The American South has always been known as a musical place, but did you know that the region between Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans is considered the birthplace of no less than nine distinct musical genres that still exert major impacts on the world of Americana music today? That’s right. Blues, jazz, country, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B/soul, gospel, Southern gospel, Cajun/zydeco and bluegrass all claim their birthplaces to be located in the southeastern quarter of the United States.
The Americana Music Triangle is delineated by the three nexuses represented by the major musical cities mentioned above, destinations that warrant and receive extensive attention and frequent visits by musical tourists. However, the Americana Music Triangle seeks to showcase the historical importance of many of the small towns located within the confines of the triangle. Places like Muscle Shoals, AL; Tupelo, Jackson and Natchez in Mississippi; and Leipers Fork, TN, all played integral parts in the popularization of traditional musical styles and still feature performances of those genres today.
Like with many aspects of Southern culture ranging from language to cuisine, the story of Americana music revolves around the contributions of immigrants from many cultures that combined to create a new melange of musical stylings. Stretching back to the first Native American inhabitants of the region, successive influxes by Europeans and Africans brought elements of their own sounds to the South to create new hybrid genres. Traditional tunes of fiddlers from Scotland, Ireland and England combined with African dances, chants and ancient banjo music to create elements that we today call bluegrass, gospel and soul music. French Canadians and Haitians contributed to the joyful Cajun tunes of Creole country, and German/Czech accordion music also serves as part of the base of zydeco as well as Texan conjunto and norteño made famous by acts like Freddy Fender and Flaco Jiménez.
While the triad of large cities is credited as the home of multiple genres like country, jazz and rock, it was the small towns in the sparsely populated sections of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana where many of the most famous acts were born and learned how to play their instruments or how to sing from their forebears. The Americana Music Triangle celebrates these small towns with a series of travel itineraries they call “The Gold Record Road,” where you can experience the sites they describe as “where history made music, then music made history.”
Traveling the entire Gold Record Road would be a daunting prospect; it would be more than 1,400 miles to travel just the edge of the Triangle using the most direct routes, not to mention exploring other important sites as side trips through Alabama’s Shoals and Mississippi’s Delta regions. Fortunately, the Americana Music Triangle is broken up into smaller trails to allow visitors to experience it in smaller bites and spend time exploring the tiny towns with their monuments and museums to particular artists and musical genres. You’ll also have time to visit the juke joints, bars, honky tonks, dance halls, churches and playrooms where these iconic artists got their starts and where Americana music is still being created today.
Suggested itineraries include New Orleans to Natchez, focusing on the jazz roots of the Big Easy and the African music of Congo Square, which gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. New Orleans also offers the chance to experience jazz funerals and Southern gospel. Moving on to Cajun country, the Acadiana region around Lafayette and the swamps of southwest Louisiana are the home to accordion-based Cajun music. Natchez, MS, calls itself “The Little Easy” and has plenty of connections to down-home Delta blues music.
Another path to consider is south from Tupelo to New Orleans. Tupelo is the birthplace of the King of rock ‘n’ roll, and you can still feel the presence of Elvis in the charming town, even if he did leave as a young man. This portion of the Gold Record Trail was also home to one of country music’s first huge stars, Jimmie Rodgers, known as “The Singing Brakeman.” Blues icons like Robert Johnson, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker all traveled these same roads between gigs, spreading their brand of what had previously been known as “country blues” around the region.
For a true taste of the Delta, bite off the section between Vicksburg and Memphis, which takes you along the legendary Highway 61 and the crossroads where Robert Johnson reputedly sold his soul to the devil for his innovative talent for playing blues guitar. The sound of the blues came from a combination of slaves’ and sharecroppers’ songs of the cotton fields combined and overlapping with church hymns and African rhythms. The Mississippi Blues Trail overlaps the Gold Record Road on this leg of the journey, and together they tell the tales of a history of hardship, struggle and awakening as part of the Civil Rights Movement. Plus, they serve some mighty fine tamales down that way.
Starting from Nashville, you can head two directions along the Gold Record Road. Heading west toward Memphis along the stretch of Interstate 40 known as “The Music Highway,” you’ll pass through Jackson, the home of noted rockabilly giant Carl Perkins, and you can also visit the International Rockabilly Hall of Fame while you’re in town. Speaking of Halls of Fame, the endpoints of this sojourn are home to several notable musical shrines. In Nashville, you can tour the Country Music Hall of Fame or the Musicians Hall of Fame plus the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in the lobby of the massive Music City Center. The city will also be the future home of the National Museum of African American Music currently under construction at Fifth and Broadway. Memphis boasts musical heritage sites like the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Sun Records Studio, the Blues Hall of Fame and, oh yeah, a house on the south side of town that used to be the home of The King. Seriously, no trip to the Bluff City is complete without a pilgrimage to Graceland.
South of Nashville is the road to Muscle Shoals, AL, home to the some of the most important recording studios you might never have heard of. Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd sang “Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers,” referring to a remarkable group of session musicians who played on recordings by a wide array of artists ranging from Wilson Pickett to Aretha Franklin to Willie Nelson to Paul Simon. This talented rhythm section teamed up with legendary producer Rick Hall at FAME Studios and later at their own Muscle Shoals Sound to create the music that moved a generation of country, rock and soul fans throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. You can still tour the sites where they made magic as well as the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in nearby Tuscumbia, AL.
So what are you waiting for? Carve some time out of your vacation calendar and fire up Google Maps to plan your route. Better yet, visit the Americana Music Triangle website for even more advice.
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