Without much difficulty, the roots of most 20th century western popular music can be traced to one, 800-km-odd triangle of the USA.
It all began with the blues, born in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, towards the end of the 19th century. Around the same time, jazz flowered out of New Orleans, while a few years later, in the early 1900s, country music sprouted up in Nashville.
Urban migration saw bluesmen and Southern gospel drift north to Memphis, where black mixed with white, fuelling the birth of R&B, soul – and rock n’ roll, a genre said to be born the day Elvis stepped into Sun Studio in 1954.
In the words of John Lennon, “without Elvis there would be no Beatles.”
And without The Beatles, there would be little as we know it.
Today, experts claim a total of nine distinct musical genres were born in that thin sliver of earth that separates Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans.
I’d been longing to explore this “Mojo Triangle” since my teens, after first hearing Muddy Waters croon that he was a Mannish Boy. A visit to these three iconic towns – each steeped in their own, singular musical history – was more than just a holiday. The roots of my adolescent value system begin here; this was a cultural pilgrimage.
- Originally published in The National, March 2016
Now, a road trip needs a vehicle, and no ordinary set of wheels would do. Like a walking cliché, I plump for a metallic Mustang convertible, which makes light work of my journey down from Atlanta to pull up in Nashville, the proud home of country music. Among the most maligned of musical genres, the influence of country on popular music is easily overlooked. But rock n’ roll is often described as a blend of blues and country – of black rhythm and white melody.
Camped at the convenient, if generic, Comfort Inn Downtown, I make the short walk into the city’s relaxed, low-rise central hub, passing organic cafés, and trendy clothes boutiques, housed restored redbrick buildings which ooze an affluent, hipster charm.
A self-confessed agnostic, I begin at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a sprawling, lovingly curated institute (also home to the Taylor Swift Education Centre). I trace the music’s roots back to Britain, when immigrants brought their instruments and folksongs over to the promised land. Early “hillbilly” vinyls were pressed in Atlanta throughout the 1920s, but a sudden plummet in record production following the 1929 Wall Street crash meant it was radio which spread country music across the lands – and put Nashville at its centre. The Grand Ole Opry, a weekly live concert, is the longest-running radio show in history, celebrating 92 years on the airwaves this year.
Across the road stands the grand Ryman Auditorium, home of the broadcast from 1943 to 1974, and the city’s most iconic music venue.
All that was decades ago, but Nashville still proudly calls itself “Music City”.
Cruising the suburbs, it’s clearly a well-deserved title. A healthy recording and management hub exists in the Music Row district. A local free-sheet lists 19 different concerts, in six different genres, on the random Monday evening I’m in town (Tame Impala are at the Ryman). The city’s unassuming vibe has attracted famous residents including Swift, Ed Sheeran, The Black Keys and Jack White, who set up his recording studio/curio shop/vanity project Third Man Records in an industrial area south of the city centre. I stop by and cut a track straight to vinyl on his restored Voice-O-Graph, the same 1947 fairground novelty in which Neil Young recorded his 2012 LP A Letter Home.
- Broadway, Nashville
After dark I hit Broadway, a short neon nightlife stretch where you can’t walk more than a door or two without encountering a kicking cover band. I hit lucky at the Bootleggers Inn, home to a daringly dextrous twanging trio who make light work of an audience request for Django Reinhardt.
The cliché goes that everyone in Nashville is a guitarist. Walking home in the wee hours, I stoop down to pick up a discarded plectrum – it’s an advert for CVS Health. When even pharmacies advertise on guitar picks, you’ve got to figure that myth can’t be so far from the truth.
The next morning I split for Memphis, the other side of Tennessee’s musical coin. Separated by just a three-hour drive, the differing fortunes of The Volunteer State’s two great musical cities is stark and clear. Nashville has grown from 545,000 to 610,000 since the turn of the millennium, booming in employment, and dubbed “Nowville”. Meanwhile Memphis is ranked America’s “third most-miserable” and “second most dangerous” city.
Punctuated by boarded-up businesses and urban decay, there’s little to charm driving into the city. But Memphis won’t let you forget its greatest export. Once the regional hub for blues music, the historic central strip Beale Street glares and pounds like an amusement park of former glories – but it offers a great night out, a funky looseness lacking in Nashville’s Broadway. Nashville might boast the best players in the land, but Memphians know how to party.
- Beale Street, Memphis
Attracting musical tourists by the busload, there’s plenty to fill the days, too. Curated by The Smithsonian, Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum would be the ideal introduction to popular music for an alien visitor to planet earth.
Located out of town, on the site of the original recording studio, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music pays loving tribute to the label’s roster of forefathers including Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes and house band, Booker T and the MGs. The highlight is a period recreation of the institution’s fabled Studio A. The real thing was torn down in 1989, but outside, the iconic “Soulsville, USA” sign hangs triumphantly – like much of Memphis, it seems to be hiding the fact the real thing isn’t there anymore.
