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Celebrating American Voices

There’s nothing more American than the sounds of the South.

In a country where much of our culture, cuisine and even founding principles were imported from Europe, music stands out as a unique expression of the American spirit. Born out of our national struggles and bred in places like Mississippi, Tennessee and Appalachia, the music we enjoy today was shaped by the American story.

For music lovers, a road trip through the Southern states is a great way to connect with American heritage through music, especially after a stretch of time devoid of any meaningful live performances.

Focusing only on Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, this musical road trip lets you explore places where entire musical genres were born, walk in the footsteps of entertainment legends, and experience — not just see — how the great American music you love is made.

Down in Mississippi

Blues music and the Mississippi Delta are synonymous. The sweat and tears of slaves and sharecroppers watered the seeds of a musical genre that may be a bit difficult to define but is recognized, respected and revered.

The Delta is a region of small towns, flat fields and numerous group attractions. Cleveland’s 95-room Cotton House works well as home base for Delta explorations.

Visit the Grammy Museum Mississippi in Cleveland to begin understanding Mississippi’s overarching impact on many musical styles. Asked why there’s a Grammy museum here, a Recording Academy exec in Los Angeles said, “Because without Mississippi . . . there would be no American music.” The 28,000-square-foot museum is on campus at Delta State University.

A tip: When considering dates, check for information about Delta musicians and their performances. An example is a series of solo performances at a summer farmers market in Cleveland.

Up U.S. 61, known as the Blues Highway, is Clarksdale, itself known as Ground Zero for the blues. Spend some quality museum time at the Delta Blues Museum, Mississippi’s oldest music museum, and then soak in some blues music and enjoy a beer at the Ground Zero Blues Club. Festivals to consider include the Birthplace of American Music Festival in June at 10 venues throughout downtown and the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in August.

South of Cleveland in Indianola is another cultural landmark, the B.B. King Museum, which opened a major expansion in June. The addition focuses on King’s last decade — he died in 2015 — and includes a life-size bronze statue of the blues legend with his beloved Gibson guitar, Lucille.

If you travel east leaving the Delta on the way to Alabama’s musical mecca, swing by Tupelo to see the Elvis Presley Birthplace. The museum is solid, and photographers adore the downtown statue of Elvis in performance.

That Muscle Shoals Sound

Two northwest Alabama recording studios, neither an architectural gem, are legends in American music. Appearances don’t matter. What’s important is what happened and continues to happen inside the FAME Studios and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio (MSSS). Both welcome groups.

FAME opened in 1961, and music royalty came calling: Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, Gregg Allman, Etta James and more. Aretha Franklin recorded her first top-10 hit here. The entrance sign became famous: “Through these doors walk the finest Musicians, Songwriters, Artists and Producers in the World.”

The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the Swampers, opened MSSS in 1969 after working together at FAME. The four musicians were widely respected for their distinctive and funky rhythm-and-blues sound. Cher’s debut album was among their first projects. 

The Rolling Stones stopped in for three nights. The results: “Brown Sugar,” “You Got To Move” and “Wild Horses.” The hits kept coming. The Swampers played on more than 200 albums with artists such as Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Bob Seger, the Staple Singers, Rod Stewart, Leon Russell and Willie Nelson and scores more. 

“These two studios and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame are the fabric of the Muscle Shoals music experience,” said Debbie Wilson, executive director of MSSS, adding that she delights in seeing international visitors show up in her out-of-the-way corner of Alabama purely out of their love of music.

The Alabama Music Hall of Fame opened in 1990, and it always amazes visitors how many diverse artists have Alabama roots. The list starts with Hank Williams, Nat “King” Cole, W.C. Handy, the Louvin Brothers, Dinah Washington, Tammy Wynette, Percy Sledge, Jimmie Rodgers, the Commodores and Martha Reeves and keeps on rolling. And, yes, it includes the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.

The area’s showcase lodging is the Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa, where there is live music nightly at the Swampers Bar and Grille. A completely different group dining and entertainment experience is one county away at the Rattlesnake Saloon, a rustic watering hole and event venue tucked under a gigantic rock outcropping in the countryside outside Tuscumbia.

Up to Memphis

If you had head north from the Delta instead of east, U.S. 61 leads you to Memphis. That’s the route sharecroppers, musicians and others took to seek better lives, Elvis Presley among them.

The vibrant Memphis music scene — attractions by day, clubs by night — draws people from around the world, according to Kevin Kane, vice president of public relations at Memphis Tourism. 

The Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, which began as a Smithsonian Institution project, is a great place to start. The museum weaves together the many styles of music that evolved, grew and fed off each other in Memphis. It is intriguing to learn how country, gospel, soul and rock coalesced during the region’s 20th-century rural-to-urban migration.

Nearby is the more light-hearted Memphis Music Hall of Fame Museum. How else could you describe a museum that features a wall-mounted Jerry Lee Lewis Cadillac and a pink “Funky Chicken” stage costume from Rufus Thomas?

