Tennessee Music Pathways: The secret soul of the USA

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

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

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.

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