From the hot chicken and country legends of Nashville, the rock’n’roll hips of Elvis and bluesy notes and barbecue of Memphis, to the creole flavours, vibrant mardi-gras and jazz of the New Orleans, these three great Music Cities in America’s south each offer something very unique and memorable
Step into RCA Studio B in Nashville, and you’ll be in hallowed grounds where no lesser legends than Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison - and many others - have laid down tracks. Studio B is also the sacred home of the ‘Nashville Sound’ that emerged from the mid-1950s onwards. With its characteristic background vocals and strings, the Nashville Sound established the city’s reputation as an international recording centre and revived the popularity of country music. But Nashville has long links with country music, playing a central role in its evolution, drawing in influences from Appalachian bluegrass, Mississippi blues, and southern gospel, blending them and then broadcasting them to the rest of the nation through the Grand Ole Opry, which calls itself ‘The Show That Made Country Music Famous’ and the ‘Home of American Music’. Since 1925, the Grand Ole Opry has been broadcasting live country music through the radio, starting as a one-hour radio ‘barn dance’, and today the Grand Ole Opry is performed every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at the Grand Ole Opry House between March and November every year. The Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash Museum both pay homage to the city’s country music history and heritage, but the spirit of country music is well and truly alive in Nashville, and the music scene today is just as vibrant as it ever was; head to a honky-tonk amidst the neon lights of Lower Broadway or join the hordes of country music fans who watch live performances from today’s biggest stars at the annual CMA Music Festival, and you’ll see that country music really is as much Nashville’s present as its past. You’ll also discover a city alive with burgeoning neighbourhoods, brimming with indie coffeehouses, bakeries, new breweries and distilleries, walls resplendent with vibrant murals, a thriving artisan scene as well as the stylish boutiques and vintage shops of 12th Ave S, and whilst each neighbourhood may have its own distinct personality, you’ll also be charmed by that famous Southern hospitality.
Almost as synonymous with ‘Music City’ is its ‘hot chicken’, and Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack has been the go-to place in town since it opened in 1945 and is widely credited with its invention. Hot Chicken is differentiated from other similar fried dishes, such as Buffalo wings, by the cayenne pepper-spiced paste that is applied after the chicken has been marinated, floured, and fried, and its presentation, served atop slices of white bread with pickle chips. Whilst in the U.K., biscuits are often sweet, baked goods, in Nashville, biscuits are a quick bread (more similar to our scones) and can be smothered in gravy, eaten at any time of day, and served alongside any meal. Serving ‘true Southern food’ for over 65 years, The Loveless Cafe on Highway 100 has an unparalleled reputation for its biscuits, not just in Nashville, but across the USA, with the USA Today calling their biscuits ‘Nashville’s second-most-important contribution to American culture.’ To wash your meal down, Nashville - unlike the rest of the South - favours fruit tea over sweet tea.
Although not one of the better known rivers to enjoy a river cruise, the Cumberland River - on which Nashville is located - can be combined with the Upper Mississippi for a picturesque cruise with American Cruise Lines through America’s Heartland, including inspiring scenery from the Kentucky Lakes to the rolling landscapes of 170,000 acres of protected forest. The Cumberland River itself comes alive with migratory songbirds, woodpeckers, and red-tailed hawks, and the journey offers historic sites, including a private tour of the historic battle site of Ulysses S. Grant’s first major Union victory near the Tennessee city of Dover, vibrant artist communities, and beautiful state parks as the cruise makes it way from Nashville to St. Louis, Mississippi.
