Earlier this year, I wrote a story for Fodor’s about America’s best music cities beyond the places you usually hear about. The South, in particular, is a region rich in music culture, especially in Nashville, Memphis, Atlanta, and New Orleans. But these places are far from the only ones. Even this list isn’t exhaustive, leaving out other musically inclined destinations like Athens, Georgia and Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Use this as inspiration to explore further to see where the tunes take you.
Muscle Shoals, Alabama
The towns along the Tennessee River in northern Alabama have a rich history dating back to the Native American tribes who spoke of the “singing river” before their removal on the Trail of Tears. Commonly known as the Muscle Shoals, the music history of this region starts with W.C. Handy, a musician and composer known as the “Father of the Blues.” Visitors to Florence can see the one-room cabin where he grew up, which has been turned into a museum. In the towns of Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Florence are recording studios that were popularized in the 1960s for international acts like the Rolling Stones, Percy Sledge, and Aretha Franklin during a time of segregation. They’ve recently been restored and reopened for tours thanks to investment from Dr. Dre and Beats. The Alabama Music Hall of Fame also has information on the state’s notable musicians, from Lionel Richie to Patterson Hood of Drive By Truckers to the band Alabama.
The Arkansas Delta, Arkansas
Most people don’t think about the fact that the neighboring state also has a Delta, cut from the same Mississippi River and sharing many of the influences. Dyess was the childhood home of Johnny Cash and still has a museum on his early life there. Walnut Ridge has a number of landmarks related to The Beatles, who stopped here in between tour dates. But Helena is the most associated with music, especially for its annual King Biscuit Blues Festival. It gets its name from the radio show King Biscuit Time, which started in 1941 and went on to influence artists like B.B. King and Muddy Waters. Musicians like blues guitarist CeDell Davis and Grammy award-winning blues vocalist Willie “Big Eyes” Smith come from Helena.
The city south of Atlanta has deep ties to American music as the home of both Little Richard and Otis Redding, two of soul’s most iconic names. REM’s Bill Berry and Mike Mills, country artist Jason Aldean, and rapper Young Jeezy also come from this area. But Macon is perhaps best known for its ties to Southern rock. Brothers Phil and Alan Walden worked founded Capricorn Records, which is best known for fostering the careers of The Allman Brothers Band. Music fans can’t miss a day with Rock Candy Tours, which focuses on the area’s music history. Must-see music landmarks include H&H Restaurant, where the hungry Allman Brothers were fed before hitting it big, and the band’s home at the Big House Museum. There’s also a historic marker at the old Capricorn Records office. The Otis Redding Foundation honors the musician’s life with a small museum and a nearby statue. To see live music, visit Grant’s Lounge and Hargray Capitol Theatre or attend Bragg Jam, an annual festival created in honor of local musicians that died in a car accident.
New Orleans has jazz and Cajun Country has zydeco, but northern Louisiana also has music ties. Most people think of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville as the longest-running running radio show, but the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport started broadcasting in 1948. It was responsible for launching the careers of many musicians and featured Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, and George Jones. You’ve likely heard the phrase “Elvis has left the building,” but did you know that it took place at the Shreveport Municipal Auditorium? A statue of the musician sits outside. Many downtown bars and casinos host live music nightly and festivals like Red River Revel and Shreveport Summer Music Festival also host local and national acts.
The Mississippi Delta, Mississippi
Nearly every type of American music can trace its roots back to this area. The blues genre started with spirituals sung by slaves and continued as sharecroppers performed at makeshift venues called “juke joints.” Travelers will find countless blue signs around the state signifying the markers on the Blues Trail. Learn about the area’s iconic musicians at the Grammy Museum in Cleveland, the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, and the BB King Museum in Indianola. Clarksdale also has plenty of places to catch a performance, including at the Ground Zero Blues Club, partially owned by Morgan Freeman. The Juke Joint Festival is the best time of year to visit.
The Triangle, North Carolina
North Carolina’s music history ties almost all genres, but the college towns of Chapel Hill<, Raleigh, and Durham, known as “The Triangle,” are especially significant. Countless bands and musicians have risen through the ranks at these intimate venues starting in the 1950s. The town of Carrboro, just outside Chapel Hill, is a destination in its own right for Cat’s Cradle Coffeehouse, a place that was significant in the career of icon James Taylor. Countless other bands spent time in Chapel Hill before hitting it big, including Ben Folds Five. Other venues to check out include The Cave, The Pour House Music Hall, and Motorco Music Hall.
Tennessee is blessed with a number of music destinations, especially Memphis and Nashville. But Bristol is perhaps the most significant, known as the “Birthplace of Country Music.” It sits on the state line with Virginia and rose to fame in 1927 when Ralph Peer of Victor Records put together the “Bristol Sessions” with groups like The Carter Family. The Smithsonian-affiliated Birthplace of Country Music Museum details the town’s music history and influence on other genres like country, bluegrass, and Americana. The Mountain Music Museum also educates on music history but focuses mostly on gospel and Appalachian musical styles. The Rhythm & Roots Reunion is the best time to visit, bringing in nationally recognized artists.
Virginia has influenced rock music more than any genre, especially in Richmond and its surrounding areas. Dave Matthews Band hails from nearby Charlottesville, while Old Crow Medicine Show is from Harrisonburg. But in the 1990s, the metal and punk scenes developed at clubs like Twisters and Strange Matter, fostering acts like GWAR and Lamb of God. The former has their own restaurant, GWARBar, an over-the-top restaurant that matches their unique style. While you’re there, browse the Carytown record stores or catch a show at The National, a 1920s theater turned venue.