The music of the South isn’t hard to find. Anyone who comes with their ears open can easily find Southern musicians playing guitars, banjos and even unexpected instruments like bagpipes.
The South boasts a tradition of embracing and combining all kinds of music to create new sounds. Much of America’s signature music, such as blues, bluegrass, gospel and country, originated south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Instead of a monument to the past, Southern music is a vital part of the present. Groups wanting a closer look at Southern heritage can go straight to its heartbeat through a music experience.
Fame Recording Studios
Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Those walking past Fame Recording Studios might not have any idea they’re standing near hallowed ground. Inside the former tobacco warehouse in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Fame Recording Studios produced 3,000 songs with multiple top-10 singles and Song of the Year awards.
“It looks very much like it did in the 1970s,” said Rodney Hall, co-owner and publisher at Fame Recording Studios. “One of the most fascinating things about the building is that it is an average building but all of this amazing music came out of it.”
Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Little Richard, Etta James, Alabama, the Osmonds and other top artists have recorded hits inside the studio. Duane Allman, later of the Allman Brothers Band, once camped out in the studio’s parking lot just to be near the recording sessions before he became famous.
Groups can tour Fame Recording Studios to try to understand why so many artists traveled to the small Alabama town to create music. A lot of credit is given to the founder, Rick Hall, who developed the famed house band, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. His ability to nurture talented songwriters led to the studio’s description as the “heartbeat of the Muscle Shoals sound.”
Tour guides tell stories from Fame Recording Studios’ fascinating history, play hits recorded in the building and allow time to examine the recording room, awards and other memorabilia. The 45-minute tour can accommodate up to 70 people.
The studio’s gift shop offers music-related merchandise, including a recently recorded album, “Muscle Shoals: Small Town, Big Sound,” which features singers like Steven Tyler, Willie Nelson and Demi Lovato performing some of the studio’s smash hits for a new generation to enjoy.
Ozark Folk Center State Park
Mountain View, Arkansas
While listeners tap their feet, Ozark Mountains musicians’ fingers fly on fiddles, banjos, guitars, mandolins and dulcimers. Visitors can still hear the traditional music of the area thanks to locals who wanted to preserve Ozark Mountains culture. They banded together to open the Ozark Folk Center State Park in 1973.
Today, groups can hear the traditional acoustic music and pre-World War II songs at regular performances at the folk center.
“Music is a big part of what we do here,” said Daren Dortin, executive producer of Ozark Highlands Radio and music director for the Ozark Folk Center State Park. “One of the neat things about listening to a concert here is that folks get to experience an intimate performance. It’s a smaller venue, and the artists are performing strictly acoustically. It’s a great venue for folks to ask questions and visit with the musicians. You can even make song requests.”
From mid-April to mid-November, the living-history park offers regularly scheduled live performances in its 1,000-seat theater. Groups can also participate in “Ozark Highlands Radio,” a syndicated program recorded at the park that shares the music and stories of the Ozark region.
The park’s American Roots Music Series provides a taste of music from the past from places beyond the Ozarks, such as Cajun, blues, Irish Celtic and cowboy tunes. For a hands-on experience, groups can also book a workshop to develop their musical talent.
Beyond music, the Ozark Folk Center State Park offers a crafts village with more than 21 artisans demonstrating regional crafts such as basket weaving, broom-making, yarn spinning, doll-making and more. The park sits on 637 acres that include a restaurant, a 60-room lodge, a gift shop and Loco Ropes Treetop Adventure Park.
Buck and Johnny’s Zydeco Breakfast
Breaux Bridge, Louisiana
Groups can start the day by putting on their dancing shoes at Buck and Johnny’s Zydeco Breakfast in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Lively zydeco music draws a line of customers waiting each Saturday morning to enter Buck and Johnny’s.
“Everybody in the place has a smile on their face,” said co-owner Coatney Raymond. “It’s such a great representation of our culture. It is zydeco music at its best. It will put you in the best spirits you could ever imagine.”
The eclectic Italian restaurant with a Cajun flair offers an interesting mix of cultures. Cajun flavors especially inspired the breakfast menu, with popular items including a boudin-stuffed omelet, grilled boudin or crawfish etouffee grits.
The restaurant normally hosts more than 200 people for each zydeco breakfast event. Groups can arrive at 8 a.m. to ensure seating in the often-crowded venue. Many diners end up shimmying and swaying on the dance floor while the zydeco musicians play traditional instruments like the washboard and the accordion.
Diners can also order bottomless mimosas or Bloody Marys to go with the festive breakfast.