Just 200 miles from Nashville itself is Memphis, another great musical heavyweight. Elvis Presley might have recorded over 200 tracks at Nashville’s Studio B, but he cut his teeth performing in Memphis, recorded in its equally famous Sun Studio, and - of course - lived and died in Graceland. These are not Memphis’s only claims for title holder of the birthplace of rock’n’roll, immortalised as it was by Chuck Berry’s 1959 song, and Presley wasn’t the only talent to grace the city.Just six years after influential record producer Sam Phillips founded the Sun Studio in 1950, an impromptu jam session between Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash was recorded and went down in rock’n’roll history as the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’, remaining unreleased until 1981. But Memphis is more than just rock’n’roll, it’s the bedrock of blues - the city was particularly pivotal in shaping the sound of Delta blues in the first half of the 20th century - and Beale Street has a long reputation, dating back to the 1860s, of drawing in travelling black performers, and has been instrumental in shaping the history of blues music. Beale Street is home to the Beale Street Music Festival, as well as many bars and clubs, including B.B King’s Blues Club, the Rum Boogie Cafe, one of the main venues for the International Blues Challenge and favoured performance location of the blues singer James Govan, who was notable for his cavernous baritone voice and performed on the club’s circuit for two decades, and Coyote Ugly, the namesake of a now-international chain of bars that shot to fame first in 1997 when former bartender Elizabeth Gilbert recounted her experiences in a GQ magazine article, which later inspired the 2000 movie of the same name. Sun Studio was not the only great recording studio in the city, either; in 1961, Stax Records made Memphis the focal point of a new southern soul sound - much grittier and horn-based than Motown - and drew in artists such as Otis Redding and Wilson Picket, Sam and Dave, with the label’s in-house backing band Booker T & The MGs. Although the original studio was torn down in the late 80s, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music was built on the original site as a replica, telling the story not only of Stax artists, but many other soul music legends from other record labels, including Motown. The roster of musicians who got their start in Memphis in the 1950s and 1960s - Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Otis Redding,Isaac Hayes, Al Green, Rance Allen, Percy Sledge, Solomon Burke, Sam & Dave, and B.B. King, to name just a few - not only proves that Memphis was a veritable fertile ground for music, but showcases the electrifying diversity of musical genres that made the city so inspiring, and so deserving of its reputation as a great music city of America.
Memphis’ contribution to American music is indisputable; so too is the prominent role it played in the American Civil Rights Movement. By the 1960s, Memphis was home to Tennessee’s largest African-American population, who - affected by state segregation practices and disenfranchisement in the early 20th century - drew from the Civil Rights Movement to improve their lives. The city’s predominantly black sanitation workers campaigned for union representation, fair wages and improved working conditions following the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker whilst at work, leading to the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike. Martin Luther King Jnr was visiting to support the strike when he gave his stirring final speech, ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’, the day before he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel on 4 April 1968. The motel’s owner withdrew Room 306 (where King died) and its adjoining room from use, maintaining them as a memorial to King, before the motel was transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum in 1991. Since its reopening in 2014, the museum features an increased number of multi-media and interactive exhibits, including numerous short movies, and in 2016, the museum was honoured by becoming a Smithsonian Affiliate museum.
Listening to the sounds of Memphis and discovering its history and culture would not be complete without indulging in the tastes of the city, as well as its sights and sounds, and what you might notice is that Memphians are big on barbecue; they even barbecue their tofu for BBQ tofu nachos, and BBQ spaghetti is an original dish served at Interstate Bar-B-Q, a Memphis institution since Jim Neely bought the Interstate Grocery in 1978, transforming it into a barbecue restaurant a year later (it has since been voted the second best barbecue restaurant in the US by People Magazine). Memphis-style barbecue is one of the four predominant regional styles of barbecue in the US, and in typically southern fashion, is predominantly made using pork (usually ribs and shoulders) but is characterised by being slow cooked in a pit. Ribs can either be prepared ‘dry’ (covered with a dry rub of salt and spices before cooking, and usually eaten without sauce) or ‘wet’, where the ribs are brushed with sauce before, during, and after cooking. Memphis was named the number 1 Barbecue City in America by U.S. News and World Reports in 2012, and the city’s World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, held each May, has entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest pork barbecue contest in the world, so be sure to bring your appetite.
