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These Music Cities Deserve an Encore

Music is part of almost every tour experience, but music itself can be the theme of tours to several cities that are synonymous with the origins of specific styles. For instance, can you imagine visiting New Orleans and not enjoying some jazz or Nashville and not hearing some country music?

If you have music lovers in your group, here are a handful of destinations where they can immerse themselves in the stories behind the sounds — and hear some great tunes as they go.

A Tennessee Two-fer

Use Bristol and Nashville to explore country music’s birth and development. Bristol, split by the Tennessee-Virginia state line, is in Tennessee’s far northeast corner and is where country music’s “Big Bang” occurred. That was 10 days in 1927 when New York producer Ralph Peer recorded seminal talents such as the Carter Family (the “First Family of Country Music” and Jimmie Rodgers (the “Father of Country Music”). These were the Bristol Sessions, which the Library of Congress deemed among the 50 most significant sound recording events in history. The whole story plays out at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

Commercial country music began in Bristol, and commercial broadcasting of that music blossomed in Nashville, where the Grand Ole Opry radio show grew into a national powerhouse. When radio station WSM went on the air in 1925, its schedule included an old-timey music program called the WSM Barn Dance. An announcer’s ad-lib in 1927 transformed it into the Grand Ole Opry, and through the decades, Nashville became Music City. A century later, the Opry is going strong, with shows in the 4,400-seat Grand Ole Opry House and the smaller Ryman Auditorium. Tours easily incorporate the Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, songwriter showcases, the Musicians Hall of Fame, and of course, the city’s honky-tonk scene.

Jazzing it Up in New Orleans

Every history of jazz says New Orleans, with its vibrant mix of cultures, is the birthplace of jazz. Some even point to a specific location, Congo Square, where enslaved Africans were able to gather as early as the 1740s for community, dance and music.

The National Park Service helps tell the jazz story at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. Yes, there are ranger talks, but there also are jazz performances featuring rangers — they take their Arrowhead Jazz Band name from the NPS logo — and local musicians. Saturdays feature a participatory drum circle. The park’s visitor center is in the French Quarter, just two blocks from Jackson Square.

Just as Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry is mecca for country music fans, Preservation Hall is the New Orleans destination for fans of traditional jazz. Ensembles from a collective of more than 50 musicians perform multiple 45-minute sets almost every night. After that immersion, consider letting your group explore a couple of blocks of Frenchmen Street to enjoy clubs such as d.b.a., Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, the Spotted Cat Music Club and the Royal Frenchman Hotel.

Motoring into Motown

Finding the very spot in Detroit were the Motown Sound originated is easy. It’s a white house with blue trim you might not notice if “Hitsville U.S.A.” wasn’t spelled out over the front porch.

Tours lead you in the footsteps of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Lionel Richie and other legends who recorded there.

The 1960s live here. See where Martha Reeves worked as a receptionist, look into the kitchen that became a control room, imagine the talent that performed in the studio. At tour’s end, your guide may entice you to sing “My Girl” and then wink as she sings the Miracles’ “Shop Around” before you enter the gift shop. (A major museum expansion is in the works, so watch for progress.)

Other ties to Motown music are throughout Detroit. The stunning Fox Theatre (opened in 1928 as a movie palace and later the site of Motown concerts) offers tours; the city’s 6,000-seat riverfront amphitheater is named for Aretha Franklin; and tribute murals to various artists are downtown and along the Detroit River. Seeing the Motown Room — and enjoying a soul food meal — at Bert’s Marketplace near the Eastern Market offers another connection.

Seattle’s Grunge Memories

Music writers note the bands that became famous for performing “grunge” music abhorred the term. However, the name stuck and is tied to Seattle just as the Space Needle, Starbucks, Pike Place Market and rain are. Whether Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden (sometimes called the “big four” of grunge) liked the term, they developed a sound identified in one Seattle music history as “high levels of distortion, feedback, fuzz effects, and a fusion of punk and metal influences.”

Sampling grunge history is possible in several locations, even if you don’t encounter grunge music. Catching any performance at the 1,800-seat Moore Theatre has ties to the music because Soundgarden recorded its “Fopp” EP there, and the Alice in Chains “Live Facelift” and Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow” video footage came from the historic theater. Clubs to seek out include the Showbox and the Crocodile. Also, you’ll always find a grunge connection at MoPOP, the expansive Museum of Pop Culture, where “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses” is a core exhibit.

For a grunge-related but completely non-grunge sound experience, stroll through the NOAA Art Walk, where there’s a melodious, wind-driven sculpture called “A Sound Garden” that is the namesake of the Soundgarden rockers.

Reveling in Oklahoma’s Red Dirt

“Red dirt music” may be a challenge to define, but it’s not difficult to find in Oklahoma (where it originated) and down into north Texas. It’s country but not Nashville country or Austin country. It has all manner of influences — bluegrass, western swing, folk, rock and maybe more.

Two certainties about red dirt music are that it began in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where the dirt really is red, and that Stillwater singer-songwriter Bob Childers gets credit for being its originator in the 1980s. Childers, who died in 2008, has been compared to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie.

Red dirt music is a mainstay of bars and dancehalls, as well as festivals such as Stillwater’s Calf Fry Festival, and letting loose in venues large and small is how to get baptized. Among the many targets are the famous Cain’s Ballroom, the Mercury Lounge and the Shrine in Tulsa; Willies, the Salty Bronc and the Tumbleweed Dancehall in Stillwater; the Blue Door in Oklahoma City; and the Deli in Norman. Start your sampler playlist with artists such as Childers, Jimmy LaFave, Robert Earl Keen, Kaitlin Butts, the Texas Troubadours and Cross Canadian Ragweed.

Get Down with the Blues

You could start a blues tour in Florence, Alabama, at the birthplace of W.C. Handy, “the Father of the Blues,” but your real target is the Mississippi Delta, the flatlands of cottonfields and sharecroppers where the roots of the blues are deep. This region south of Memphis, Tennessee, features numerous small towns and several destination attractions.

Cleveland, where the 95-room Cotton House is a good base for exploration, offers the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi, which illuminates Mississippi’s impact on many types of music, including the blues. Monitor for blue artists’ performances, including summertime performances at Cleveland’s farmers’ market.

Up the Blues Highway (U.S. 61) is Clarksdale, a town known as “Ground Zero” for the blues. Spend time at the Delta Blues Museum, Mississippi’s oldest music museum and then head for the Ground Zero Blues Club for moody blues and cold beer. Festivals to investigate include the Birthplace of American Music Festival in June and the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in August.

Don’t overlook the B.B. King Museum in Indianola. A 2021 expansion focuses on King’s last decade (he died in 2015). Get your picture taken with the bronze statue of King and his beloved Gibson guitar, Lucille.