Rockabilly star Carl Perkins sang, “It makes me feel like I wanna brag some/ To know that I come from the state of Tennessee/ Let’s give old Tennessee credit for music!” Rockabilly is just one of seven musical genres that call this slice of the South home. Follow the Tennessee Music Pathways to experience them for yourself.
The Tennessee Music Pathways offers a rewarding journey across Tennessee to the heart of American music. Nearly every city and town – from Memphis to Mountain City – has a story to tell. You can also visit the places mentioned in Ken Burns’ 2019 PBS documentary “Country Music.” Pick up a passport from any Tennessee Welcome Center to use as a road map. Collect enough stamps, and you can cash in your passport for a fun souvenir. Five stamps will get you a commemorative Hatch Show Print poster, 15 an autographed book. Hit all 22 stops and you’ll earn the ultimate reward: a Tennessee Music Pathways branded guitar.
Nashville is country’s capital, and there’s plenty of proof at the Grand Ole Opry and its famous former home, Ryman Auditorium, known as the “Mother Church of Country Music.” Venues like the venerable Bluebird Cafe, which has been a backdrop in both movies and TV shows, continue to be a haven for both legends and up-and-coming artists. For the big picture, the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum honors country music’s diversity, from the Carter Family to Charley Pride to Gram Parsons. Far to the east in Bristol, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum celebrates the first recordings of the genre there in 1927, with the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion offering up the music’s living legacy every September. To mix the music with family fun, visit Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Hurricane Mills or Dolly Parton’s Dollywood in Pigeon Forge. Today’s country music in Tennessee is a coat of many colors.
Sun Studio in Memphis is undoubtedly ground zero for rock ’n’ roll. Visitors can see the room, still preserved, where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis made their magic. And, of course, Elvis fans must see Graceland, which offers both home tours and concerts in a live music venue. The Smithsonian’s Memphis Rock ’N’ Soul Museum also honors the genre, as does the Bijou Theatre and Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville. Nashville’s Third Man Records offers tours of its recording facilities and has a wide array of merchandise for sale. And all kinds of interesting rock memorabilia from every genre – including one of Jimi Hendrix’s Stratocaster guitars and other instruments from artists like The Beach Boys, Rod Stewart and Bob Seger – are on view at the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum in downtown Music City.
Memphis has always attracted blues players from around the world to Beale Street, where the songs of those who honed their craft there, like Memphis Minnie, Robert Johnson or Howlin’ Wolf, still fill the air every night, courtesy of today’s blues artists. Just off Beale is the Blues Hall of Fame Museum. There are blues venues in nearly every Tennessee city, including B.B. King’s Blues Club in Memphis and Nashville, and the Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar in Nashville’s famed Printers Alley. Open Chord Music in Knoxville hosts an array of bands who play blues, rock, folk, soul and more. Chattanooga has the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, which boasts both a performance hall and a museum – as is only fitting for the birthplace of the Empress of the Blues.
From traditional combos to explorers of the experimental “New Grass” genre, bluegrass is alive and well in Tennessee. One bastion of it is in Kodak, home of the Dumplin Valley Bluegrass Festival. You can also hear it at The Caverns in subterranean Pelham (also offering above-ground, socially distanced concerts in an outdoor amphitheater in 2021), the permanent home of the Emmy Award-winning PBS television series “Bluegrass Underground.” It makes sense that Nashville is the International Bluegrass Music Association’s home, for most consider a 1945 performance at the Ryman Auditorium by Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys to have birthed the genre. A statue of Monroe stands outside the Ryman, which offers daily tours. Several legendary clubs there serve up the bluegrass sound, including The Station Inn and Layla’s Honky Tonk.
Rockabilly has many worldwide devotees. Mr. “Blue Suede Shoes” himself, Carl Perkins, had a home in Jackson for many years and is honored at the Southern Legends of Music Museum at the Carnegie. Nearby Selmer pays tribute to the high-spirited genre with its Rockabilly Murals, photorealistic images painted by McNairy County native Brian Tull. The Rockabilly Highway Revival Festival, held every June, tips a hat to the name bestowed on that stretch of U.S. Highway 45. The festival features music on multiple stages and the McNairy County Music Hall of Fame inductions. There’s also Hernando’s Hideaway in Memphis, a legendary club that also showcases country and rock – not to mention burgers and beer.
Of course, Memphis is Soulsville, U.S.A. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music presents the story of Stax, from early hits like Booker T. & the MG’s “Green Onions” to Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft” in the 1970s. Next door is Stax Music Academy, where students learn about soul and tour the world playing it. Just around the corner is Royal Studios, where current soul artists like Bruno Mars cut his “Uptown Funk” hit, and where the 2014 film “Take Me to the River” paired classic soul singers with hip-hop artists. In Nashville, the new National Museum of African American Music pays tribute to the genre, highlighting the African Americans who pioneered the sound.
The faith community is strong in Tennessee, and every country church might offer magical gospel moments. The Rev. Al Green, who’s recorded as many gospel records as pop hits, still preaches and sings at his Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis. Nashville has long produced notable gospel artists such as The Fairfield Four, who began entertaining audiences a century ago. This year, Fisk University’s Jubilee Singers are marking 150 years of singing spirituals around the world. They were inducted into Nashville’s Gospel Music Association’s Hall of Fame in 2000. Visit Lawrenceburg’s James D. Vaughan Gospel Music Museum, which honors the “father of Southern gospel music.” And, at Dollywood, you can also hear Southern gospel performances during the Harvest Festival presented by Humana.
It’s time to hit the open road to see something uniquely Tennessee.