Located in the old Domingue’s Motors, Buck and Johnny’s maintains much of the building’s original decor with old tin signage, oil can light fixtures and exposed brick walls. The family-owned restaurant also offers live music in the evenings Wednesday through Saturday.
Steve Fishell is no stranger to talent. He built a career working as a musician and record producer with stars including Little Richard, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. He uses his ability to recognize and curate talent for Imagine Recordings, a working recording studio in Nashville, Tennessee.
Groups of up to 50 people can go beyond a studio tour by watching a song come to life at a recording session. Real artists come in with a new song ready to play. Then after 80 minutes in the studio, the song becomes a fully realized recording that may end up as tomorrow’s next big hit.
“You can watch that moment of creativity when a song becomes a new track,” said Fishell, co-president of Imagine Recordings. “It’s exhilarating. We all love music, yet few of us have the opportunity to see how it is created today. In Nashville’s Music Row, there are dozens of top studios with nondescript fronts that give no clue as to what’s happening inside. We wanted to pull back that curtain from that inner sanctum to let people observe the whole thing.”
Imagine Recordings has recorded over 500 hit country songs. It continues to draw emerging artists and well-known country musicians such as George Strait, Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood and Blake Shelton.
Groups can learn about the importance of the studio to Nashville’s music scene before meeting the artist. They then listen behind the glass with headphones or in the control room for a behind-the-scenes look at the technical side of the music magic. After the session, participants each receive a recording of the song.
“It gives people the feeling that this is not just a cold, four-walled studio,” said Fishell. “It has a soul and a vibe. We always record a new song. This is not a cover song. We are doing the real thing. That is always interesting for people.”
Imagine Recordings also organizes teambuilding programs where groups work with a songwriter to pen a new track and then help perform.
Clarksdale Live Music
According to legend, Robert Johnson’s early guitar playing made listeners want to cover their ears. After a supposedly making a deal with the devil at the Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Johnson returned with a new musical style.
Touted as the birthplace of the blues, Clarksdale has raised many of the most well-known blues artists, such as John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters and Johnson. Visitors can’t fully understand the small country town’s roots until they show up at one of the town’s many nightly blues concerts or festivals.
Groups can first learn about the Delta region’s blues artists at the Delta Blues Museum. The interactive museum sits next to one of the most famous blues joints in the world: the Ground Zero Blues Club. Founded by Bill Luckett and Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman, the blues club draws fans from around the world.
Named because of Clarksdale’s reputation as ground zero for blues music, the venue opened its doors in 2001. Groups can attend authentic blues performances and occasional national acts Wednesdays through Saturdays. Most performers continue the tradition of blues forefathers Charley Patton, Waters and John Lee Hooker. Ground Zero Blues Club also serves Southern food, such as grilled catfish, fried pickles and Delta hot tamales.
Beyond the popular club, Clarksdale offers several other blues venues and festivals. Visitors can find live blues music in the city 365 days a year. The Hambone Gallery combines art with music on Tuesday nights. Stan Street painted Cajun chefs, bluesmen and red-haired women in his colorful portraits. Guests can learn about the local artist, then listen to the music that inspired the work.
Other authentic juke joints in the area are Red’s Blues Club, the Hopson Plantation and Commissary, and the Juke Joint Chapel at the Shack Up Inn.
Charleston, West Virginia
In two hours, a listening experience at Mountain Stage in Charleston, West Virginia, might include a bluegrass band, Scottish performers, pop hits, African beats and country songs. The live music radio show first aired in 1983 to showcase diverse music from traditional to modern. The show still celebrates new and known music by offering five artists opportunities to perform in 20-minutes sets. Groups can attend one of these shows for a superb listening experience.
Episodes play every week on more than 240 National Public Radio stations across America. Twenty-six episodes are recorded each year, mostly at Charleston’s Culture Center Theater.
Over the years, the show has featured many artists before and after fame, including Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies, Nickel Creek and R.E.M. One memorable performance was when Martina McBride asked to perform on Mountain Stage after she was already widely popular.
“When Martina McBride came, she asked what we wanted her to play,” said Larry Groce, co-founder and artistic director for Mountain Stage. “I told her our philosophy is that you can play whatever you want to play. So in the middle of her set, she said, ‘This is a radio show like no other. They want you to play the music you love.’ That is exactly what we want.”
Tours can be arranged to learn about the history of the show and the behind-the-scenes work that goes into each performance. Groce will also talk about the careful considerations that go into organizing a show featuring all musical genres.
“I get pitched a lot of people,” he said. “We hear from agents, record companies and individual artists. On the other hand, we are doing research about people who might not be coming to us. Because there are so many music genres, the pool of people we can choose from is very wide and very deep. It is a juggling act of looking for acts you want.”