Downstream along the Mississippi from Memphis is the Louisiana city of New Orleans, sometimes affectionately called ‘The Big Easy’. Cruising the Lower Mississippi between these two great music cities takes you through three states, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana, discovering elegant Antebellum mansions and plantations, and historic Civil War battle sites along the way; the route between Memphis and New Orleans is one of the most popular cruise itineraries for the Mississippi.
Founded in 1718 by French colonists, New Orleans was in turn colonised by first the French then the Spanish before it became part of the United States as part of the famous ‘Louisiana Purchase’ in 1803, creating a heritage that’s both cross-cultural and multilingual, and quite distinct from anywhere else in the States, giving rise to the city being described as the ‘most unique’ in the United States. The legacies of both the French and Spanish influences on New Orleans certainly sets the city apart from others in the South, and this distinction has been capitalised on since the mid-19th century! Essentially an island between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans was isolated from the mainland for almost 250 years, until the first major bridge to link the city to the mainland was built in 1958. This isolation created a hotbed of cultural innovation and distinctive developments, with locals drawing inspiration from their eclectic hybrid of African-American, French and Spanish influences, creating the perfect ingredients to simmer like gumbo to offer the world jazz and jazz funerals, Creole and Cajun cuisine, and many more cultural and culinary gems that are pure New Orleans.
Indisputably the birthplace of jazz, from the genre’s earliest form as ‘dixieland’, New Orleans is a veritable breeding ground of musicality. Jazz will always bring music lovers to its streets and bars, but the New Orleans can lay claims to wider musical contributions, helping to shape rhythm and blues, funk, and hip hop. From this city, hailed artists as varied and as legendary as Louis Armstrong, who started out playing on riverboat cruises, the jazz musician Fats Domino, and his producer Dave Bartholomew, who were instrumental in shaping rhythm and blues, bringing in a Cuban influence superimposing the tresillo motif into the swing rhythm, the lounge crooner Harry Connick Jr, rapper Lil Wayne, and – perhaps the artist best embodying New Orleans’ idiosyncratic cross-cultural fusions – Dr John, a pianist who’s worked with the Rolling Stones and Van Morrison, and whose musical journey incorporates a colourful patchwork of blues, funk, voodoo, R&B, rock and roll, boogie woogie, and everything in between. The early 1990s saw New Orleans’ emergence into the hip hop scene with the establishment of No Limit Records (now New No Limit Records) and Cash Money Records, producing rappers ranging from C-Murder, Mystikal, Soulja-Slim, BG, Juvenile to Lil’Wayne, and the city’s own unique contribution to the hip-hop genre has been its energetic style called ‘bounce music’, originating from New Orleans’ housing projects in the late 1980s, characterised by call-and-response style party and Mardi Gras Indian chants. Also emerging from New Orleans in the 1980s was its active metal scene, particularly the ‘Louisiana sound’ pioneered by the metal band Exhorder, who were the first to combine doom metal and up-tempo thrash metal. It’s clear to see that fusion and creativity continues to innovate New Orleans’ music scene.
