(This is the first half of a two-part series. See part two of a road trip into the roots of American music.)
A lot of amazing music was born in the United States, but what's truly remarkable is how many sounds have their origins in the South. In fact, if you mark out a route from Louisiana and Mississippi up into Tennessee and Kentucky, you can do a pretty thorough job of exploring the roots of jazz, blues, soul, bluegrass, country, and rock and roll.
So if you like music, or even if you just want to learn about a keystone of America's cultural heritage, then this road trip is for you. Grab a map, hop in your car, and get ready for a toe-tapping pilgrimage into the roots of American music.
New Orleans: The birthplace of jazz
Let's begin the journey in New Orleans. In addition to being a fun place in which to spend a few days, this Louisiana city is widely considered to be the birthplace of jazz and there are numerous places where you can enjoy the music. Just wander the French Quarter and walk into any club that strikes your fancy, then sit back and listen to someone coax magic out of a saxophone. If you need a spot to begin, try historic Preservation Hall
, where local musicians play New Orleans jazz seven nights a week. In late April every year, you can also attend the weeklong New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
and enjoy not only jazz, but also gospel, blues and Cajun music.
Highway 61 in Mississippi: Home of the Blues
When you've recovered from your New Orleans-induced revelry, head north on Highway 61 into Mississippi. This road is popularly known as the Blues Highway for the region's role in giving birth to blues music. Your first stop should be in Leland at the Highway 61 Blues Museum
. After this, make a half-hour detour to Indianola for a stop at the B.B. King Museum
. This new facility celebrates the life of the renowned blues musician and explores the culture and musical heritage of the Mississippi Delta.
Continue traveling north to Clarksdale, Mississippi, which is the historic heart of blues music. Here, at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 is where Robert Johnson
supposedly sold his soul to the devil to become a legendary blues guitarist. Many other celebrated artists have roots in Clarksdale, including Muddy Waters, Ike Turner and John Lee Hooker. Be sure to visit the Delta Blues Museum
, which has a large collection of memorabilia. Another interesting place is the Rock ‘n Roll & Blues Heritage Museum
, with exhibits about various styles of American music. There are also numerous music clubs to check out while you’re in town, including Ground Zero
, co-owned by the actor Morgan Freeman.
Tupelo, Mississippi: Birthplace of Elvis Presley
From Clarksdale, head east on Rte. 278 to Tupelo, which is in the center of the famed Natchez Trace Parkway but is more well known as the birthplace of Elvis Presley
. There, you can visit the two-room home where the King of Rock ‘n Roll was born and take an Early Years Driving Tour of local Elvis sites.
The Memphis Music Scene
Your trip continues two hours north in Memphis, Tennessee, where you can explore a treasure trove of musical history and culture. Since you just came from Elvis’ first home in Tupelo, you might as well start your Memphis explorations at Graceland
, the mansion where he lived from 1957 until his death 20 years later. His grave is behind the home.
Then make your way to Sun Studio
, the self-styled “birthplace of rock ‘n roll” where Elvis recorded his first hit songs. You can tour this remarkable recording studio that spawned the career not only of Elvis Presley, but also of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and others.
Memphis is home to two more excellent music museums
. The Rock ‘n Soul Museum
is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and traces the evolution of American music, from blues, gospel and country to jazz, soul and rock ‘n roll. It is appropriately located at the corner of Highway 61 and Beale Street. Then there is Soulsville USA, or the Stax Museum of American Soul Music
, which is filled with exhibits and artifacts from soul artists – such as Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett - who recorded chart-topping songs at Stax Records. “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” anyone?
Finally, you can’t leave Memphis without spending time on Beale Street
. From the buskers on the corner to the live music clubs that are open into the early morning hours, it’s a nonstop festival of sound on a street that has played host to some of the country’s greatest musicians. In addition to enjoying the music, you can visit the W.C. Handy House Museum, where the “father of the blues” once lived, or gaze at the local Elvis statue. If you’re in town in early May, you can also attend the wildly popular Beale Street Music Festival
Owensboro, Kentucky: Bluegrass music
Your musical journey next lands in Owensboro, Kentucky, the land of bluegrass. There is no better place to explore this sound than at the International Bluegrass Music Museum
. Bluegrass is the state music of Kentucky and Bill Monroe, who is considered the father of bluegrass, was born in nearby Rosine. The museum has exhibits on the history of the music, a Hall of Honor, instrument demonstrations, and classic recordings.
Nashville, Tennessee: Music City, USA
The final stop on our musical pilgrimage is back in Tennessee. Just two hours south of Owensboro is Nashville, which is widely known as Music City and is the national capital of country music. A popular site is the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum
, where more than 100 musical legends have been enshrined. The distinctive building is shaped like a piano keyboard and includes exhibits on the history of country music along with an extensive memorabilia collection. The museum also arranges tours of Historic RCA Studio B, where Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Willie Nelson and others recorded songs.
Another can’t miss destination is the Grand Ole Opry
. Visitors can take a backstage tour of country music’s most famous venue, attend a live show, or tour the Opry Museum. A nice complement to this is a visit to Ryman Auditorium
, which was the original home of the Grand Ole Opry show and where musical performances can still be enjoyed. If you’re craving still more live music, try a show at the famed Bluebird Café
or at any number of sites in The District, an historic downtown neighborhood filled with everything from touristy nightclubs to dive bars.
Map and directions
Jazz, blues, soul, bluegrass, country, rock ‘n roll. It’s a wildly diverse mix of sounds, but if you made it this far then you’ve completed quite a pilgrimage into the roots of American music. Here is a map of the road trip. If you click on the “roots of American music” link
, it will take you to a larger map and more detailed information about the journey.
View The roots of American music in a larger map
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Photo credit: Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.