Arts/Culture

Blues Highway Itinerary: 10 Best Spots for a Music History Road Trip

If you’ve had enough scenic tours of mountains and fresh air, head out onto the iconic Blues Highway, the famous Route 61 that leads to Nashville, Memphis, and finally to New Orleans, with the sweet and passionate tunes of Soul, R&B, and Jazz in the air. Drive out into the sunset, feel the wind on your face, and follow the same highway that Otis Redding, Muddy Waters and other hopefuls took on their way out of bleak areas of Mississippi and Georgia. With the open road in front of you, pay homage to the same spots that inspired the beloved classics and paved the way for Elvis and the Beatles.

10. Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum – Nashville, Tennessee

Starting out in Nashville, get into the mood of Music City at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the headquarters for preserving and collecting artifacts that capture the history and traditions of American country music. At the main exhibit, “Sing Me Back Home: A Journey Through Country Music”, get ready to take in the rich saga of music history that put Nashville on the map. With recorded sound, vintage film footage, and old photographs, visitors can trace the origins of country music and how it had a lasting influence on American culture. After touring the grounds, hop on a vintage tour bus to Music Row and the cherished RCA Studio B, Nashville’s oldest surviving studio where legends like Dolly Parton and Elvis made music history.

9. Grand Ole Opry – Nashville, Tennessee

The Grand Ole Opry is a must-see on your Nashville stop. For 90 years and still going strong, the weekly music venue is known for hosting legends that made country music famous. Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and many others got their start at the Opry with legendary performances. Today, you’ll find a mix of newcomers and stars playing their best songs, that way fans can get a sample of several musicians in one concert. The magic started in 1925 when fiddle player Uncle Jimmy Thompson performed a new show called “The WSM Barn Dance,” which later evolved into a live concert known as the Grand Ole Opry. DeFord Bailey, affectionately known as the Harmonica Wizard, was also a regular performer. Over the years, the famous venue has launched countless music careers. Set against the iconic backdrop of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, it is truly an American cultural landmark.

8. The District – Nashville, Tennessee

It’s not just the country music that makes Nashville famous but the rock, jazz, and bluegrass playing at venues in the District, a refurbished area of warehouse-style saloons and bars. Stroll down second avenue with the weeknight party parade and stop by for some authentic bluegrass at Station Inn across the street from the Grand Ole Opry. Then take the party to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge to get your honky tonky on at the iconic country music saloon. But the music tour isn’t over until you stop at BB King’s Blues Club, the world famous hotspot for live blues and Southern comfort food. And don’t forget to try the fried green tomatoes and other down home delicacies at the Opry Backstage Grill on Music Valley Drive.

7. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music – Memphis, Tennessee

After getting your fill of classic country music in Nashville, head to Memphis and follow the origins of Blues. First stop is The Stax Museum of American Soul Music on East McLemore Ave, which is named after the record label that produced talents like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, and Wilson Pickett. The Stax sound is passionate and hopeful, giving a voice to the new wave of optimism coming from the Mississippi Delta, a sound as strongly rooted as the old Cyprus trees. In the late 50s and early 60s, something big was happening in music, so epic and transformative that it has its own cherished place in the history of music. In 1960, Stax Records, often considered the birthplace of soul, moved to the old Capitol Theatre and two years later, Otis Redding was discovered and became their biggest star.

6. Wild Bill’s – Memphis, Tennessee

After getting an education in blues history at Stax Museum, stop in for a blues jam at Wild Bill’s, a classic juke joint a few miles north of the tourist area of Beale Street. Locals always say there are two reasons to go—when you’re feeling good and when you’re feeling bad. Whatever your mood, the blues will set you free, if you let it. Locals and aficionados swear by it, often joking that it’s cheaper than therapy. Located in Midtown Memphis, Wild Bill’s is a welcome alternative to the tourist clubs downtown and a more authentic blues, soul, and rock sound. From old bands to aspiring indie groups, Wild Bill’s is the spot where musicians sing their hearts out and when back in the day blues evolved into rock ‘n’ roll and soul. The former gas station is like stepping back in time, even hosting the original trumpet player from Otis Redding’s band.

