The roots of most 20th-century western popular music can be traced to a 800-kilometre-odd triangle of the United States. It all began with the blues, born in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, towards the end of the 19th century. Around the same time, jazz flowed out of New Orleans; a few years later, in the early 1900s, country music sprouted up in Nashville. Urban migration saw bluesmen and Southern gospel drift north to Memphis, where black mixed with white, fuelling the birth of R&B, soul and rock 'n' roll, a genre said to be born the day Elvis Presley stepped into Sun Studio in 1954.
Today, experts claim a total of nine distinct musical genres were born in that thin sliver of Earth that separates Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans.
Since my teenage years, I had been longing to explore this "Mojo Triangle", after first hearing Muddy Waters croon that he was a Manish Boy. A visit to these three iconic towns is more than just a holiday. I plump for a Mustang convertible, which makes light work of my journey down from Atlanta to pull up in Nashville, the proud home of country music.
From the Comfort Inn Downtown, I make the short walk into the city’s relaxed, low-rise hub, passing organic cafes and trendy clothes boutiques, housed in restored redbrick buildings which ooze an affluent, hipster charm.
I begin at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a lovingly curated institute (also home to the Taylor Swift Education Centre). I trace the music's roots back to Britain, when immigrants brought their instruments and folk songs over to the promised land. Early "hillbilly" vinyls were pressed in Atlanta throughout the 1920s, but a sudden plummet in record production following the 1929 Wall Street crash meant it was radio that spread country music across the lands – and put Nashville at its centre. Nashville still proudly calls itself Music City. Cruising the suburbs, it's clearly a well-deserved title. A healthy recording and management hub exists in the Music Row district. A local free-sheet lists 19 different concerts, in six different genres, on the random Monday evening I'm in town. The city's unassuming vibe has attracted famous residents including Swift, Ed Sheeran, The Black Keys and Jack White, who set up his recording studio/curio shop/vanity project Third Man Records in an industrial area south of the city centre. I stop by and cut a track straight to vinyl on his restored Voice-O-Graph, the same 1947 fairground novelty in which Neil Young recorded his 2012 LP A Letter Home.
After dark, I hit Broadway, a short, neon nightlife stretch where you can’t walk more than a door or two without encountering a kicking covers band. I hit lucky at the Bootleggers Inn, home to a daringly dexterous twanging trio who make light work of an audience request for Django Reinhardt.
The next morning, I split for Memphis, the other side of Tennessee’s musical coin. Separated by a three-hour drive, the differing fortunes of the Volunteer State’s two great musical cities is stark and clear. Nashville’s population has grown from 545,000 to 610,000 people since the turn of the millennium, booming in employment, and dubbed “Nowville”. Meanwhile, Memphis is ranked America’s “third most miserable” and “second most dangerous” city.
Punctuated by boarded-up businesses and urban decay, there’s little to charm driving into the city. But Memphis won’t let you forget its greatest export. Once the regional hub for blues, the historic central strip, Beale Street, glares and pounds like an amusement park of former glories – but offers a great night out, a funky looseness that’s lacking in Nashville’s Broadway. Nashville might boast the best players in the land, but Memphians know how to party.
Attracting musical tourists by the busload, there’s plenty to fill the days, too. Curated by The Smithsonian, the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum would be the ideal introduction to popular music for an alien visitor to planet Earth.
Located out of town, on the site of the original recording studio, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music pays loving tribute to the label’s roster of forefathers, including Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, and its house band, Booker T and the MGs. The highlight is a period recreation of the institution’s fabled Studio A. The real thing was torn down in 1989, but outside, the iconic “Soulsville, USA” sign hangs triumphantly – like much of Memphis, it seems to be hiding the fact the real thing isn’t there anymore.
Not the case in Sun Studio, where zealous hourly tours lead devotees into the tiny, hallowed, crude recording space that launched the careers of Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. The five double-side singles Presley recorded at Sun between July 1954 and July 1955 launched a superstar, and are credited with spawning rock ‘n’ roll.
I decide to kitsch-out and drive down Elvis Presley Boulevard to Days Inn at Graceland, a Presley-themed hotel complete with a guitar-shaped pool and three channels playing The King’s Hollywood movies on loop.
The next morning, I eat breakfast in the lobby, surrounded by Presley portraits, and head into Graceland, the modest country mansion Elvis bought in 1957, and lived in until his death 20 years later. Today, it acts as a haunting open monument. Outside in the Peace Garden, watching rows of sobbing fans line up at The King’s grave; I wonder how many make this pilgrimage more than once.
It's with some relief that I leave The King's ghost, and hit Route 61, the 2,300km "Blues Highway" that snakes alongside the Mississippi River, immortalised in the title track to Bob Dylan's 1965 "electric" LP Highway 61 Revisited.
I hit the Mississippi Delta, the 10,000 square kilometres of fertile land associated with poverty, cotton, and the blues. Today, it’s an eerie, flat land of corrugated iron shacks, pawn shops and casinos.
I stop in Clarksdale, a tiny town of 18,000 people that acts as the delta’s epicentre. Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the Devil at the town’s crossroads (commemorated with a plaque). The “Father of the Blues”, W C Handy, published the first known blues sheet music in 1912, after overhearing a busker playing a primitive slide guitar, while waiting for a train from Clarksdale.
If blues is the music of the fields, it was the city that spawned jazz. It’s said to have germinated in New Orleans’ fabled French Quarter, the historic heart of the city founded by French settlers in 1718. Later ruled by the Spanish, the area is a delightful architectural mishmash, disparate rows of brightly coloured two and three-storey buildings, punctuated with blooming balconies and hanging plants.
The central Bourbon Street may take its name from a French royal dynasty, but today it acts as a lowbrow tourist honeytrap. Yet amid it all, curious ears will encounter a pick ‘n’ mix, sugar-rush treat. Throughout the quarter, and the neighbouring Faubourg Marigny district to the north, dozens of live-music venues are liberally scattered, most hosting different bands daily from mid-afternoon.
During two lazy afternoons, I unwind to the sounds of more than a dozen sets, soaking up funk, blues and tourist-friendly Dixieland revivalists: a cross-country soundtrack taking in a dynamic arc of the United States’ contribution to the world of music, and an apt end to my musical road trip.
For more information, visit www.americanamusictriangle.com.
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