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Southern music

Courtesy Town of Cheraw

Jazz, blues, rock ’n’ roll,
bluegrass and country music all began in the south, and they communicate enduring and  endearing elements of the Southern experience. Though modern American music
has expanded far beyond the borders of
Dixie, the South is still at the heart and soul of the songs we sing.

Dozens of times each year, at venues large and small across the region, American musicians gather in the ancestral homelands of their styles. Grand music festivals celebrate the roots of American music and give modern stars an opportunity to pay homage to the performers who came before them.

Music festivals in the South feature both celebrity musicians and independent hometown minstrels, all of whom create melodies and rhythms that speak to the essence of Southern culture.

For visitors, Southern music festivals make a great supplement to their travels through the region. Traditional and roots music take center stage at the Americana Music Festival in Tennessee and the Rhythm and Roots Festival in Virginia.

The best in brass come together for Kentucky’s Great American Brass Band Festival, as well as the South Carolina Jazz Festival, which takes place in Dizzy Gillespie’s hometown.

And modern music thrills audiences at the Mississippi Blues Fest in Greenwood and the Hangout Festival on the shores of Alabama’s Gulf Coast.

Mississippi Blues Fest
Greenwood, Miss.
In the music world, Mississippi is synonymous with the blues. In Greenwood, modern blues music takes center stage at the twice-annual Mississippi Blues Festival.

“A local radio station started the New Millennium festival in 2000 and always held it twice a year in October and March,” said festival chairman Andrew McQueen. “In 2008, they moved it to another town, but we decided to keep the festival going here in Greenwood. So we formed the Mississippi Blues Fest Committee and went around getting volunteers to help us put on the show.”

For four years now, the locals have succeeded in hosting the events in the spring and fall, drawing locals and visitors to the Greenwood Civic Center for a night of modern blues music. Music fans come for soul singers like Big Rob and Willie Clayton, as well as modern blues performers such as Shirley Brown, Steve Perry, Ms. Jody and David Brinston.

“The crowd we draw is a younger crowd, from the age of 30 on up,” McQueen said. “The type of music they’re hearing on the radio is Southern soul artists, so that’s what we deal with.”

Each event has a bill of at least five performers, giving concertgoers a nonstop night of music that lasts from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Americana Music Festival
Nashville, Tenn.
Nashville is known as the commercial music capital of the South and is home to dozens of record labels and hundreds of talented performers. In the late 1990s, a group of locals came together and decided to throw a festival that would highlight musicians who fall outside the scope of the commercial music system.

“It started back in 1999,” said Jed Hilley, executive director of the Americana Music Association. “There was a group of folks that felt that mainstream music, labels and the industry weren’t supporting artists of integrity. So the festival was formed to shine a light on those who would otherwise not be heard.”

The Americana Music Festival takes place over four days, using venues around downtown Nashville. Visitors will find some well-known country and roots musicians taking the stage — people like Dwight Yoakam, Gregg Allman and the Blind Boys of Alabama — as well as up-and-coming independent musicians such as Jessica Lea Mayfield and the Avett Brothers.

During the course of the festival, 90 to 100 artists perform, and about 10,000 guests attend the shows. A conference for music industry professionals takes place during the daytime as part of the festival. But at nighttime, all of the performances are open to the general public.

“It’s about $50 for four nights of music,” Hilley said. “We use places like Mercy Lounge, Cannery Ballroom, Station Inn and the Basement. You can go from club to club with one wristband and see all the concerts. We do an outdoor concert on Saturday afternoon at Centennial Park.”

The festival also includes one big concert at the Ryman Auditorium, which requires a separate ticket, as well as a songwriters event that takes place at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion
Bristol, Va.
Straddling the line between Virginia and Tennessee, Bristol and the rural areas surrounding it enjoy a long musical heritage, with many early country performers having come out of the area. Today, the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion honors that tradition and much of the culture that has grown with it.

“Bristol is the birthplace of country music — even the U.S. Congress has given us that designation,” said Leah Ross, executive director of the festival. “The festival is all in our downtown area. We block off all of the streets in our historic downtown and have four outdoor stages and 19 indoor stages.”

The festival began as a community event that attracted about 7,500 people in 2001 and has become a sizable gathering, drawing more than 45,000 visitors. They come to hear the likes of Robert Randolph, John Oates and some of the other 165 artists who play 2,200 sets of music over the course of the festival.

Most performers at the festival celebrate traditional country and bluegrass music, although some bring a modern twist. They also enjoy the sense of community, and many artists spend time at the festival interacting with the fans.

“At some festivals, an artist finishes playing, gets on a bus and leaves,” Ross said. “Here the artists stay and walk around all weekend. It’s very common to see an artist sit in with someone else and play a song or two that you didn’t plan on.”

In addition to music, groups visiting the Rhythm and Roots festival will find an array of artists and craftspeople selling homemade jewelry, hammocks, clothing and other items. The festivities also include a chili cook-off and a 5K road race.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.