Twenty years ago, I had a relationship break-up in Nashville, Tennessee. I won’t bore you with details, but suffice to say it ended in D.I.V.O.R.C.E. Somehow, it all seemed so fitting in the home of country music; it was like I was living my own heartbreak song, a plaintive ballad about drinkin’, cheatin’ and a good woman done wrong.
Music is at the essence of this Southern city, its daily life infused with a catchy chorus, an infectious beat and the wail of a slide guitar. Country music drives its economy, its business and its people – invariably musicians seeking a break, the elusive recording contract or just the chance to mingle with like-minded creative types.
Music is also at the heart of its tourism industry, a soundtrack heard right across the southern states of the USA. From jazz in New Orleans, to hip-hop and indie rock in Atlanta, to the rhythm and blues of Memphis, the South offers a musical odyssey that resonates with any traveller with a song in their heart and rhythm in their soul.
Keen to reconnect with my past and explore the roots of my iPod playlist, I begin my Southern road trip in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Revitalised and booming after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago, the streets of N’awlins are once again hopping, with entire neighbourhoods dedicated to live entertainment and a celebration of its musical heritage.
People have literally been dancing on the streets here since the 1830s when African slaves gathered on Sundays in Congo Square. A cultural melting pot, the city soon produced its own distinct musical style, a joyous blend of African, Creole, gospel and European brass that became known as ‘ragtime’. By the mid-20th century, this had evolved into jazz, with New Orleans-born musicians Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton leading the global assault and taking the first truly American artform into the mainstream.
The heart of entertainment in New Orleans is Bourbon Street, a rowdy 13-block strip dedicated to revelry, decadence and a joie de vivre fuelled by Hurricanes, a rum-based cocktail served in milkshake containers and consumed on the street.
A cacophony of jazz, RnB, zydeco, rock and funk blare from any given doorway each and every night, with popular venues including Pat O’Brien’s, Fat Catz Music Club and the Balcony Music Club.
In the heart of the French Quarter, the simple, unadorned Preservation Hall – established in 1961 to protect, preserve and honour traditional New Orleans jazz – continues to showcase established acts and up-and-coming stars to packed houses seven nights a week. It also has a resident band, the Preservation Hall All Stars, who play jazz standards and take requests – the most popular being When the Saints Go Marching in – for a $20 outlay dropped into the hat.
In the less-touristy but still vibrant entertainment corridors of Frenchmen Street and St Claude, serious music lovers can take in live performances at venues such Tipitina’s, Snug Harbor, The Howlin’ Wolf, The Maple Leaf and The Spotted Cat. Traditionalists will also love scouring New Orleans’ record stores, with vinyl rarities dating back to the ‘50s pounced upon at Euclid Records and Louisiana Music Factory.
Georgia on my mind
Heading east along the Gulf Coast, through the steamy states of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, I continue my journey north to the capital of Georgia, Atlanta. Burned to the ground during the American Civil War, this former railway town is today a glistening modern city housing the corporate powerhouses of Coca Cola, Delta Airlines, AT&T, CNN and the Turner Broadcasting System.
It also has a healthy arts scene, boasting its own ballet, opera and symphony orchestra; while one of its major attractions is the renowned High Museum of Art, an architectural masterpiece designed by Richard Meier and Renzo Piano, housing 15,000 works of art.
While Atlanta doesn’t have the musical reputation of New Orleans and Nashville, its contribution to the American recording industry is significant. During the 1920s, it was on the cusp of becoming the nation’s country music capital, with Appalachian folk music all the rage; and while this crown would soon be stolen by Nashville, the city remains a breeding ground for country artists, with superstars such as Kenny Rogers, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt and Lady Antebellum all calling the city home.
Atlanta has also produced its share of indie rock heroes, including the Indigo Girls and The Black Crowes; it is a centre for Southern gospel music; and even bad boy Justin Bieber has a mansion in Atlanta, having signed to Usher’s record label, RBMG.
But it is in the contemporary genres of hip hop and rap that Atlanta really made its mark. In 2009, The New York Times called the city “hip-hop’s centre of gravity”; and since the 1990s, it has spawned such stellar acts as TLC, Cee Lo Green, Outkast, Ludacris, Toni Braxton and, of course, Usher.
