Excellent tunes are a must for any good road trip. When planning your next vacation, though, how about adding in a little music history and learning more about the legends behind the music?
Whether it’s homes of famous musicians, recording studios, or the factories that built the instruments, the USA is chock full of destinations that helped put the blues, rock & roll, country, and R&B on the map.
So, where to begin? The Crossroads, naturally.
That’s the spot in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where, circa 1930, Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil to play the blues like no other. Whatever Johnson did certainly worked, as songs like “Cross Road Blues,” “Love in Vain,” and “Traveling Riverside Blues” inspired—and continue to inspire—generations of blues players and rock and rollers. A giant guitar sign at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49 marks the spot of Johnson’s alleged pact.
While learning more about beginnings, it’s also worth a trip to Owensboro, Kentucky, home of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum. Located about a half an hour from Bill Monroe’s boyhood home, the museum celebrates America’s “high lonesome sound,” a fusion of blues, jazz, and the folk traditions of Ireland and Britain. Once you’re finished up there, drive about two hours to Nashville to visit the Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman was the historic home of the Grand Ole Opry and still operates to this day as a concert venue. Monroe and countless other bluegrass and country legends have performed there over the years.
Rock and roll burst onto the scene in the 1950s. Naturally, we have to pay homage to The King himself: Elvis Presley. In Tupelo, Mississippi, you can see the humble two-room house where Presley was born in 1935. The grounds include a museum, an events center, and a church where the Presleys worshiped. For more of The King, head over to his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. Sure, you could just take a few photos outside, but, really, you MUST see the interior and the grounds. It’s a wacky experience full of shag carpets, jungle rooms, and peanut butter and banana sandwiches. You can even board Elvis’ private plane. Amazingly, Graceland is the second most-visited house in the U.S. (after that other one in Washington D.C.).
While you’re in Memphis, make sure to stop by Sun Studio, where Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins recorded some of their earliest tunes and collaborated on the famous “Million Dollar Quartet” session. Oh yeah, “Rocket 88,” considered by many to be the first rock and roll record, also was cut there in 1951.
To complete your 1950s circuit, go deep in the heart of Texas to Lubbock. There, you’ll find the Buddy Holly Center, a museum that preserves the legacy of the man behind “Peggy Sue,” “Everyday,” “That’ll Be the Day,” and so many other classics. Outside the museum, there’s not only a life-sized statue of Holly playing guitar, but also a 750-pound glasses sculpture in honor of the bespectacled rocker.
Speaking of guitars, Holly famously played a Fender Stratocaster. While there are many historic guitar factories you could visit in the USA, your author is a loyal Fender player and so he’s going to tell you to visit the Fender Factory in Corona, California. Take a tour and see how Fender’s craftspeople turn blocks of wood into the classic Strat, Telecaster, and Jaguar designs. Once you’ve finished the tour, grab a guitar off the wall and join fellow tour members in the jam room.
Finish off the 1950s with a trip to the Windy City and Chess Records on South Michigan Avenue. The Chess label featured Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy, among other legends. Their landmark recordings inspired so many young musicians of the time, including the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. In the 1990s, Dixon purchased and restored the building, transforming it into a blues museum and offering educational programs for children, students, and blues enthusiasts.
When it comes to the Sixties, travel back to the Summer of Love with a stroll through the trippy Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. Stop at 710 Ashbury Street to see the Victorian home where members of the Grateful Dead lived and made music together. After that, be sure to check out Jefferson Airplane’s pad at 2400 Fulton Street (referenced in their 1987 compilation album of the same name).
For a completely different vibe, you should visit Woodstock, New York, nestled in the Catskills. That’s where Bob Dylan sought refuge from fame in the late 1960s and where he, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel (a.k.a. The Band) made the magical Basement Tapes in “Big Pink” over the course of 1967 and 1968. The Big Pink house, which actually is in nearby Saugerties, also inspired the title of The Band’s first album Music from Big Pink. (Dylan’s painting of the house was featured on the album cover.) Big Pink is a private residence, so, if you decide to swing by for a quick glimpse, please be respectful of the current owners and their neighbors.
For more and more hit-making, be sure to visit the Motown Museum in Detroit and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield, Alabama. The Motown Museum once was the recording studio and residence of Berry Gordy and Motown Records. A staggering array of talent recorded at “Hitsville U.S.A.,” including Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and the Jackson 5, to name just a few.
Many miles away in Alabama, artists such as the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Paul Simon, Cher, and Bob Seger all laid down tracks at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, located on the Jackson Highway. Muscle Shoals perhaps is best known for “The Swampers,” the backing band that played on so many classic recordings there, including “I’ll Take You There” and “Sitting in Limbo.” Lynyrd Skynyrd famously celebrated these players in “Sweet Home Alabama”: “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers / And they’ve been known to pick a song or two (yes they do) / Lord, they get me off so much / They pick me up when I’m feeling blue, now how ’bout you?”
If you’re looking for slightly more recent music history, there’s no shortage of sites either. You could visit Prince’s Paisley Park compound in Chanhassen, Minnesota, about 25 minutes from Minneapolis. Or pay tribute to legendary hip hop group Run-D.M.C by taking in their East Village mural. Or venture deep in the heart of Death Valley to see the site of U2’s Joshua Tree album cover. Or head up north to Seattle and the Museum of Pop Culture, home to exhibits and artifacts from Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and that city’s grunge scene in the 1990s.
Once you’ve visited all these places and taken in all the music history, make sure to stop by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville to tie it all together. After all you’ve seen, you probably could give a tour yourself.
So like another great American song goes: What did I miss?
Add your comments below—we hope to continually update this post and map with more and more great music destinations!
- The Johnny Cash Museum & Cafe, Nashville, TN
- The Stone Pony, Asbury Park, NJ
“Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!” by Aaron Van Dike. Available via Flickr. Made available through Creative Commons license: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). No changes were made.