If America had a soundtrack, its name would be Tennessee. Music here isn’t something you just go to, like a concert or a show. It isn’t something you switch on and off like a radio. Music is a part of Tennessee’s soul. It’s woven into the hum of the streets, the cotton blowing off the fields. It’s borne from history and heartache. It is a living, breathing, evolving thing; a melody that catches in your ear and won’t let go. And although this state is the heartland of country music, it’s not all cowboy boots and Stetson hats. Rock ’n’ roll, blues and soul struck some of their first notes here; gospel, bluegrass and even rockabilly too.
You can find all of it on the Tennessee Music Pathways, a 1,900km network of highways and dusty backroads that connect the state’s best music venues, museums, recording studios and shindigs on one epic driving tour – the road trip equivalent of the ultimate Americana playlist. You can pick it up and put it down wherever you like. It isn’t sheet music, all mapped out, it’s a key for you to jam with, any way you want.
Nashville is known as ‘Music City, USA’ for good reason. Songs spill from every street corner, tunes tumble out of every cafe, bar and club. Music is inescapable.
Nowhere is this more true than on Lower Broadway, Nashville’s ‘Honky Tonk Highway’, a four-block maelstrom of live music blaring out of every saloon window from 10am to 3am, seven days a week. It’s part-pub crawl, part-festival and all-out foot-stomping fun. This is where you’ll find Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, four stages and three stories stacked like gravy and biscuits one on top of the other; Nudie’s, where an actual 1960s Cadillac hangs on the wall; and the Station Inn, a no-frills, no-fuss joint where lightning-fast bluegrass plays all night long.
But what really gets you is the history. Nashville is the home of the Country Music Hall of Fame and The Grand Ole Opry, a not-to-be-missed country music variety show hosted at the Ryman Auditorium, first broadcast in 1925 and still going strong. It’s also home to the Music Row district, where many record labels, radio stations and studios are based, including RCA Studio B where the ‘Nashville sound’ was perfected by artists such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Dolly Parton. If country music has royalty, this is where they’re crowned.
But more than anything, Nashville is the home of the players: the musicians, singers and songwriters who come here in their thousands in the hope that some of that Music City magic might just rub off.
Memphis is a melting pot. It was here that the jazz of New Orleans, the blues of the cotton fields and the country twang of rural America first fused to create something that no one had ever heard before: rock ’n’ roll.
That sound, born out of the legendary Sun Studios – where Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis made their marks, and which can still be toured to this day – travelled across the globe. As it did, it became one of the soundtracks of the civil rights movement.
You can still feel that energy today. It’s tangible at the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, which tells the story of the city through its songs; at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, formerly the location of Stax Records, where artists like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes first burst onto the scene; and at the National Civil Rights Museum, built around the exact spot where Martin Luther King was assassinated.
But you can feel it strongest on Beale Street, a cornerstone of black arts and culture for more than 100 years. Music fills the air, from BB King’s Blues Club, where an All-Star Band shake the roof each night, to Mr Handy’s Blues Hall, a tiny old juke joint reminiscent of the clubs that have lined these streets since the emancipation. It doesn’t matter where you go, just wander, listen, dance, soak it in.
Memphis isn’t always an easy place. There’s poverty, run-down areas, a bit of an edge. But that toughness also feeds its music and forms part of its soul.
You can’t leave Memphis without a visit to the home of the King. Graceland is part of the city but a world unto itself. Inside it’s like a 1970s time-warp: an entire room covered in green shag carpet (walls included), a mirrored staircase, an indoor waterfall, everything chintzy and gold and as outrageous as Elvis’s hips.
The museum across the street is filled with a selection of his 200 cars and thousands of stage outfits, including that infamous white onesie and cape. You can even walk through his private jet, the Lisa Marie, named after his daughter. But whatever you do, don’t leave without visiting the cafe for a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich, Elvis’s favourite lunch.
Nashville and Memphis are the undisputed high notes of the Tennessee Music Pathways, but it’s worth branching out and exploring the eastern part of the state too.
In 1998, Congress passed a resolution recognising Bristol as the ‘Birthplace of Country Music’ – recordings made in this town on the Tennessee/Virginia border in the 1920s were the foundations of much of the music that followed. Learn more at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
Part of the enormous Appalachian chain, the Smokies are ancient peaks weathered into a ripple of misty, forest-cloaked, biodiverse mountains. Scenic roads and hiking trails wind through the park.
Don’t leave without a stop at this enormous theme park in Pigeon Forge (pictured below), complete with rollercoasters, waterslides and high-energy entertainment, and named after its owner, Miss Parton herself.
In Tennessee, good music and good food go together like notes on the same scale.
In Nashville, check out Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, the home of West Tennessee’s legendary whole hog barbecue.
In Memphis, the hottest table in town is actor Morgan Freeman’s high-end southern dining restaurant, Itta Bena, located right up the fire escape from BB King’s club (reserve well in advance).
Wherever you go, get yourself some moon pie – a Tennessee classic: two graham crackers, coated in chocolate and stuffed with marshmallow.
Noelle in Nashville is a trendy design hotel in the heart of downtown with funky Art Deco styling and a speakeasy genuinely hidden in the basement (clue: check the maintenance cupboard on the ground floor)
If you’re an Elvis fan, the sprawling Guest House Hotel at Graceland is hard to beat: Elvis films are shown at the in-house cinema, live concerts are held, and some suites have tiger skin print furnishings and TVs hanging perpendicularly over the bed. Plus, if you time your visit with the annual Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Weekend you might come away believing the King really is alive and well.
There are over 1,600km of options on the Tennessee Music Pathways, exploring the many musical genres linked to the state. Pick up a passport booklet from any Tennessee Welcome Center or attractions en route to collect stamps as you explore.
For more information on the Tennessee Music Pathways, visit: tnvacation.com/tennessee-music-pathways
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