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The Best U.S. Cities to Visit Based on Your Taste in Music

A short history of southern rock, go-go, and other American music genres and where to catch the beat.

As settlers, explorers, colonists, and forcibly enslaved Africans moved centuries ago to the New World, they brought sounds from their homelands: crooning fiddles, clog-kicking folk tunes, church spirituals, and beating drums. In this melting pot of a nation, it’s no surprise that, over time, the sounds merged in different ways, picking up new, innovative sounds along the way. From country to jazz to southern rock to go-go, American music reflects its vast and varied histories and cultures, a story that continues to evolve. There’s no way in this short amount of space to recount the complex innuendos that went into the creation of American music. But this broad brush overview presents 10 distinctly American musical genres, with a glance at where and how they took off, as well as how to kick up your heels and join in the fun (and perhaps learn something along the way).

1 OF 10

If You Love Bluegrass

WHERE: Kentucky and Tennessee

A soulful blend of Scottish-Irish ballads and African gospel, bluegrass mixes fiddle, banjo, and bass musicians in a distinct clog-stomping style. Bill Monroe, a native of Rosine, Kentucky, is generally considered the “father of bluegrass.” After appearing on the Grand Old Opry in 1939 with his band, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, they became one of Nashville’s most popular touring acts. Some say that’s the moment when bluegrass was born, though others mark December 1945, when Earl Scruggs, a 21-year-old from North Carolina famous for his exuberant, three-finger picking on his banjo, joined the band. Soon after, Scruggs left the band to create a new one with Lester Flatt, elevating bluegrass music to even greater heights.

The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum, in Owensboro, Kentucky, features live music and exhibits that trace the rise of bluegrass. Other sites include the Bill Monroe Homeplace in Beaver Dam, Kentucky, Monroe’s boyhood home that’s open for guided tours; Rosine Cemetery, where he is buried; a replica of Uncle Pen’s Cabin, where Monroe learned to play music; and the Rosine Barn, the site of the annual Rosine Barn Jamboree, which hosts live music on Friday nights mid-March through mid-December (Monroe played here twice). And, of course, the Ryman Auditorium and Grand Old Opry in Nashville hark back to the days when bluegrass gained momentum.

2 OF 10

If You Love Jazz

WHERE: New Orleans, Louisiana

No one knows exactly when jazz was born. Some say it is rooted in New Orleans’ Congo Square before the Civil War. Others say it began in 1895 when Buddy Bolden started his first band. Or perhaps it was in 1917 when Nick LaRocca and his Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded the first jazz record, “Liberty Stable Blues.” Whatever the case, jazz originated among the African-American community in New Orleans, digging into blues and ragtime as its main influences. Today, this improvised, syncopated genre of music remains a mainstay along New Orleans’ festive streets, where you can hear it on corners, in jazz clubs, and nearly everywhere you turn.

The New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park hosts free performances and educational events in two locations around the French Quarter, and the New Orleans Jazz Museum presents in-depth exhibits about the history and culture of jazz. The absolute must-see is Preservation Hall, the city’s most famous jazz hall, though the Spotted Cat Music Club is always lively. Louisiana Music Factory is an independent record store on Frenchman Street that’s known around the world for its rich inventory of rare records and obscure titles by jazz artists.

3 OF 10

If You Love Country Music

WHERE: Nashville, Tennessee

The story goes that in the summer of 1927, Victor Records recorded musicians from throughout the Southeast in Bristol, on the Virginia/Tennessee border—including the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, both of whom became national successes. The U.S. Congress officially declared Bristol the birthplace of country music in 1998.

Even so, the place to see it come alive is Nashville—Music City—the dream of every country musician, which has its own origin story. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, which included members recently freed from slavery, mixed operatic singing with Black spirituals in the 1870s, and they became super popular, even singing before Queen Victoria in Great Britain. They were one of the first acts to play at the storied Ryman Auditorium, built in 1892 originally as the Union Gospel Tabernacle and still a popular music venue. Then in 1925, a radio station called WSM was established, featuring popular barn dances with live country music. They eventually needed an auditorium to accommodate the audience, and in 1927, the program, in its new space, became known as the Grand Ole Opry. Nearly every country singer, including Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash, all the way to current stars Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban, have played at the GOO. This explains the preponderance of recording studios and record labels that sprouted up along Music Row, the heart of Nashville’s entertainment industry.

The lively thrall of country music explodes at Broadway’s many honkytonks, which you can wander in and out of as you please, for free—try Legend’s Corner or Old Red, owned by country music star Blake Shelton. Here, too, is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, a deep dive into country music’s evolution, with more than 2.5 million artifacts on two floors (including Elvis’s 1960 gold Cadillac); and the new National Museum of African American Music, with interactive exhibits that celebrate the many different musical genres influenced and created by African Americans. Smaller museums include the Patsy Cline Museum and the Johnny Cash Museum, as well as the Historic RCA Studio B that Elvis made famous; he recorded 260 songs here, including his first number one hit, “Heartbreak Hotel,” in 1956. It goes without saying—every music lover must round out their country music visit with a night at the Grand Ole Opry and/or the original Ryman Auditorium.