There are countless live music venues in Atlanta, from stadiums to performing arts centres, to underground clubs and bars. The Apache Café on 3rd Street is considered one of the best places to hear new artists; while other eclectic venues include The Green Room: Actor’s Lounge in Bennett Street and The Masquerade on North Avenue. You might even want to learn a few moves at a hip-hop dance class held at Gotta Dance Atlanta.
Into the Grand Ole Opry
It’s country music that really stirs my soul however; and with memories of my passionate past, I head west on Highway 75, through Chattanooga and Pigeon Forge (Dollywood, anyone?) to Nashville, a comfortable 400km day trip.
In the past 20 years, Nashville has grown and become more sophisticated, with hip cafés, farmers markets and an enticing culinary scene; its newfound status as a boomtown is encapsulated in the enormous Music City Centre, a $623-million guitar-shaped convention centre located in the heart of Downtown.
One part of Nashville that has transformed in recent times is East Nashville. This formerly “down on its luck” residential area on the far side of the Cumberland River is now Music City’s hippest address, an eclectic neighbourhood of musicians and artists with great vintage shopping, cool cafés, bars and brewhouses, innovative restaurants and, of course, great live music venues such as Family Wash (famous for its $10 shepherd’s pie and a pint of beer, recently moved to a new location on Main Street) and 5 Spot.
As I cruise along Broadway in Downtown Nashville, however, I’m delighted to find old stomping grounds still alive and kicking: Wildhorse Saloon, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Robert’s Western World and of course, the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry and recently reopened as the winter venue for the famous, 90-year-old show.
As a fan of the television series Nashville, I’m keen to visit The Bluebird Café on Hillsboro Pike. True to its TV depiction, this intimate venue showcases up-and-coming songwriters, with the occasional appearance by a superstar testing out new material. Bookings are essential, and you may have to share a table.
For fans of classic country music, the museums of Nashville are fascinating places to while away time, such as The Country Music Hall of Fame, RCA Studio B and the Johnny Cash Museum. At the newly opened George Jones Museum, an interactive display opens an intimate window into the hard-drinking rebel’s world, including photographs, his first guitar, his bowling ball, sequined suits and a John Deere lawnmower, similar to the one Jones drove to the liquor store when his wife hid his car keys.
The four-storey building also includes a bistro-style restaurant, an expansive gift store and a rooftop bar, serving George Jones White Lightning moonshine, with bottles bearing the George Jones quote “Alcohol has owned me and controlled me much of my life. Now is my time to own it.”
And that, in a shot glass, is why I love this town – its optimism and ‘never say die’ attitude. It’s a city of dreams, of triumphs and heartbreak – and it all comes together to create beautiful music. •
Photography by Rhythms of the South and Americana Music Tours
For those who don’t want to drive, Americana Music Tours offer 14-day, personally-guided tours of the Americana Music Triangle – an area stretching from Nashville to New Orleans to Memphis. The Triangle is recognised as the birthplace of nine different genres of American music, including Country, Bluegrass, R&B, Gospel, Rock & Roll, Jazz, Creole Zydeco, Soul, Blues and more. Famous artists such as Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, BB King, Aretha Franklin, The Allman Brothers and Dolly Parton all hail from this region. The next tour is on from 2-16 March, 2016. americanamusictours.com
The American Queen Steamboat Company has many tours in the south including a nine-day cruise on the Lower Mississippi River between New Orleans and Memphis. Follow in the footsteps of history on the American Queen, the largest river boat ever built, featuring all the opulence of the American Victorian era. This cruise allows passengers to discover the romance of the antebellum era, the lively Cajun culture and battlefields of the Civil War. aqsc.com
Delta flies to Los Angeles with connecting flights to all three cities. United Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles and San Francisco with connecting flights to all three cities. Qantas flies to Dallas Fort Worth with connecting flights to the three cities with American Airlines.
• Delta: delta.com
• United: united.com
• Qantas: qantas.com.au
Car rental can be booked through DriveAway Holidays: driveaway.com.au
Rhythms of the South: rhythmsofthesouth.com