church, but preaching only country music gospel these days. The Grand Ole Opry, the world’s longest running radio show, lived here from 1943 to 1974, but the venue was neglected after the Opry moved to Music Valley. In 1994, the Ryman was renovated and has not looked back. Take a self-guided tour or, better yet, catch a show.
Nashville is bursting with live music venues, but two stand out. Garth Brooks and Kathy Mattea were discovered at the Bluebird Café (4104 Hillsboro Rd, Green Hills), where aspiring songwriters, talent scouts, and tourists converge to hoot and holler. The other spot to scope out the next big thing is Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge (422 Broadway), where legendary owner Tootsie Bess nurtured the careers of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.
Keen for something more upbeat? Hit the I-40 (west bound) to Memphis, birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. When Elvis Presley walked into Memphis Recording Services, part of the legendary Sun Studio (706 Union Ave, Midtown), in July 1954, he was a lowly truck driver. When he walked out after recording “I Love You Because,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, and “That’s all Right,” he was days from becoming the first true rock star. There is so much history at Sun, it has been known to reduce grown men to tears. A free hourly shuttle runs between here and Graceland.
With green shag carpet lining the walls and ceiling of the Jungle Room, multi-coloured fabric running riot in the Pool Room, and a mirrored ceiling in the TV room, Graceland is star-studded grandiosity. Elvis Presley’s Colonial Revival-style mansion and 14-acre estate is a pilgrimage you will never forget.
Elvis may have left the building, but veteran bluesman BB King has not. For a night of Memphis blues and sinful “Southern comfort” food, make tracks to BB King’s Blues Club on Beale St. This historic street was once a hotbed of gambling, drinking, prostitution, murder and voodoo; today, it is a jumpin’ strip full of bars and clubs.
Do mot miss the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum (cnr Lt George W Lee Ave and 3rd St) before skipping town. This seven-gallery museum covers rock ‘n’ roll and soul, from rural roots to modern-day hit makers. From here, head south on the Blues Highway, otherwise known as Hwy 61. At the intersection of Hwy 61 and Hwy 49 just north of Clarksdale, Mississippi, you will find The Crossroads. Three blue guitars mark the spot where Delta blues henchman Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for mastery of the guitar. Going on to become one of history’s most influential blues musicians, Johnson was just 27-years-old when the devil claimed his side of the deal.
Passing through Clarksville, take Hwy 6 (eastbound) to Batesville and catch I-55 (southbound) to I-10 (eastbound) straight into the heart of New Orleans, birthplace of jazz. Harking back to the days when African and Caribbean slaves pounded out their rhythmic postcards home on Sundays in Congo Square (now Armstrong Square, in honour of Louis Armstrong), jazz as we know it was born when European instruments and ragtime piano were added to the mix.
Traditional New Orleans-style jazz lives on at Preservation Hall (726 St Peter St, French Quarter), a muggy, dirty, Prohibition-inspired hothouse with no air conditioning and no beverages (although you are welcome to BYO water). As the name implies, these conditions preserve a throwback feel – you think folks were comfortable back then?
For the quintessential Nola meal with a soundtrack to boot, head to the jazz brunch at Commander’s Palace (1403 Washington Ave, Garden District). The bread-pudding soufflé tastes even better with musical accompaniment.