4 OF 10

If You Love Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Blues

WHERE: Memphis, Tennessee

Perched on a Mississippi River bluff, at the crossroads of river trails used by Native Americans, enslavers, and explorers, Memphis is a melting pot of cultures. So it’s no wonder that musical styles collided, emerging into a new sound that became known as rock ’n’ roll. Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes” put Memphis on the map, defining the sound of ‘50s rock ’n’ roll—it was covered by everyone from Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran to Elvis Presley. The King of Rock ’n’ Roll, of course, lived at Graceland, his Memphis mansion filled with classic cars, gold records, and bejeweled jumpsuits—it’s one of the nation’s most visited sites.

But it’s not just about rock ‘n’ roll. Memphis musicians also created the depressing mood of Memphis Blues between the 1910s and 1930s, for which Beale Street became famed—and remains the neon-lit pedestrian street filled with live blues joints, including legendary BB King’s Blues Club; Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe & Honky Tonk; and Rum Boogie Cafe’s Blues Hall Juke Joint.

Sun Studio is the studio that Sam Phillips—one of the first white men to record Black rhythm ’n’ blues artists—opened in 1950. The following year, Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats recorded “Rocket 88,” considered the first rock ’n’ roll recording. James Cotton, B.B. King, and Johnny Cash recorded here, too, though probably its most famous musician was Elvis Presley. Tours of the meticulously preserved studio include the chance to pose with what is said to be the microphone used in 1954 to record “That’s All Right,” his first song for the label.

The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, a Smithsonian museum, recounts the story of Memphis music with costumes, authentic studio equipment, and instruments. Memphis Music Hall of Fame honors the most outstanding performers, writers, promoters, and radio professionals. And at the Arcade Restaurant, you can sample Elvis’ favorite griddle-fried-peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich at one of his favorite diners.

5 OF 10

If You Love Soul

WHERE: Augusta, Georgia

Soul music evolved in the 1950s throughout the South, melding R&B and gospel music with a dash of vocal intensity, soloist spotlights, and church-rooted call-and-response. Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Chuck Berry are some of the most iconic soul singers, though James Brown—The Godfather of Soul—brought the sound to an international audience. He hailed from Augusta, Georgia, and in this up-and-coming town, known most famously for hosting the Master’s golf tournament every spring, he is celebrated in museums, theaters, street art, and events throughout the year.

The James Brown Family Historical Tour is a comprehensive tour of James Brown sites around Augusta as shared by a James Brown family member. Or you can take a walking tour highlighting Brown’s old jaunts and commemorative locations with the James Brown Journey: The Soul Starts Here; it’s brought to life by Brown’s daughter, DeAnna Brown. Before leaving on world tours, Brown and his band, the Sound Generals, rehearsed at the Imperial Theatre; this is also where he held his toy giveaways to children in need at Christmas, a tradition that continues in his honor today. James Brown recorded his live album, Sex Machine, at the Bell Auditorium, still presenting live music today. The James Brown Arena is a popular concert venue named in Brown’s honor. More than 8,500 fans attended a public funeral at the arena following the star’s death in 2006.

6 OF 10

If You Love Hip-Hop

WHERE: The Bronx, New York

It’s said hip-hop jumped on the scene at a birthday party on August 11, 1973, in the west Bronx, presided over by the birthday girl’s brother, Clive Campbell—better known as DJ Kool Herc. He went on to be called the founding father of hip-hop. While music is at its core, with its rhythmic drum beats and rhyming, chanted speech, hip-hop is a cultural movement, that incorporates turntabling (creating music through the use of vinyl records on turntables), rapping, breaking, and graffiti art. Other influential artists include DJ Disco Wiz, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa, a former gang member who is credited with bringing the gospel of hip-hop first to white audiences and then to the rest of the world.

1520 Sedgwick Avenue is where the legendary birthday party took place, and Hip Hop Boulevard was renamed in honor of that history. The best way to visit sites is with Hush Hip Hop Tours, whose mission is to preserve the roots of hip-hop culture. There’s also the Universal Hip Hop Museum, in the Bronx, dedicated to celebrating and preserving hip hop.

7 OF 10

If You Love Motown

WHERE: Detroit, Michigan

Berry Gordy originated Motown in 1959 when he established a recording studio in Detroit where “a kid could walk in one door an unknown off the street and come out the other a polished performer.” Motown Records went on to produce its own sound, called Motown, showcasing upbeat melodies, killer hooks, and highly danceable rhythms. Gordy organized Motortown Revues, national concert tours in which soon-to-be-legendary artists—including Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, and Gladys Knight & the Pips—played throughout the eastern and segregated southern United States. They sometimes encountered threats from white locals but are credited with helping to break down color barriers in theaters. Motortown Revue went on to tour the rest of the U.S. as well as the U.K. and France.

