Throughout the southeastern United States, music is a timeless tour theme that resonates with nearly every traveler. Whether tourgoers prefer to sing along to country ballads, listen to the harmonica-filled sounds of the Delta blues, feel the calming effects of jazz, or capture the energy of rock ’n’ roll, the American South is a hotbed of musical history and talent. Music experiences and attractions are dotted throughout the region, too, offering tour groups everything from a taste of a new genre to a full immersion in beloved sounds. Music museums, halls of fame, studio tours, behind-the-scenes experiences at music venues, and even visits to the stomping grounds of musical greats, can be the focal points or added elements of tour itineraries.
The South’s music destinations offer various ways to feel the beat. Groups can walk along Nashville, Tennessee’s Lower Broadway while the sounds of budding musicians waft out of crowded honkey-tonks, or travel three hours south to Memphis’ Sun Studio to sing into the same microphone as Elvis Presley once did. Music trails, like The Crooked Road—which celebrates Virginia’s musical heritage—and West Virginia’s Mountain Music Trail, connect significant musical hot spots, while New Orleans is home to a national park dedicated entirely to jazz. Meanwhile, Macon, Georgia, brims with music heritage, as the home of musical greats like The Allman Brothers Band, Otis Redding, and Little Richard, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, lays claim as “the Hit Recording Capital of the World.”
When it comes to musical hot spots in the South, Tennessee is an icon, home to multiple genres including blues, bluegrass, country, gospel, soul, rockabilly, and rock ’n’ roll. The state is an incubator for musical talent, from legends like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton to the stars of today like Kelsea Ballerini and Justin Timberlake. “With more than 1,000 miles of road to explore, music can be felt in every city and on every backroad throughout Tennessee,” says Amanda Murphy, director of communications at the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. “It’s in every memory and every roadside dive. Music is our differentiator.”
Groups can begin a music history lesson in Bristol (a city shared by both Tennessee and Virginia) at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate that tells the story of the legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions, an event that sparked what is now known as the “big bang of country music.” Each September, Bristol hosts the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, where more than 100 bands and 20 stages draw more than 45,000 attendees.
Another music hot spot is Sevierville in eastern Tennessee, the hometown of Dolly Parton and her amusement park, Dollywood, in nearby Pigeon Forge. In 2024, Dollywood will open its new Dolly Parton Museum to give fans an up-close look at her most-treasured possessions, such as family keepsakes and career mementos. A storytelling exhibit called “Dolly’s Dreams” will chronicle her life, starting with her childhood in Sevierville.
Meanwhile, Nashville is another music mecca with countless venues and attractions for groups. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum offers programs like Sharing the Art of Songwriting, where groups work closely with one of Nashville’s most accomplished songwriters to craft their very own song. The museum encompasses 350,000 square feet of exhibition galleries, archival storage, retail stores, and event space. Its newest exhibit, “Eric Church: Country Heart, Reckless Soul,” chronicles Church’s unique path to stardom and runs through June 2024. More musical musts in Nashville include the new National Museum of African American Music and old favorites like the Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium. For a more intimate experience, The Bluebird Cafe is an iconic listening room to hear songwriters perform original songs.
In western Tennessee, Memphis is often synonymous with rock ’n’ roll, soul, and the blues. The city is home to Graceland, Elvis Presley’s former mansion, and groups can tour the home before immersing in the neighboring Elvis Presley’s Memphis entertainment complex filled with exhibits, costumes, and more. Following in Elvis’ footsteps, groups can tour Sun Studio, the famous recording studio where he and other famous artists like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison made classic records. More Memphis musts include
spending an evening checking out the 15-plus nightclubs on Beale Street, visiting the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum and Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and taking music-themed sightseeing tours like Backbeat Memphis Tours. Not too far away in Brownsville, groups can visit the only Tina Turner museum in the world, which features her restored elementary school. “For Tina fans, it’s a must-stop in west Tennessee,” Murphy says.
Groups visiting destinations along the Appalachian Mountains find a distinct musical style—filled with sounds of strumming strings, soothing vocals, and familiar rhythms—that developed in the region after settlers from European and African countries immigrated here, bringing together a mix of multicultural musical roots. In Virginia, groups can follow The Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, a 330-mile driving trail through the mountains of southwest Virginia. The trail connects nine major venues and more than 60 affiliated venues and festivals, including the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, the Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax, the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Floyd Country Store in Floyd, the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace in Abingdon, and many more. In addition to focusing on the uniqueness and vitality of the region’s heritage music, the trail also includes outdoor recreation activities, museums, crafts, and cultural programs, providing groups with a well-rounded experience.
In northwestern Kentucky, groups can visit the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro, which celebrates and preserves the history of bluegrass music with interactive exhibits, concerts, jam sessions, lessons, its annual ROMP Festival, and more. The museum is located only a few miles from Rosine, the birthplace of “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe. There, the Bill Monroe Museum features memorabilia related to the musician, while the Bill Monroe Homeplace in nearby Jerusalem Springs is his preserved childhood home.
A music trip to Louisiana can be filled with many sounds, including the more prominent Cajun, jazz, and zydeco music, plus blues, country, rock, and more. New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz icon Louis Armstrong and is also known as the birthplace of jazz itself. Groups touring the city will find a national park dedicated to the genre and sites and structures that were paramount in its history. Visitors can tour the New Orleans Jazz Museum housed in the Old U.S. Mint at the edge of the French Quarter, hop aboard Steamboat Natchez for a jazz cruise on the Mississippi River, listen to jazz bands at the iconic Preservation Hall, or join the celebration at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival every spring.
Beyond jazz, southern Louisiana’s sound is one of accordions, triangles, and fiddles that combine in folksy Cajun music, and the blend of washboards, Louisiana French accordion music, and Afro-Caribbean beats that create zydeco. Groups can hear these sounds all
around at local dance halls and venues, as well as at festivals like the Original Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival in Opelousas (September), the Festivals Acadiens et Créoles in Lafayette (October), and the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge (May).
Delta Blues & Beyond
In Mississippi, blues history runs deep, and groups can journey through the genre’s past and present on the , which is made up of trail markers, museums, and attractions that share the history of the genre. Clarksdale is known as the birthplace of the blues, and was the stomping ground of legends like Muddy Waters and Sam Cooke. Groups visiting the northwestern Mississippi city can tour the internationally acclaimed Delta Blues Museum, attend one of the many festivals, or listen to live blues music at local clubs and juke joints. An hour south in Indianola, the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center shares the life and career of the blues icon and his impact on the Delta, the state, and music as a whole. Another stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail is the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo, the two-room house where the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll” was born in 1935. The home is part of the 15-acre Elvis Presley Park, which also includes Elvis’ childhood church, statues, and more.
In Cleveland, GRAMMY Museum Mississippi is another stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail, which celebrates not only blues music but also the power of music in all forms and genres. Visitors explore interactive exhibits where they can write and produce their own blues song, see instruments from the greats like B.B. King and Bruno Mars, and hear songs written and performed by Mississippians.
The blues music genre influenced the rise and popularity of other genres like soul and rock ’n’ roll. In the 1970s, Macon, Georgia, became a ground zero for Southern rock, and Capricorn Records drew artists like The Allman Brothers Band and Marshall Tucker Band to the city, solidifying Macon’s place in music history. Today, Macon’s distinctive and diverse musical attractions include Mercer Music at Capricorn, The Big House Museum, the Otis Redding “mini” museum, and The Little Richard House. To learn more about the spirit and legacy of Macon’s musical past and present, groups can book a walking or step-on tour with Rock Candy Tours.
Main Image: Grand Ole Opry; Credit: Chris Hollo