From the banks of the Mississippi River to the cotton fields of Brownsville and Ripley, the rhythms of work and remembered spirituals carved out a sound that spoke to the sorrows of everyday life. Today, B.B. King and Tina Turner are among the superstars who carry on and refine the traditions of W.C. Handy and Sleepy John Estes. Plug into the sound of blues at Beale Street Historic District and the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum.
To learn how the blues evolved into soul, visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, founded by siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. In the’60s Stax set the music world on fire with Sam and Dave, Otis Redding and Booker T and the MGs. In the ’70s, Stax was known for the Staple Singers and superstar Isaac Hayes, who revolutionized soul music with full orchestration and extended tracks and set the standard for movie soundtracks, culminating with an Oscar for “Shaft.”
Jackson, home of the Shannon Street BluesFest and the Rock-A-Billy Hall of Fame, is the place for a lesson on music fusion. The home of blues greats Sonny Boy Williams, Big Maybell and others is today best known for the sound Carl Perkins created when he blended blues, country and the new sounds of rock ‘n’ roll.
Perkins met up with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis at the legendary Sun Records, the Memphis studio “where rock ‘n’ roll was born.” Sun was the brain child of visionary producer Sam Phillips, whose music bridged stylistic, racial and regional barriers to create the groundbreaking “Sun Sound.”
One legend who grew out of Sun Studio was “the king,” Elvis Presley, who became not just a star but a cultural phenomenon, selling more than one billion records. Get a sense of Elvis and the impact he had on American culture when you visit Graceland, his Memphis home, or be part of the festivities for Elvis’ birthday celebration each January.
Some of music history’s most influential record labels grew out of Tennesseans’ passion for music. The precursor to Sun and Stax was Capitol, the first to set up shop in Nashville, in 1950.
RCA’s Historic Studio B, built in 1957 at the behest of guitarist and producer Chet Atkins, was a breeding ground for the “Nashville Sound.” The sophisticated strings and background vocals helped establish Nashville as an industry power. Stars who recorded there included Elvis Presley and Jim Reeves in the early years and Gillian Welch today, with the Everly Brothers, Willie and Waylon, Roy Orbison and Dolly Parton in between. The Mike Curb Family Foundation bought Studio B and entrusted it to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Nashville today is a hotbed of live music, with venues for every type of sound, from the Schermerhorn Symphony Center to intimate showcases for singer/songwriters. For traditional country music shows, start with the heavy hitters. Visit the Ryman Auditorium, called the “Mother Church of Country Music,” and see the Grand Ole Opry. Stop by Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the Station Inn and other of the famous honky tonks of the District. Check out Ernest Tubb’s Midnite Jamboree. Hear songwriters new and noteworthy at the Bluebird Cafe, now owned by the Nasvhille Songwriters Association International.
The Johnny Cash Museum provides a look into the life of the Man in Black. The Music City Walk of Fame and Nashville Music Garden offer tributes to musicians, writers, producers and others in all genres of music. Nashville area museums tell the stories of the movers and shakers of the music world, from famous names to geniuses behind the scenes.
Since the 1920s, country and Appalachian string music have found their way out of the mountains and valleys of East Tennessee into the world’s musical consciousness. In 1927, Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company set out to find new talent in gospel, blues and their fusion, called “hillbilly music.” He headed to Bristol, set up in a hat factory on State Street and started recording the famed Bristol Sessions, “the Big Bang of country music.”
Today State Street is the site of the Birthplace of Country Music Museumand Cultural Heritage Center, where visitors find interactive exhibits and live music. You’ll find the home of country legend Tennessee Ernie Ford in Bristol. In Johnson City and Kingsport, music venues and festivals carry on the tradition of bluegrass and roots music for new generations.
Head to the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center for exhibits, concerts and special events that tell the stories of mountain music and the people who played it. Visit Dolly Parton’s hometown of Sevierville and see her statue. Inside Dollywood, the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum showcases both the old and new in gospel music legends. The Museum of Appalachia in Norris uses music to tell the story of an older way of life.
In downtown Knoxville, take the Cradle of Country Music Walking Tour to follow the sound from pioneer ballads to blues and rock-a-billy, see where Hank Williams spent his last night and learn how Dolly Parton, the Everly Brothers, Roy Acuff and others got their start in the music industry. While you’re downtown, stop in at the Visitor Center for WDVX’s daily Blue Plate Special live performance. Visit the Bijou and Tennessee Theatres, where music legends have played.
In the Chattanooga area, take in some old-time music at the Mountain Opry and visit the Bessie Smith Cultural Center to learn about “the Empress of the Blues.” Follow the Traditional Music Trail of Southeast Tennessee as it traces the story of country dances and fiddle contests to today’s events.
East Tennessee’s music festivals pay tribute to several kinds of music heritage. The Bloomin’ Barbecue and Bluegrass Festival in Sevierville, the Louie Bluie Festival at Cove Lake State Park and others are sure bets.