The Motown Museum’s vast collections follow the rise of Motown music; exhibits change once or twice a year. The ornate, 5,048-seat Fox Theatre, which opened in 1928, has hosted show business’s biggest names—including Berry Gordy, who held his annual Motown Revue here. Fully renovated, it’s been designated a National Historic Landmark and continues to present some of music’s greatest acts, as well as comedy, dance troupes, and musicals.

8 OF 10

If You Love Southern Rock

WHERE: Macon, Georgia

In the heart of Georgia, the Allman Brothers crashed onto the music scene in the early ‘70s, with a subgenre of rock that became known as southern rock—a blend of rock, country music, and blues highlighted with electric guitar and vocals. Phil Walden and his brother Alan had represented a slew of R&B musicians, notably Otis Redding. When Redding died in 1967, the brothers, along with Frank Fenter and Jerry Wexler, started Capricorn Records, an independent record label founded in 1969 and originally called the Otis Redding Memorial Studio. In their search for talent, they tracked down Duane Allman, and together they built the Allman Brothers Band. Interestingly, singer-keyboardist Gregg Allman (and Duane’s brother) distanced the band from the term “southern rock.” He considered it redundant, since rock ‘n’ roll and all of its precedents, including jazz, gospel, blues, country, and bluegrass, originated in the South. Other notable Capricorn protégés include Otis Redding, the Marshall Tucker Band, and Wet Willie.

Capricorn Sound Studios and Museum is where the Allman Brothers and Charlie Daniels recorded before Capricorn’s heyday in the 1970s. A second-floor museum resembles a vinyl record store, where you can don headphones and listen to tunes that created Capricorn’s legacy. The Allman Brothers, Tom Petty, and Eric Clapton once riffed at the hallowed music hall, Historic Grant’s Lounge; it still hosts live performances. There’s also the Allman Brothers Band Museum at The Big House, the communal, Tudor-style home of the Allman Brothers Band, now a museum; and H&H Restaurant, founded in 1959 and the Allman Brothers’ favorite hangout. The Macon Music Trail is an online resource that showcases the city’s music history.

9 OF 10

If You Love Grunge

WHERE: Seattle, Washington

Grunge means grime or dirt—which went on to define a new sound coming out of Seattle in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Fusing metal and punk rock, grunge incorporated fuzz effects, feedback, guitar distortion, and anguished lyrics. The music form jumped onto the scene with C/Z Records’ release of Deep Six in 1986, introducing the world to Melvins, Green River, Malfunkshun, Soundgarden, Skin Yard, and the U-Men. Sub Pop, another record label founded in 1986, signed up major grunge players including Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney; they’re often credited with kick-starting the “grunge movement.” Although the sounds have changed, grunge (along with flannel shirts and Doc Martens) are what defined Seattle musically (and sartorially), and there are still traces to be found today.

Alice In Chains, Nirvana, and Soundgarden played at Central Saloon before headlining around the world; it still offers live performances. Check out the control room, lounge, and overdub studios at London Bridge Studio, where Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains recorded albums (tours by reservation only). “A Sound Garden” is the name of a public art piece in Magnuson Park, made up of 12 steel towers that produce grunge-like sounds when the wind blows right—the origin of Soundgarden’s name. Some music venues where grunge bands played early on are still open today, including The Crocodile (which has changed locations but is still the same storied club), El Corazón (called Off Ramp back then), and The Showbox. Shop for vinyl LP copies of every Sub Pop release (along with other wares and objets d’art) at the famous Sub Pop Airport Store at the SEA Airport and at Sub Pop on 7th, in the Belltown neighborhood.

10 OF 10

If You Love Go-Go Music

WHERE: Washington, D.C.

Who knew the nation’s capital was the source of a musical movement? But indeed, go-go, a subgenre of funk that adds rhythmic patterns and live audience call-and-response—and encourages dancing on and on (hence the “go-go”)—began here in the 1970s. Chuck Brown—the godfather of go-go—and his band the Soul Searchers are attributed as its creator, joined by the Young Senators and others, and it blew up the music scene in the 1990s and 2000s. At the time, the city’s Black mayor, Marion Barry; mostly Black city council; and majority Black population provided a prototype of Black success, and go-go became the city’s soundtrack. Mayor Muriel Bowser made it the official music of DC in 2020, with the promise to preserve the history and culture go-go has built.

Rare Essence and Trouble Funk can still be found performing go-go across DC today, and local radio stations still play marathon go-go sessions; the GOGO M.U.S.I.C. radio station plays it 24/7. Pay homage to Chuck Brown at the Chuck Brown Memorial Park at 20th and Franklin Streets NE. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has a floor dedicated to music, with a large go-go exhibition and some great Chuck Brown memorabilia. The MLK Library in downtown D.C. also has a large go-go exhibition.

tedpatchell2087 September 19, 2022

So many omissions! The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland. Everyone loves the live music in Austin. And my hometown of Philadelphia has an amazing musical history and present, with great venues.