The sounds of America started in the South.
The Southern states are home to some of the most popular music destinations in the country, birthing some of America’s greatest musical genres, including Cajun, blues, rock ’n’ roll, zydeco and soul. Groups wanting to experience this musical history and the legends who started it all should look no further than these five destinations.
More than 650,000 visitors make the pilgrimage to Memphis every year with one purpose in mind: to get up close and personal with rock icon Elvis Presley. Hordes of fans crowd Graceland and Elvis Presley’s Memphis, a vast museum complex that includes everything from his famous spangled jumpsuits to his cars and airplanes. Right now, visitors are curious about the making of the latest Elvis movie, which they can learn more about at Graceland.
Beyond Graceland, group travelers can take a 45-minute guided tour of Sun Studio, where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and other famous artists recorded. Sun is still an active recording studio, so groups never know whom they might run into there.
STAX Museum of American Soul Music is another top musical destination. STAX recorded many of the top soul singers in the 1960s, including Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and Carla Thomas. And while STAX is no longer an active recording studio, groups can take tours and learn more about the artists who got their start there.
Beale Street is a top destination for groups that want to listen to live blues, soul, R&B and rock ’n’ roll any night of the week. Most bars that line Beale Street feature live music. B.B. King’s Blues Club has a house band that plays 30-minute sets every hour. Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum is also on Beale Street. It tells the story of the musicians who overcame many barriers to change the face of music in America.
Like Memphis, Macon’s history is paved with many different genres of music. It is recognized as the birthplace of Southern rock in the 1970s and had an extensive impact on both soul and R&B music nationally. Little Richard got his start in Macon, and James Brown recorded his first demo there. Group travelers to Macon can download the Macon Music Trail mobile app, which shows major points of interest in the area and gives a brief history of each location, including attractions like The Allman Brothers Band Museum at The Big House, which is where its members lived from 1970 to 1973.
Fans of the Allman Brothers can see the largest collection of their memorabilia anywhere in the world at the museum and then stop in at H&H Soul Food, a restaurant the band frequented for years. Macon’s historic Rose Hill Cemetery is also worth a visit as Allman Brothers Band members are buried there.
Capricorn Sound Studios, where the Allman Brothers recorded, offers tours every Friday through Sunday. The museum preserves recordings and artifacts from the heyday of Capricorn Sound Studios. The Otis Redding Museum, located in the heart of downtown Macon, features many treasures and artifacts from his career as the King of Soul. The Little Richard House, which was the famous rocker’s childhood home, is another stop on the Macon Music Trail. Rock Candy Tours hosts weekly walking tours full of Macon music history.
Arkansas is home to many musical destinations, including the boyhood homes of Johnny Cash and Levon Helms and the famed Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67, which musical greats such as Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis traveled to perform at various clubs and juke joints in the 1950s and ’60s. All the clubs are gone now, but groups interested in learning more about them can visit the Rock N Roll Highway 67 Museum in Newport, which digs deep into the local musical roots that led to the creation of rock ’n’ roll.
The Beatles once flew through Walnut Ridge on their way to and from Missouri for a vacation after their famous appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. Word got out that they would be flying back through Walnut Ridge and thousands came out to greet them, putting the small Arkansas town on the map. Every September, Walnut Ridge hosts Beatles at the Ridge festival, and there is a life-size sculpture of the Beatles as they appear on the Abbey Road album cover. The Guitar Walk, a 115-foot-long-by-40-foot-wide guitar, based on an Epiphone Casino played by John Lennon, honors the musicians that played along the Rock ’n’ Roll Highway.
Fans of Johnny Cash can learn more about him at the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in the Dyess Colony. In Marvell, Levon Helm’s boyhood home was restored and turned into a museum, and Helena is home to King Biscuit Time, the longest running daily Blues show in the U.S.
Mississippi bills itself as the Birthplace of America’s Music: the blues. Several museums in the state feature blues history, including Gateway to the Blues Museum in Tunica, which sits on Highway 61, the north/south version of Route 66. The road features prominently in blues’ lore. It was the main route for Mississippi blues musicians traveling north to Chicago. Gateway to the Blues has interactive exhibits and a collection of blues memorabilia, including W.C. Handy’s trumpet and the pistol Memphis Minnie carried in her guitar case.
Clarksdale is the epicenter of the current blues scene. Visitors wanting to take in blues music can find it seven days a week at any number of clubs in the city, including Ground Zero Blues Club, which is owned by actor Morgan Freeman, and Shack Up Inn, which turned tenant shacks from a nearby farm into a funky inn. Musicians come from all over to sit on the porch and play guitar, and live music is offered on weekends. The Delta Blues Museum is housed in the historic Clarksdale freight depot. The museum tells the stories of some of the greatest musicians to play the Delta blues: Muddy Waters, W.C. Handy and Howlin’ Wolf to name a few. About 45 minutes from Clarksdale is Cleveland, home to a second Grammy Museum, which touches on the blues and other musical genres with interactive displays and opportunities to play instruments.
Just west of Cleveland is Dockery Plantation, where the blues began.
Lafayette is best known for its Cajun and zydeco music. Lovers of these types of music can find it wherever they go in town. Catch a Fais-do-do — or Cajun dance party — at Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park, a historic village that represents life in Acadiana from 1765 to 1890. Groups can take self-guided tours of the buildings, enjoy live Cajun and creole music, take boat tours, and enjoy craft demonstrations, such as cooking, spinning cotton, weaving and woodworking.
Vermilionville is the name first assigned to Lafayette, and the historic village preserves some of the history behind the Acadians, Creoles and Native Americans who settled the area. Groups also will enjoy taking a tour of Martin Accordions, one of the most popular attractions in the city. The Martin family makes instruments for Cajun music, swamp pop, gospel and zydeco. Tours take guests through the factory, where they can see how these instruments are made and then enjoy an hour of Cajun music.
Sola Violins makes and sells classical violins and fiddles. Groups are welcome to tour the facility and learn how these instruments are made.
Crawfish Haven offers crawfish boat excursions, Cajun cooking classes and Cajun dinner specials. The company provides the hand nets and bait and teaches visitors how to catch this staple of Cajun cuisine. Visitors can stay afterward for a crawfish boil with live music.