You feel it as much in modern downtown Atlanta as in the sassy French Quarter of New Orleans. America’s Deep South is rich in music, history and culture, all served with renowned southern hospitality – and often a side of collard greens.

The Deep South has become more popular with travellers from Europe in recent years. Compared to the great National Parks, the Vegas strip or New England in the Fall, however, it is still relatively unknown. This puzzles me as the culture here is rich, authentic and of great historical importance – probably more so than any other part of America I know.

So what can you expect from a trip to the Deep South? I always tell first-time travellers that they will come across three themes repeatedly. These are the American civil war, the civil rights movement and a rich and remarkable musical heritage. It is this third theme that I will explore more in this article.

Whatever your musical preference – from jazz to country, gospel to hip-hop – its roots are planted firmly here in America’s South. So, for music lovers like me, the Deep South is a must-do bucket list experience.

Nashville – Music City

I would suggest starting your musical tour of the Deep South in Nashville. Probably no other city on earth has had a more significant impact on popular music over the years. It is known as ‘Music City’, and has earned the title for a reason.

Begin downtown and walk the four blocks west of the Cumberland River along Lower Broadway. This is the old commercial district and entryway to the city. Today, vibrant neon signs hang from every wall and music pours out of the honky-tonks and from the rooftop bars. The buzz is palpable, and if the music doesn’t tempt you inside, the smell of barbecue surely will. Between the bars, you will see assorted street performers and some quirky retail distractions. Boot Barn and Betty’s Boots both proudly announce: “Buy one pair of cowboy boots and get two free!”. At 417 Broadway is the world-famous Ernest Tubb record shop. The store has been a one-stop-shop for country, bluegrass and gospel music for over 73 years. The Johnny Cash Museum is a few steps around the corner for fans of The Man in Black.

The Honky Tonk Experience

Enter any of the bars to enjoy world-class music. Maybe Honky Tonk Central, ACME Feed & Seed, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Layla’s or Whiskey Bent. There is no end of choice, but I certainly have my favourites. You’ll be sure to find something to entertain you, so grab a beer and soak up the atmosphere. Honky-tonk etiquette is pretty simple. There are only two rules – have fun and don’t forget to tip the artists. You will enjoy superb music, but the performers rely on tips to make a living, so be generous. Oh, and don’t forget to carry photo id with you. The bars will age check you even if you’re a 75-year-old pensioner. Don’t try to question why – it will get you nowhere. Just accept that this is the way it is and, like me, take it as a compliment.

Many great country stars cut their teeth in these bars – working for tips and desperate for a lucky break. Those same stars are now opening venues themselves. Alan Jackson, Blake Shelton, John Rich, Florida Georgia Line – you’ll find them all here on the strip. They have renovated & breathed life back into the old commercial buildings. The original ACME Feed & Seed building is now a thriving restaurant & music venue. Four years after opening, it was serving over 250,000 customers a week with revenues exceeding $20 million per year. Music is BIG business here in the Deep South.

Away from Broadway

The Country Music Hall of Fame – just one block off Broadway – is a great way to discover Nashville’s musical influences. From Hank Williams to Taylor Swift, from Hill Billy to Bluegrass and Rockabilly – it’s all here under one roof. In addition, the museum sells a joint ticket including a shuttle ride and tour of RCA Studio B on Music Row. Studio B – ‘the home of a thousand hits’ – is the most famous of the many recording studios in Nashville. Countless stars have laid down tracks here including The Everley Brothers, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton & Elvis.

Over in the East of the city, a more traditional, old-school country music vibe prevails. The famous Blue Bird Café – another renowned launching pad for the stars – sits unassumingly on Hillsboro Pike. It’s a small venue, but without the Bluebird, there might be no Garth Brooks, no Taylor Swift and no Faith Hill.

The Grand Ole Opry

Undoubtedly the most famous symbol of Nashville’s musical heritage – and of Deep South music in general – is the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry started in 1925 as a one-hour radio barn dance broadcast by the WSM insurance company. Initially intended to promote the company’s policies, it has become the longest-running radio program in U.S. history. The Opry has only ever missed one performance in its 95-year history. That was in 1968, shortly after James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King in nearby Memphis. I would highly recommend taking in a concert at the Grand Ole Opry or the Ryman Auditorium during your stay. The Opry House is located in an area known as Music Valley about 10 miles from downtown. The Ryman Auditorium – or “Mother Church” – is just off Broadway on 5th Avenue. The Ryman was the home of the Opry until 1974 and still hosts regular concerts today.