The beating heart of New Orleans still remains the French Quarter, the very area from which the city first sprang in 1718, although little remains of the original French style, with much of it destroyed in the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 and another major fire in 1794, by which time the city’s new Spanish overlords took the opportunity to leave their stamp on the city. However, the pastel hues of the roofs and walls and elaborately decorated ironwork balconies and galleries transport today’s visitor back to the fashions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the 19th century traditions of marching bands lives on today, continuing to breathe life and reminding us of a city which has always pulsated with music and dance, right back to the early 19th century when slaves would congregate on Congo Square in 1835 to play music and dance on Sundays, and the local daily paper (the Picayune) complained of brass bands found on every corner of the city in 1838. As early as the 1830s, the groundwork for thecultural mix of African and European influences on New Orleans’ musical contributions was laid, and the city has certainly made a name for itself as one of America’s great music cities, producing sounds as vibrant as its colourful Mardi Gras pageants and as distinctively New Orleanian as the city’s unique cuisine, which is widely regarded as the most distinctively recognised regional cuisine in the States. Since its founding, the French Quarter has seen its fortunes change many times; its face has changed from fashionable to seedy, it has been the meeting place of cultures, it has been ravaged by fire, and it has survived the notorious Hurricane Katrina, remaining substantially dry following the floods, and largely escaping the looting and violence that occurred after the storm; nearly all of its antique shops and art galleries were left untouched. By the late 19th century, the French Quarter became a less fashionable area, attracting many immigrants from southern Italy and Ireland instead, while the French Creole influence in the Quarter had long been on the wane, since before the Civil War. When Storyville - the city’s red light zone - closed in 1917, vice crept back into the French Quarter, which was, along with the loss of the French Opera House in 1919, the last straw for many of the last remaining French Creole families in the area, many of whom moved to the more fashionable University area. However, the cheap rents and air of decay that cloaked the French Quarter by the early 20th century attracted a bohemian artistic community, and with these new residents came a new determination to preserve the area, with the first preservation efforts in the Quarter beginning around this time. But whilst the French Creoles might have wished to avoid the seediness of the French Quarter, it’s also been the district’s major draw for many. The area - particularly around Bourbon Street, one of New Orleans’ best-known streets - became a hub for prostitution, gambling and vaudeville acts, and it became a vibrant breeding ground for the new jazz sound, with early artists such as King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton providing musical entertainment at brothels. Although named after the ruling house of France at the time of the city’s foundation in 1718, visitors may be forgiven for thinking the street was named after the alcoholic spirit, as Bourbon Street is famous for its revelry and nightlife. Fluorescent at night with neon lights, and pulsating with music, with windows and doors flung open to the wandering crowds, this street gave rise to the ‘go cup’, the hurricane cocktail, and ‘huge-ass beers’. By sharp contrast, Royal Street - one of New Orleans’ original streets - boasts a reputation for its opulent antique shops and art galleries! However, it would be unfair to characterise all of Bourbon Street as bawdy; most of the bars are located in its central section, but its most renowned restaurant - Galatoire’s - represents traditional New Orleans dining, and stipulates a dress code. Founded by Jean Galatoire in 1905, the restaurant is the hot spot for upscale lunch on Fridays, and dinners any night of the week, specialising in French Creole cuisine.
Whilst the city is renowned for its vivacious energy, hosting no less than 130 festivals a year, there is no bigger party in the city than Mardi Gras - the king of New Orleans celebrations - and it’s a celebration so big that it is not confined to one single day. From Twelfth Night - 6 January - the city eats, adorns costumes, bead-tosses, and parades in ever greater intensity until Ash Wednesday. Glittering balls behind closed doors, King Cakes, and flambeaux processions are just some of the many and varied traditions that make Mardi Gras in New Orleans so unique, and such an incredible spectacle.
Away from the flamboyance, New Orleans has another unique face. Just as synonymous with the city as jazz and jambalaya, is voodoo, which first came to Louisiana with slaves hailing from West Africa and merged with the religious rituals and practices of the local Catholic, Creole population. This is a city of superstition and magic, and gris-gris dolls, potions and talismans are as prevalent in its shops as musicians are on its street corners, and corner grocery stores stock House Bless Spray and Away All Evil Spirits furniture cleaner. From the city’s earliest days, burying those residents that have departed this mortal coil has been a problem, with the solution being to entomb the deceased in elaborate marble chambers above ground, creating cemeteries that are hauntingly beautiful and distinctive, with a Gothic air. A guided tour of one of the ‘Cities of the Dead’ is often described as a must-do experience whilst visiting New Orleans. An air of the supernatural pervades the city, as much as New Orleans boasts a bohemian bon homie.
