The history of American music is the history of the nation itself. With the songs of the sharecroppers evolving into blues, the sounds of gospel evolving into country (Thanks, Elvis), the sounds of jazz evolving into soul, and so very many styles converging in that good old rock’n’roll music, America is a colorful, dynamic, ever-changing sonic tapestry. There are big institutions that honor legends, like the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and, of course, Graceland and Dollywood. But from coast to coast, the landscape is dotted with smaller museums for music lovers that pay tribute to different styles and pioneers of American music in big ways. Here are a few that are sure to get your toes tapping.
American Jazz Museum: Kansas City, Missouri
While Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald created the sound of Big Band jazz in New York and Louie Armstrong became the voice of New Orleans, Charlie Parker was making people party in Kansas City, Missouri. All those legends get equal billing at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine Jazz District. The Smithsonian-affiliated museum tells the story of American jazz through films, listening stations and interactive displays as well as artifacts like sheet music, instruments and Ella Fitzgerald’s gown. There’s even Blue Room, a working jazz club on the premises.
Buddy Holly Center: Lubbock, Texas
With a giant-sized sculpture of his signature specs marking the entrance, there’s little question you’re in the right place when you arrive at the Buddy Holly Center. Lubbock, Texas’s native son gets a lively tribute in a former railroad freight depot. Inside you’ll find music-focused interactive features and items like his iconic eyeglasses, salvaged from the 1959 airplane crash that killed him.
On view in the guitar-shaped gallery are items like Holly’s concert costumes, his record collection and, of course, his guitar. The museum also houses the Texas Musician Hall of Fame, a shrine to other Texan stars. Across the way a giant statue of the icon sits on the West Texas Hall of Fame.
Allman Brothers Band Museum at the Big House: Macon, Georgia
Allman Brothers fans of all ages should ramble down to Macon, a small town in the middle of Georgia where Gregg and Duane Allman grew up, played in bands as teenagers, and developed their pioneering Southern roots rock sound.
The modest Tudor-style home on a residential street where the band lived between 1969 and 1973 belies the magnitude of what happened inside when the band members cooked up their mind-blowing mix of jazz, rock, blues and country to create an entirely new genre. Today it’s been restored as the Allman Brothers Band Museum at the Big House. Guitars and other instruments, gold records, photos, posters and assorted memorabilia on display chronicle the life and times of this iconic American band.
Delta Blues Museum: Clarksdale, Mississippi
There is no shortage of museums in Mississippi that pay tribute to the inimitable sounds of the Delta. There’s the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, an expansive and comprehensive survey of the American blues, there’s the Gateway to the Blues Museum, modestly — and cleverly — set in a roadside shack, and there’s the sleek new Grammy Museum Mississippi, which opened in 2016. But the oldest, most enduring of them all is the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, an hour south of Memphis and part of an area of the Delta that Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke and Ike Turner called home. This institution, a shrine to so many legends, features instruments, sheet music, photos, costumes, and all kinds of memorabilia.
Memphis Rock n’Soul Museum: Memphis, Tennessee
You’ve seen Graceland, now dive into the rest of Memphis’s music history. The Memphis Rock n’Soul Museum, developed in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institute, tells the story of the music that made the whole world dance and celebrate, which is essentially the story of America. Exhibits home in on the racial and socio-economic challenges Memphis musicians confronted in their hometowns, dating back to the sharecroppers of the 1930s and on through Memphis’s glory days of the 1970s when legends were born in the recording studios of Sun Studio, Stax and Hi Records.
A self-guided digital tour features over 300 minutes of information and music. The museum also houses the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, which pays tribute to locals (see: Isaac Hayes, Johnny Cash, Al Green and many more) and runs free shuttles between the museum, Graceland and Sun Studio.
Paisley Park: Chanhassen, Minnesota
Paisley Park, the sprawling estate of the notoriously private megastar Prince opened as a museum in 2016, only months after his tragic, accidental death by overdose. Waves upon waves of fans have not tapered since. Guided tours of the first floor of this 65,000-square-foot complex in Chanhassen, a Minneapolis suburb, reveal rehearsal spaces, recording studios and video suites. The home also features thousands of the Purple One’s personal items, like clothing, cars, instruments, awards and much more.
Famously known as a gathering space for some of music’s biggest stars, who came here throughout the 1980s to record with him, Paisley Park is moody, flashy, and inspiring, welcoming guests with the sounds of Majesty and Divinity, Prince’s pet doves, and the Paisley Park-shaped, crystal-adorned urn containing the musician’s ashes.
Woody Guthrie Center: Tulsa, Oklahoma
If someone asked you what’s the most-widely-known song written by an American aside from ‘God Bless America,’ you could easily make an argument for ‘Hotel California,’ but you’d make a much stronger case for Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land.’ The young activist songwriter of this default national anthem was a lifetime crusader for understanding, compassion and embracing America’s glorious diversity.
The Woody Guthrie Center, founded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the charitable organization of native son and oil mogul George Kaiser, is located in Tulsa’s hip, vibrant Arts District and honors Woody’s legacy with extensive displays of his instruments, handwritten lyrics, listening stations, and maps and videos that show his far-reaching travels and the circumstances that inspired his Dust Bowl ballads. There are also exhibits that spotlight the musicians that carry his torch and create art in the name of human rights today.
Bluegrass Music International Hall of Fame and Museum: Owensboro, Kentucky
Fourteen-time Grammy Award-winner Emmylou Harris once noted ‘Bluegrass has a very, very strict musical form. Once you start to dilute it, it disappears.’ The Bluegrass Music International Hall of Fame & Museum in Ownesboro, Kentucky, opened in 1991 to ensure the pure sound of Appalachia is preserved and never gets diluted.
The highlight is the museum’s continuously expanding Hall of Fame, which honors each inductee with a commemorative plaque. Also not to be missed is the Video Oral History Project, which features 225 significant bluegrass musicians talking about their lives and the influential musical style that many of them pioneered. Instruments of legends like Pete Seeger are also on display. And after you’ve taking in the sounds of bluegrass past, get a taste of bluegrass present at the state-of-the-art theater or outdoor stage.
Motown Museum: Detroit, Michigan
Today, Berry Gordy’s childhood home in Detroit is a museum of – if not a shrine to – the iconic Motown label he created. A guided tour of the Motown Museum takes you on a swing through the history of the music that got the world singing along for generations. From the early careers of Jackson 5, Diana Ross, the Four Tops, and so many others, to the studio’s glory days when it cranked out hit after hit, it’s all here. Treasures on display include Michael Jackson’s crystal-encrusted glove, costumes and all kinds of artifacts and memorabilia. Other displays focus on lesser known but no less important personalities, like etiquette instructor Maxine Powell, who taught the Supremes how to strut. The tour ends in the fabled Studio A, which houses original recording equipment and Little Stevie Wonder’s piano. Close your eyes and sing along.