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All photos courtesy Tennessee Dept. of Tourism

Tennessee’s musical heritage stretches from one side of the state to the other, from the congressionally recognized Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol on the Virginia state line; through Nashville, Music City U.S.A., in the heart of the state; to the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll and the home of the blues in Memphis on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Tennessee honors its musical heritage with world-class museums and festivals while continuing to be on the forefront of cutting-edge music in a wide range of genres.

“Tennessee is where music is made. We like to say that musicians and artists might be born in other states, but when they want to make their music, they come to Tennessee,” said Jennifer Spence, assistant commissioner of marketing for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.

Bristol: Birthplace of Country

Country music started in the state’s northeastern corner. In 1998, Congress recognized Bristol as the Birthplace of Country Music. There, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers made their first country music recordings in the late 1920s.

“Under the Trails and Byways Program, we’ve named the 400-mile route that cuts through Bristol the Sunny Side Trail in commemoration of country music’s beginnings,” said Cindy Dupree, director of communications for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. “One of the Carters’ hit songs was ‘Keep on the Sunny Side,’ although it wasn’t recorded in Bristol.”

After the national designation, local citizens decided to showcase the town’s musical heritage and started the annual Rhythm and Roots Reunion in September with approximately 150 musicians on 20 stages. Bluegrass, Celtic, Southern rock, as well as country music, fill the three-day lineup.
During warmer months, Bristol’s downtown hosts local and regional bands on Tuesday and Thursday nights, free to the public. Eight Friday nights, May through September, Border Bash previews bands that will be featured at the Rhythm and Roots Reunion.

“They close down State Street, which runs through the historic section of downtown, and put the stage right on the street,” said Kimberly Leonard, marketing and sales director for the Bristol Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Most people bring their own chairs, or walk around and enjoy the restaurants and shops.”

Tennessee’s music evolution
By the 1950s, Nashville’s country record labels and the Grand Ole Opry had earned it the nickname Music City U.S.A.; Southern gospel and Christian rock also have roots in Tennessee’s capital.

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which tells the story of the evolution of country music from African American and mountain music influences and honors the genre’s legendary performers is a must-see for music lovers.

A large screen runs continuous clips of stars such as Alan Jackson and Loretta Lynn. Elvis Presley’s gold-leaf grand piano, a first anniversary gift from his wife, Priscilla, sits near a “Hee-Haw” display and Faith Hill’s dazzling pink Versace outfit.

Nearby, the Nashville Symphony performs more than 100 classical, pops and special concert events each season in its neoclassical concert hall, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. The stunning building incorporates numerous outdoor water features, a garden courtyard and cafe, and state-of-the-art acoustics.

“We see ourselves as part of the whole picture of Music City,” said Alan Valentine, president and CEO of the Nashville Symphony. “This rounds out Nashville as a music center.”

Memphis was a key player in the development of blues, soul and rock, and preserves that rich heritage at Sun Studio, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Smithsonian Institution’s Rock ’n’ Soul Museum.

A center of the city’s musical heritage is Beale Street, which first became legendary for the blues in the 1940s when guitarist B.B. King first played. There, King acquired the nickname Beale Street Blues Boy, later shortened to B.B. Today, Beale Street’s 25 clubs, including King’s, still draw music aficionados looking to hear that smooth Memphis sound.

“The music and cultural heritage that began centuries ago on this amazing street is still alive and growing for generations today,” said Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In the 1950s, tiny Sun Records put Memphis on the rock ’n’ roll map with artists such as Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins on its label.

Another small Memphis recording studio, Stax, located in an old movie theater, launched the careers of many great soul artists such as Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and the Staple Singers.

Reflecting the musical diversity found throughout the state, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has been named by Rolling Stone magazine as the country’s No. 1 outdoor music festival. Each June, thousands head for this four-day, multistage festival held on a 700-acre farm in Manchester.

Dozens of artists play rock, jazz, Americana, hip-hop, electronica and most any other form of contemporary music. The festival’s round-the-clock entertainment village offers diversions such as a classic arcade, a comedy club and a music technology village.

Tennessee Special Section:

Tennessee reveres its Civil War sites
Festivals: A few major milestones
Think small towns!
WEB EXCLUSIVE: More musical attractions from Tennessee

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.