5. Rendezvous – Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis might be world famous because of its blues heritage and Elvis, but it also some of the best barbeque this side of the Delta. With over 100 barbecue joints in the city, the competition is fierce and Rendezvous downtown is no exception with its famous dry ribs. The secret is in the charcoal, which was Charles Vergo’s special cooking method, and of course, the sauce. It is considered by many to be the best barbecue in the Delta. Just ask the several 1,000 people that line up outside on a Saturday to sink their teeth into a slab of ribs, a classic Memphis favorite. The joint is still in the family, with Charlie’s kids running the place. It might be all about the ribs, but you can still order the same ham and cheese sandwiches that Charlie cooked up when he started out in 1948. Their sauces are top secret, but you can take a bottle home for some serious backyard grilling sessions.

4. Madison Hotel – Memphis, Tennessee

Built in 1905, the 14-story former Tennessee Trust building is one of the oldest skyscrapers in the Delta. Standing out with its ornate classical detailing, the Madison Hotel still regains its former glory with the original façade. After years of neglect, the Unison Hotel Company rescued the deteriorating structure in 2002 and converted the interior into an ultra-modern, sleek boutique hotel with 110 rooms. After long hours in the car, treat yourself to luxuries fit for royalty like Egyptian cotton sheets, an award-winning restaurant, and an enchanting evening on the Twilight Sky Terrace overlooking downtown. It might have a posh, European flair, but Madison Hotel still has a warm, Southern charm. Located on Madison Avenue, the hotel is near the historic Beale Street filled with blues clubs, restaurants, and recording studios.

3. Gateway to the Blues Museum -Tunica, Mississippi

A good place to start a Mississippi blues tour is Gateway to the Blues Museum in Tunica, a historical wonderland filled with stories of the very origins of blues that had a lasting influence on American music, especially soul, R&B, and rock n roll. It all started in the fields of the Delta, a place of pain and hope, and blues was just the thing to give a voice to the heartache and suffering of a dark time in US history. You’ll also get a chance to channel your inner rock star with interactive exhibits that teach the blues basics and even lets you record a song in the onsite recording studio. Music history buffs will revel in the guitar display with over 20 guitars of all kinds that were played by the legends themselves. Try out the lap steel guitar or diddley bow and play your heart out.

2. Ground Zero Blues Club – Clarksdale, Mississippi

For blues fans and music historians, Clarksdale, Mississippi is considered the “Ground Zero” for blues around the world. Established in 2001, the venue was opened to celebrate the area’s rich blues heritage with roots as strong  and ancient as the Delta. With the help of Morgan Freeman and locals Bill Luckett and Howard Stovall, the blues club has been a hotspot for an authentic blues experience. Although big acts come through from time to time, most musicians come from the Delta and follow in the traditions of legends like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. Located on Blues Alley in the heart of historic Clarksdale, the world’s most beloved musicians play Wednesday through Saturday, keeping the blues tradition alive and well. Ground Zero Blues Club is also a good spot to try some Southern comfort food like crispy catfish and slow-cooked Mississippi barbeque.

1. The French Quarter – New Orleans, Louisiana

As people fled the dismal areas from Georgia to Mississippi during the Great Depression, they brought with them the bittersweet blues, a new kind of sound that brought a voice to a newfound passion and hope. Many stopped in New Orleans, Louisiana, a meeting place for musicians, artists, and writers. Among them were the world’s best blues musicians, the cherished legends who led the way for jazz and now take a prominent place in the evolution of American music. With its slightly leaning buildings, old streets, and original cafes and bars, the charm of New Orleans is still going strong. Holding onto its French and Spanish immigrant roots, the historic French Quarter is still the stomping grounds for the best musicians in the world and on any given day an impromptu brass band might joyfully stop traffic. The best time to go is during festival season, which starts in April.

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