Crossing five Southern states, the Americana Music Triangle is the birthplace of modern sound. Cathy Wagstaff hits the road to discover its highlights.
Blues. Jazz. Country. Rock ‘n’ Roll. R&B and Soul. Gospel. Southern Gospel. Cajun and Zydeco. Bluegrass.
These nine distinct genres of music encapsulate nearly every style coming out of the modern American music scene, and they all have their roots here, in the Americana Music Triangle (AMT).
The Triangle connects Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans, crossing five states: Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, with a dip into Arkansas. From the jazz clubs of Bourbon St, New Orleans, to the live spectacular that is the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, the routes represent a 2414-kilometre journey into music’s heartland.
While it showcases heritage and history in abundance, the AMT itself was only launched in May 2015. Founder Aubrey Preston wanted to showcase American music at a grassroots level, uniting communities, historians and music-lovers in a multi-state tourism and preservation project.
Choose your journey
The AMT allows international and domestic visitors alike to interact with the stories, people and, above all, music. There are five suggested driving trails, each full of potential stops that offer a unique perspective on music. Simply hire a car (preferably one with classic 1960s flair) and hit the road.
In New Orleans (pronounced by the locals as N’Awlins), it’s all about the energy of jazz, gospel, R&B and that rich Cajun sound. Along the Delta Highway, get absorbed by the blues; Clarksdale, Mississippi is home of the ‘father of modern Chicago blues’, Muddy Waters. Spend a night at the finest juke joint in town, Ground Zero Blues Club, part-owned by actor and Mississippi Delta resident, Morgan Freeman.
Pay your respects to the King in Memphis with a visit to his fabled mansion, Graceland. Those longing to get up-close to Elvis Presley can now enjoy a taste of his legendary Southern hospitality at The Guest House at Graceland, the eagerly anticipated 450-room resort.
Continue on to ‘Music City’ itself: Nashville, Tennessee. Be sure to visit a honky-tonk bar or two – their distinctive sound is unavoidable as you stroll the main streets – and plan ahead if you want to see up-and-coming musicians and established stars performing (or spectating) at The Bluebird Café. Keith Urban and Garth Brooks are among the names who performed at this 90-seat venue early in their careers, and tickets sell out quickly, although it’s first-come, first-served on Sundays and Mondays. Nashville is also home to Music Row (home of RCA Studio B, where the likes of Elvis, Roy Orbison and Dolly Parton once recorded some of their most popular hits), the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, an essential for anyone interested in the hits that defined a genre.
From Music City, follow the Natchez Trace Parkway to the Shoals of Alabama, a quartet of cities along the Tennessee River: Muscle Shoals, Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia. as a recording home to Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan and the rolling stones, you won’t be able to miss the Muscle shoals sound first developed here in the 1960s.
Be sure to visit the town of Tupelo, Mississippi, the birthplace of Elvis. Buy a guitar from Tupelo hardware, where Gladys Presley bought her son his first instrument, or time your visit to coincide with the Tupelo Elvis Festival, each year in early June.
“Every second person you meet in the AMT is in the music industry,” says Garry Smith, director of Americana Music Tours, and an Australian music producer who has visited the triangle 12 times since 2013. “The triangle pulls everyone together through music and keeps people in the area, whether they’re doing a road trip or a tour.”
As well as offering the only group itineraries that take in the whole triangle, Americana Music Tours coordinates once-in-a-lifetime experiences for devotees of all genres. For those looking for a hands-on approach, Smith can organise a recording session at rick hall’s F.A.M.E. recording studios (known as the heartbeat of the Muscle shores sound) or at Nashville’s RCA studio A, saved from demolition by Preston himself.
The annual King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas is a particular highlight. Smith and his Americana Music tours visited the five-day celebration for the first October 2016, suggesting an unconventional way of combating the lack of accommodation in the 12,000-strong township: hiring a luxury entertainer’s bus. it’s the real on-tour experience, gathering eight or 10 people together on the road.
The AMT allows visitors to see how modern music – arguably america’s greatest export – was shaped by its people, by its history and by its spirit. it’s the first time the story of music in the south has been presented as one united legend, breaking down the geographical distance and the divisions in genres. here, music is not categorised by its genre, but by its lineage. and it all comes back to the triangle.
This article appeared in volume 23 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.