Sun Studio, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Blues Hall of Fame compete for group tour time, as does the city’s best-known destination: Graceland. On one campus are the Graceland mansion, Presley’s grave, a career museum, an automobile museum, two airplanes and the 300-room Guest House at Graceland.

Of course, Graceland offers live music. Check who’s playing the 1,600-seat Graceland Soundstage and the 464-seat Guest House Theater.

B.B. King’s Blues Club — live entertainment and a full-service restaurant — is the gateway to the high-energy Beale Street Entertainment District. You can turn your group loose to flow in and out of numerous clubs, but make sure they know the time to reassemble, unless you are staying right downtown at hotels such as the legendary Peabody Hotel.

Away from downtown, check out Lafayette’s Music Room in Overton Square. Its first incarnation in the 1970s featured acts such as Billy Joel, KISS, Barry Manilow and Styx, and it’s hopping again.

Music City — That’s Nashville

Nashville boosters make a strong case that “Music City” goes far beyond country music. 

That’s one reason the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) opened here early this year, adjacent to the city’s honky-tonk district. NMAAM’s message about the impact of Black music on many musical forms reinforces Nashville’s nickname.

The new museum’s neighbors include the historic Ryman Auditorium, the Musicians Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, making it easy to let your group explore. They can reunite at Assembly Hall, Nashville’s first food hall, in the same development as NMAAM.

The Grand Ole Opry House, primary home to the longest-running radio show in the world, is in the nearby suburbs. Seeing the Opry at the Opry House or occasionally at the Ryman Auditorium should be on everyone’s bucket list. The Opry, which features a dozen or more artists every show, turns 100 years old in 2025.

Live music is abundant in Nashville. Check out group-friendly clubs such as the Listening Room or 3rd and Lindsley that pay special attention to showcasing talented musicians and singers. 3rd and Lindsley has a daytime songwriters’ show, too.

Another special Nashville twist is learning how records are made. The Nashville Studio Experience lets your group lay down tracks; Imagine Recordings puts you right in the middle of the process; and RCA Studio B offers a history lesson in the hits of stars such as the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and Dolly Parton, plus that Elvis guy from Memphis who recorded “It’s Now or Never,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “Devil in Disguise” among many other songs there.

In Bluegrass Country

Bluegrass music, now internationally popular, traces its roots to one man in rural Ohio County, Kentucky, 100 miles north of Nashville. Bill Monroe defined the composition of a bluegrass band and popularized its sound. The music even took its name from his band, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys.

Several stops in Ohio County and nearby Owensboro deliver quite the bluegrass education. Ohio County Tourism works with groups to show off Monroe’s childhood home, a tribute museum and the Rosine Barn, where your group can enjoy a barbecue lunch or a Friday-night jamboree. 

“Our tours are extremely personal and memorable,” said Jody Flener, director of Ohio County Tourism.

A flashy bluegrass experience is at the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro. The Hall of Fame and museum was established in 1991 and operated modestly for years, but a gleaming $15 million showplace opened in 2018. 

“Bluegrass is an experience — seeing it, hearing it,” said Carly Smith, the museum’s director of marketing. “That’s important, and performances are a highlight for a group tour.”

Live performances are guaranteed because the museum’s executive director is an accomplished banjo and dobro player, and its education director is a former Kentucky fiddle champion. A third-floor balcony overlooks the Ohio River and works well for a catered group meal.

Up to Appalachia

Anyone who watched the Ken Burns PBS “Country Music” series knows about the Bristol Sessions, the “big bang” that launched commercial country music.

Bristol, where the Tennessee-Virginia state line splits the main downtown street, is one more place to revel in music. The big bang was a 10-day recording session in 1927 when New York producer Ralph Peer enticed singers from the Appalachian hills and hollers to sing into a microphone.

He found people who became legends — Jimmie Rodgers, the “Father of Country Music,” and the Carter Family, the “First Family of Country Music,” among them. 

The Birthplace of Country Music, a museum on the Virginia side of town, explains the importance of the Bristol Sessions with a video called “Bristol Bound.” As narrator John Carter Cash, son of Johnny Cash and June Carter, says, “This sound, our sound, influences people around the world.”

After Bristol, you could launch an extended musical exploration of southwest Virginia by building an itinerary on the Crooked Road Heritage Music Trail. Take the Crooked Road in small bites because it winds more than 300 miles through 19 counties and has scores of reasons to stop.

Among them are the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, which preserves the traditions of the Carter Family; the Floyd Country Store in the town of Floyd, where weekly music jams feature gospel, bluegrass and old-time music; and the Rex Theater in Galax, home of a Friday-night bluegrass frolic staged for a live audience and for listeners who can reach it on the 100,000-watt signal of WBRF-FM.