Are you in the mood for one of the best southern music road trips ever? Rev those engines and tune up your (air) guitars. It’s time to hit the road and explore all that the vibrant Southern music scene has to offer. With coronavirus still a worry, making air travel a dicey proposition and live shows dormant until who knows when, a leisurely drive to some of the most iconic musical spots in the United States can be just the thing to whet your appetite for both adventure and culture. So grab some beef jerky, fire up that GPS and get ready to feast your eyes — and ears! — on the best rootin’, tootin’ southern music road trip this side of the Mason-Dixon line.
It’s only natural that the perfect spot to kick off an adventure through the annals of country music is a museum that celebrates the birth of the genre itself, located at your first stop. Assuming you’ve watched filmmaker Ken Burns’ epic documentary on the genre, now you can see where it all started up close and personal. Rest assured that this ain’t no dog and pony show: the space, affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, focuses on the 1927 Bristol Sessions that brought together country’s godfathers and godmothers (including the Carter family and Ernest Stoneman) for a famed recording session that would have far-reaching influence on the genre. The space also connects the nearly century-old session with the state of country music today.
Now that you’ve gotten your fill of history for the moment, you deserve a little fun. Hop back in your car and drive westward; after crossing the Virginia/Tennessee border, head on over to Dollywood. Located in the Smoky Mountains in Pigeon Forge, the property offers an eyeful and earful, much like its eponymous owner, the beloved Dolly Parton. Not only will you be humming tunes like “Jolene” whether you’re enjoying one of its many rides or resting in a cabin on the property, but you’ll also be treated (when it’s safe) to a brand-new extravaganza dubbed Dolly Parton’s Stampede, which is chock full of music and fun, with performers on horseback to boot. The entire property is a living, breathing testament to the fun-loving icon herself.
While you’re at Dollywood, it’s time to go back into education mode with a visit to the Southern Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame and Museum right next door. A bedrock of both rock and country, the genre (which is currently celebrating its 110th year in existence), manifested itself as a profession of faith and later became a musical force to be reckoned with. Founded in 1999, the Hall of Fame and Museum (which is run by the Southern Gospel Music Association) honors the icons of the genre and is bursting with memorabilia.
Welcome to Nashville, colloquially known as Music City! The stomping and training grounds for a who’s who of performers from Taylor Swift to Garth Brooks (the two famously got their start at the city’s Bluebird Café, with the latter even scouted by a record label during an open mic night at the venue). But while it’s fun to see artists on the rise at the Bluebird or the city’s bevy of open mic nights, there’s nothing more exciting than witnessing music history before your very eyes. One place where history comes to life is the Grand Ole Opry, the iconic venue and show that has been in continual operation for the past 95 years. Just as getting inducted into the Opry is the singular achievement for any country artist, catching a show at the Opry House is the singular ticket for any country music fan.
Another crown jewel of Nashville is rocker Jack White’s famed Third Man Records, one of the most famous and well-regarded shops in the United States. But to call it a simple record shop falls well short of everything a visit to Third Man offers, which not only includes the (private) offices for its eponymous record label and a photo studio, but what it bills as the world’s “only live venue with direct-to-acetate recording capabilities.” That’s right: Much like Elvis’s early demos, its booth allows visitors to record up to two minutes of audio on an actual record, whether it’s a simple spoken message or a song you’ve been working on.
From one iconic Tennessee city to another, it’s time to honor the American South’s soulful roots at the Stax Museum of American Soul Museum. Much like its gospel and country music museum counterparts, Stax is devoted to the birth and success of soul music, serving as a replica of the original studios where the genre became iconic and honoring its greatest names, whether Otis Redding, Sam & Dave or Booker T. and the MG’s to name just a few. Check out the equipment these stars recorded on, learn about the history of soul and, in case you needed any more enticement, dancing is not only allowed but encouraged.
Take a short drive from Stax and you’ll appropriately end your rockin’ road trip by paying respects to the King at a property that is as iconic as the man behind it. When Elvis Presley shook his hips and flaunted his talent, he changed music, and American culture, forever. The opulent Graceland pays tribute to that legacy, with Presely’s former home the second most visited house in the United States (after the White House, of course). It’s here where Presley lived and died, and it’s the perfect place to reflect and pay respects to not only Elvis, but all of the talent, innovation, work and passion that the music culture of the Southern United States has bestowed on the world. Yee-haw to that.