Elvis. Otis Redding. Louis Armstrong. The southern states of America have a rich musical history and a knack for churning out unforgettable artists.
Now embodied by the likes of Jack White, the Black Keys and the Kings of Leon, the region’s music scene continues to fill southern streets – and beyond – with soulful beats.
From Charleston to New Orleans, here’s where to go in Dixie for a truly toe-tapping tour.
New Orleans, Louisiana
If experiencing a genre at its source interests you, your mind will be boggled by the jazz that pulsates from every crack and crevice New Orleans has to offer. Formed by a combination of African rhythms and European melodies in the early 20th century, jazz has shaped modern culture here and exploration of this music style is best begun at Preservation Hall.
Extraordinarily popular, it’s likely you’ll have to wait in line outside of this no-frills venue for an hour only to be directed into a small, packed, oven-like room to hear a band devoid of electrical assistance. But it’s spectacular. Jazz hounds have been playing here since 1961. Its shabby exterior and dim lighting only complement the sound of the traditional New Orleans jazz that goes on late into the night. Taking things back to basics with a traditional approach, there’s no amplification – just exhilaration.
The full spectrum of jazz forms can be experienced throughout the French Quarter. Spotted Cat and Maison Bourbon are particularly good at capturing the bohemian spirit of New Orleans in tiny, teeming joints that spill out onto the cobblestones. If you like your beats al fresco, curbside jazz collectives bridge the gaps between establishments with a dashing charm, stopping only to join in with the music of the ‘second line’ parades that announce the passing by of a wedding party. The synchronicity of it all is hypnotic and if you squint a little, it’s not hard to set your mind back 100 years and imagine Louis Armstrong roaming these street, trumpet in hand, looking for somewhere to work on his raspy tones.
An undeniable focal point for folk, country and rock music, Nashville has given us the Kings of Leon, Johnny Cash, and the Black Keys, to name a few. Bob Dylan has recorded here; Jimi Hendrix cut his teeth in many a venue on Jefferson Street; and Etta James recorded a phenomenal live album at the New Era Club. Nashville’s music credentials are substantial – and so they should be with a nickname like ‘Music City’.
Broadway delivers live country music from a string of hoe-down hotspots on a street where it appears mandatory to have a drum kit in the window. The music is loud, the beer is local and the dancing, particularly at the Wildhorse Saloon (wildhorsesaloon.com), comes in lines.
Beyond Broadway, the Grand Ole Opry – the Saturday night radio show that made country music famous – remains a stalwart of past greats, and continues to produce sounds that are coveted internationally. Jack White’s label, Third Man Records, combines a vintage record store with a recording studio. Decked out with countless retro tokens, you’ll have to be fast about buying your collectible guitar picks, as musicians often come in from the neighbouring studio to pilfer them during recording sessions.
Charleston, South Carolina
Not every city has a dance named after it. However, Charleston contributed significantly to the emergence of jazz and was rewarded with a side-kicking, step-heavy jive of the same name.
And the source of its contribution? The Jenkins Institute for Children. Founded by Daniel J Jenkins, this home for orphaned black children became a musical Petri dish as its occupants took their instruments to the streets in order to help fund the institute. As their repertoire developed, flappers began to gather outside the orphanage to dance to ragtime and it's from settings like this that the charleston was created – and then promptly banned from dance halls all over America for being too scandalous.
When the sun sets on King Street, the volume rises, and you can travel back to the 1920s at Prohibition (prohibitioncharleston.com). If you can find your way in through the crowds, you’ll happily be served cocktails with a hint of rustic jazz, garnished with free swing lessons.
Graceland is almost as unavoidable as its inevitable Disneyfication. Gift shops, themed restaurants and a plethora of outlandish vehicles, from private planes to Cadillacs, dominate the plot of land opposite Elvis' beloved home. It all fits comfortably within the taste of ‘the King’, of course, who installed jungle-themed rooms and opulent furniture in ever brighter hues. Queues are to be expected as legions of fans explore the mansion, but what lies within is an exceptional look into the life and music of one of rock's greatest performers.
Without Sun Studio, Graceland as we know it would not have existed. Created by one of rock and roll's key architects, Sam Phillips, this diminutive building was where household names like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis took their first steps towards immortality. The recording studio is still functioning, and offers tours from inexhaustibly enthusiastic guides with an expansive knowledge of the venue and its performers. Known as an incubator for blues and rock of the 50s, you can see rare, unedited footage of the Million Dollar Quartet as they played together and stand in the spot where songs like ‘That’s Alright’ and ‘I Walk the Line’ were first recorded.
Venture into downtown Memphis and you'll find the blues haven of Beale Street, just a block from the Gibson Factory. Saturated with strong, soulful voices and wailing guitar solos, choosing a venue can be difficult. Cue the irresistible bar crawl that entices so many from door to door, as patrons cram around small tables in crowded rooms to get blown away by authentic Memphis blues. With B.B. King’s Blues Bar and Rum Boogie Cafe leading the charge, toe-tapping through to close is delightfully easy.
Nick Hewitt travelled to the USA with support from G Adventures. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.