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Tennessee’s musical history will always show up to surprise you, if you keep your eyes open.
In the southwest, there’s Memphis, the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll and home of the blues. In the northeast, Bristol calls itself the Birthplace of Country Music. Between them, there exists every style imaginable – rock, pop, soul, gospel, classical, bluegrass, hip-hop and more.
The 20-foot guitar welcoming Bristol’s visitors may be the most obvious sign of how seriously it takes its musical heritage. The town hosts live outdoor music at least twice a week in the summer, near the site of the 1927 recording sessions that introduced Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family and established country music as a commercial force.
Knoxville & Pigeon Forge
In Knoxville to the southwest, public-radio station WDVX once broadcast out of a camper, but now it calls the 100-year-old Knoxville Visitor’s Center home. It offers weekday live roots-music broadcasts called the Blue Plate Special. Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge celebrates the music and culture of one of the state’s home-town entertainment icons.
From Dollywood, you can get back on I-40 and set out for Nashville – going through Cookeville, home of the Bryan Symphony Orchestra, one of at least a dozen orchestras in the state – or take I-75 to Chattanooga, the birthplace of R&B star Usher and blues legend Bessie Smith. The city’s more famous as the subject of Glen Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” That 1941 big-band classic did more for Chattanooga’s reputation as a railroad hub than as a musical destination, but it shows just how much power a song can have.
Heading up I-24 from Chattanooga to Nashville, you’ll pass Manchester, the site of the annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, where 80,000 people stream into a former hay field each June.
Nashville, of course, has its own festivals, ranging from the Jefferson Street Jazz and Blues Festival and the rock-oriented Next Big Nashville to the CMA Music Festival. While Nashville boasts the Bluebird Café, where country songs often start, and the Grand Ole Opry, where they ideally wind up, top recording talent from all genres calls the city home.
Don’t miss the gift shop of Loretta Lynn’s ranch, about an hour west of Nashville off I-40, in Hurricane Mills. It’s a collector’s dream with hundreds of autographed personal items. Not far from there, the plane carrying Lynn’s friend, Patsy Cline, tore apart in the tall oaks and tulip poplars on a remote hillside off Mt. Carmel Road near Camden in 1963.
Jackson & Memphis
Halfway between Nashville and Memphis, Jackson has the International Rock-A-Billy Hall of Fame, but rockabilly’s ground zero is 706 Union Avenue, or Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis cut early classics. Enjoy more of that city’s music at the Memphis Rock N Soul Museum on the blues mecca of Beale Street, as well as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music on East McLemore, but pay attention in the neighbourhood. The one-time homes of musical greats like Aretha Franklin and Memphis Slim sit within blocks, all unmarked. Graceland, the former home of the city’s most famous resident, is well marked – the street’s named Elvis Presley Boulevard, after all. Stop by on a Sunday, and you can also take in a worship service at the Rev. Al Green’s Full Gospel Tabernacle, just a couple miles south.
In Memphis, as in the rest of Tennessee, there’s always a musical adventure just around the corner, if you spend a few minutes looking for it.
Though often associated with Detroit, Aretha Franklin was the first female Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, born at 406 Lucy Street in Memphis, while her father, the renowned preacher C.L. Franklin, pastured the New Salem Church there.
Dolly Parton, the country’s blonde bombshell, was born in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Locust Ridge, near Sevierville. She has immortalised her childhood there in songs like “Coat of Many Colours” and “My Tennessee Mountain Home.”
Usher, born Usher Raymond IV, is the Grammy-winning singer of urban hits like “Yeah!” and “Trading Places” and spent his early childhood in Chattanooga, where he developed his love of singing in the youth choir at the St. Elmo Missionary Baptist Church.
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