The melting pot of French, Spanish and West African influences can also be found in the city’s unique fusion of Creole cuisine, which takes particular inspiration from French food, making use of rich sauces and complex preparation techniques, but also making use of local ingredients such as onions, bell peppers, celery, tomatoes, and okra. Creole’s culinary cousin - Cajun cuisine - is also based partly on French cuisine, and uses onions, bell peppers, and celery, but tends to be hearty and rustic, easier to prepare but optimising flavour, and using more shellfish, pork, and game, than the fish preferred in Creole dishes. Whilst not always spicy, Cajun food is renowned for its unique use of seasonings, particularly garlic, hot peppers, and filé powder. While the Creoles are the descendants of French and Spanish settlers in Louisiana (some of whom are of mixed race with West African and Native American ancestry),the Cajuns descend from the Acadians, French-Canadian colonists who were expelled from the Maritimes by the British before settling in rural areas of southern Louisiana in the 1760s and 1770s. Some of the city’s most famous dishes - gumbo and jambalaya, for example - can be prepared either as a Creole or a Cajun speciality, with both culinary schools laying claim to these staples.Soul food is the third culinary contribution New Orleans has offered the world and is the most closely related to the cuisine of the Southern United States, but its origins trace back to West Africa, with its hearty and flavourful dishes made with economical ingredients. With the New Orleans positioned where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico, its residents are spoilt for choice for seafood, with access to a rich variety of both saltwater and freshwater fish and shellfish, not least of all crawfish, which is celebrated with more than one dedicated festival during crawfish season around the end of April and beginning of May, including the annual NOLA Crawfish fest, a three-day extravaganza during which the NOLA Crawfish King boils over 6,000lbs of crawfish, along with live music performances and competitions, including a crawfish cook-off and an eating competition, and an annual Cosmic Crawfish Ball, complete with fire dancers and crawfish races, as well as music, food and beer. While 50 four-member boil teams compete at the Crawfish Mambo for $1000 in prize money, the Championship Paddle, and bragging rights for a year, visitors can also join in the ‘Crawfish Peel N’ Eat Competition.’ With such a celebration of crawfish, it is of little surprise that Crawfish etouffee is another New Orleanian favourite. Coming from the French word ‘to smother’, crawfish etouffee is best described as a very thick stew, seasoned ‘to perfection’, and filled with delicious, plump crawfish, served over rice. In many ways, it’s similar to gumbo, featuring a lot of the same Creole seasonings, served over rice, and made with a roux, but it is the roux which largely distinguishes it from gumbo, as it uses a ‘blonde’ roux, giving a lighter colour and a very different flavour that’s almost sweet. Oysters are another popular shellfish in New Orleans - after all, this is the city that invented oysters Rockefeller in 1889 at Antoine’s, one of America’s oldest family-run restaurants still standing, and oysters Bienville, a dish created at Arnaud’s, featuring baked oysters in a shrimp sauce, and again, they have their own festival held in June, and feature in the three-day Louisiana Seafood Festival every Labor Day weekend, which brings together what New Orleans loves best, music, food, and dance. The festival features some of the city’s best-known and best-loved restaurants, including Acme Oyster and Seafood House, renowned for its trailing queues waiting in mouth-watering anticipation to savour the restaurant’s famous ‘oysters and beer,’ which have been hailed as ‘identical to those served in heaven’, Drago’s Seafood Restaurant, best known as the proud home of the original charbroiled oyster, Galatoire’s, and Red Fish Grill, a frequent winner at New Orleans Po Boy Festival (another foodie festival dedicated to the city’s specialty sandwiches), and named one of the Best Seafood Restaurants in the nation by Travel + Leisure and readers of USA Today.
The United States of America is an immigrant nation, a melting pot of different cultures from both European and African descent. The histories of its cities may not span more than a couple of centuries, but Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans - three of its greatest ‘music cities’ - each boast legacies of cultural wealth and culinary delight, offering unique and distinct experiences to excite all the senses, and, of course, that legendary Southern charm and hospitality.
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