Not the case in Sun Studio, where zealous hourly tours lead devotees into the tiny, hallowed, crude recording space which launched the careers of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and, of course, Elvis Presley. The five double-side singles Presley recorded at Sun between July 1954 and July 1955 launched a superstar, and are credited with spawning the beast known as rock n’ roll – still arguably the most popular genre in the world (in 2014, 29 percent of all US music sales were classified “rock”, 12 percent more than “rap/hip-hop”, and twice “pop”).
It’s easy to mock The King – the jumpsuits, the peanut butter sandwiches, the untimely demise on the toilet. Not in Memphis where, amid the relentless reverence of omnipresent portraits and themed-menus, you’re never far from Presley’s spectre.
I decide to kitsch-out and drive down Elvis Presley Boulevard to Days Inn at Graceland, an Elvis-themed hotel complete with a guitar-shaped pool and three channels dedicated to playing The King’s Hollywood movies on loop.
I dine at the nearby steakhouse Marlowe’s, where I’m serenaded by an overzealous, overweight Elvis impersonator. I meet a 70-year-old local with a questionable toupee, who shares stories of “hangin’ with The King”.
The next morning I eat breakfast in the lobby, surreally surrounded by Presley portraits, and head into Graceland, the modest country mansion Elvis bought in 1957, and lived in with his parents until his death 20 years later. A beguilingly brash clash of tastes, today Graceland acts as a haunting open monument. Outside in the Peace Garden, watching rows of sobbing fans line up at The King’s grave; I wonder how many make this pilgrimage more than once. I’m just sad they wouldn’t show us the infamous toilet.
I came for kitsch, but after exiting through one of Graceland’s five gift shops, it’s with relief that I leave The King’s ghost and hit Route 61, the 2,300km “Blues Highway” which snakes alongside the Mississippi River, immortalised in the title track to Bob Dylan seminal 1965 electric LP Highway 61 Revisited.
Soon we hit the Mississippi Delta, the 10,000 sqkm area of fertile land associated with poverty, cotton, and the blues. Today we encounter an eerie, flat, green, land of corrugated iron shacks, pawn shops and casinos.
I stop in Clarksdale, a tiny town of 18,000 which acted as the delta’s epicentre. Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil at the town’s crossroads (a fiction commemorated neatly with a plaque). Bessie Smith died at the Riverside Hotel. The “Father of the Blues” WC Handy published the first known blues sheet music in 1912, after overhearing a busker playing a primitive slide guitar, while waiting for a train from Clarksdale.
Today an old depot on the same railroad has been converted into the small but passionate Delta Blues Museum, which traces the music back through the town’s former residents Son House, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. The main attraction is the very same wooden shack in which Waters lived in at nearby Stovall Farms, where first field recordings were made for The Library of Congress by Alan Lomax in 1941.
Movingly, I only found out later that BB King, who was born 50km east of Highway 61 in Itta Bena and first found fame in Memphis, died the day I drove through the Delta, aged 89.
If blues is the music of the fields, then it was the city that spawned jazz. The final stop on my trip lies some 500km south, where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico: New Orleans.
Despite my taxi driver’s best efforts to dissuade me otherwise, I begin at
Louis Armstrong Park, the unremarkable public space sitting on what used to be Congo Square, established in 1917 as a place where African-American slaves were allowed to congregate on Sundays throughout the 19th Century. It was here that African tribal rhythms and rituals mixed with the European classical influence of educated, suddenly outcast Creoles. Added to the stew were the syncopated rhythms of ragtime, and the bent notes and dominant seventh chords of the blues. All cooked together with brass band instrumentation, jazz was born.
The park hosts statues celebrating Buddy Bolden, the mythical unrecorded cornetist credited with kickstarting the genre; Sidney Bechet, arguably the first notable improviser and saxophonist in jazz; and trumpeter/singer Armstrong, who famously turbocharged the city’s patented dixieland template to the more improvised “hot” form it was to become, laying the tracks all the way to bebop.
- Jazz in the French Quarter, New Orleans (image by Scott Myers)
Jazz is said to have germinated in Storyville, the 16-block red light district where prostitution was semi-legalised for two decades. While historians now widely dismiss this fairytale, it is true that when time was called on Storyville in 1917, most of the city’s notorious vice headed two blocks into the French Quarter, the historic centre founded by French settlers two centuries earlier. Later ruled by the Spanish, the area is delightful architectural mish-mash, disparate rows of brightly coloured two and three-storey buildings, punctuated with blooming balconies and hanging plants.
The central Bourbon Street may take its name from a French royal dynasty, but it’s with irony that the street today acts as a lowbrow tourist honeytrap, an unseemly cacophony of singles’s bars and gentlemen’s clubs. Yet amid it all, curious ears will encounter a pick n’ mix, sugar-rush treat. Throughout the quarter, and the neighbouring Faubourg Marigny district to the north, dozens of live music venues are liberally scattered, most hosting three or four different bands daily from mid afternoon.
At the end of my trip, I hit the scene in earnest – over two lazy afternoons I unwound to the sounds of more than a dozen sets, soaking up tight funk, ragged blues and tourist-friendly dixieland revivalists: A cross-country soundtrack taking in a dynamic arc of America’s contribution to the world of music, there could be no better end to my musical road trip. Next time: hip-hop and house.
Learn more at americanamusictriangle.com.