The sheer scale and passion for music in Nashville are infectious. Whether you’re a country music fan or not, you can’t help being carried away by the buzz.

Walking in Memphis

If your taste is a little more blues than country, then head two hundred miles south-west to Memphis. Known jointly as ‘The Home of the Blues’ and ‘The Birthplace of Rock & Roll’, Memphis is another essential stop on your musical tour of the Deep South. The Elvis Presley story is prevalent throughout the city. The iconic Sun Studio, where The King grabbed his lucky break, still stands on Union Avenue and is still records today. They operate brilliant, entertaining tours throughout the day with the most enthusiastic guides I have ever known.

Down in the Jungle Room

On the southern edge of the city, you will find Elvis’ famed mansion Graceland. The estate sits on one side of Elvis Presley Boulevard, with the visitor centre on the other. An endless stream of shuttle busses ferry visitors between the two. The mansion is smaller than you might expect and thankfully has managed to retain its authenticity. There are no commercial distractions here – no gift shops or snack bars. For those, head back across the road where you will find them in abundance. Maybe try a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich in Gladys’ diner – famously one of Elvis’ favourite snacks. Elvis songs play continuously throughout the visitor centre, just so you never forget where you are.

In downtown Memphis, Beale Street is the place to be for live music. The venues are concentrated in a small stretch, just three blocks long, but the atmosphere is infectious. BB Kings Blues Club marks the start of the strip and always features fantastic artists. In Silky O’Sullivan’s don’t miss the Irish diving goats which have an enclosure complete with helter-skelter in the courtyard. You may even see hem drinking beer straight from the bottle! The evenings in Memphis are balmy for much of the year. For me, sitting outside the Palace café with a cold beer and enjoying live blues music has to be one of the greatest pleasures in life.

The Home of the Delta Blues

Leaving Tennessee behind, your musical trip through the Deep South continues through the Mississippi Delta – home of the Delta Blues. In Clarksdale Mississippi, hardcore Blues fans will want to stop at the Devil’s Crossroads. According to legend, it is here that a young blues singer-songwriter called Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil. In return for his soul, he was granted musical success for the rest of his life. Johnson died less than two years later, aged just twenty-seven, in mysterious circumstances.

The delta winds its way southwards through notable places such as Vicksburg, Natchez and Baton Rouge. Spanish Moss hangs from the trees outside beautiful antebellum houses, as if straight from the pages of a guide book. Eventually, the river flows through New Orleans before reaching the Gulf of Mexico.

The Big Easy

New Orleans is “the birthplace of jazz”. This city lives for music and loves to celebrate life. A party spirit fills the air all year round – not just at Mardi Gras. There are over 130 festivals in New Orleans every year – that’s one every three days!

Jazz is still prolific in the city. A beautiful park just a stone’s throw from the French Quarter honours the great Louis Armstrong. You won’t find the best jazz music in the French Quarter anymore, however. For that, you need to head to Frenchman Street and check out venues like The Spotted Cat or the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro.

Just because it’s Wednesday…

Recently I was in the city on a sticky midweek afternoon in October. Walking from my hotel towards the French Quarter, I came across a lively procession making its way up Canal Street. There were drums and trumpets and giant carnival caricatures dressed in bright costumes. The musicians danced as they played their instruments and cheerleaders threw beads and candies from buckets into the crowd. I asked the lady standing next to me if she knew what the parade was for? She nodded, smiled at me warmly and replied with a delicious southern drawl “well honey, just because it’s Wednesday…”.

I hope this article has whetted your appetite for the music of the Deep South. If you are a music lover, then add it to your Bucket List now. I travel to this area often, and every time I enjoy its culture, authenticity & sheer ‘joie de vivre’ more.

If you are planning a trip to the Deep South for the first time, consider working with a personal travel planner. You can read my article on why you might want to do this here. You can also check out the services I offer on this page.

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