New Americana Music Triangle sings the praises of
So much of America's music today was birthed in the Deep South, reaching up from New Orleans like an inverted triangle through the Mississippi Delta into Memphis and Nashville, Tenn., and spreading into states on both sides. Music lovers searching for the origins of blues, jazz, country, and rock ’n’ roll have numerous attractions to visit where these genres began and developed, but where to start?
The myriad of Southern musical heritage sites and the sometimes complicated history of America's music prompted historic preservationist Aubrey Preston to establish the non-profit Americana Music Triangle, a website that offers tourist information across state lines.
A Labor of Love
The Americana Music Triangle features 30 communities in five states and ties them together along a 1,500-mile stretch of highways called the Gold Record Road. There's Highway 61 in Mississippi, for instance, also known as the Blues Highway, where many great blues musicians got their start and traveled to places like Memphis to record. There's Interstate 10 in Louisiana, which connects New Orleans’ jazz and its other musical genres to the Cajun and zydeco music of Lafayette and Opelousas. And then there's Interstate 40 in Tennessee between Memphis and Nashville, where some of the most famous musicians traveled back and forth during their careers.
The trail feeds through the larger cities such as Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, and Jackson, Miss., before diverting to smaller communities rich with various music traditions.
“It's been an effort by people who love music and love history,” Preston said of the Americana Music Triangle. “It gives a nice dose of Southern hospitality to our readers to find the people, places, and things of our music in this region.”
The website offers timelines of musical genres such as jazz, blues, bluegrass, and gospel, to name a few, and Southern radio stations and studios that gave the music its audience, all written by experts in the field. There's also a general timeline that ties it all together.
“We made a strong effort to make it a simple, intuitive interface,” Preston explained. “We wanted to do one thing well, like Starbucks, to narrow our focus for people to access information on music.”
The Americana Music Triangle is also broken up into driving trails, giving tourist information on large attractions, such as Elvis Presley's Graceland, to smaller sites, such as the Tupelo hardware store where Elvis purchased his first guitar. Preston believes the smaller sites are as important as the larger ones.
“Tupelo Hardware is just like, wow,” he said. “Think about how much the world's been impacted by that one decision. We’re passionate about connecting people to these places and there are so many of them.”
Here is a sample of the cities, towns, and sites along the trail.
A Southern soundtrack
Located in the Arkansas Delta, Helena has been home to numerous blues musicians, as well as Levon Helm of The Band, and Conway Twitty. King Biscuit Time at the Delta Cultural Center is the longest-running daily blues show in the country, on air since 1941.
Along Highway 40 from Memphis to Nashville, known as the Beale to Broadway trek, are several attractions, from Loretta Lynn's Hurricane Mills ranch to the newly opened Tina Turner Museum at Flagg Grove School. Memphis offers numerous museums – Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, Stax Museum of American Soul, Sun Studio, and Graceland – explaining the city's musical role in recording and spreading America's new sound from the 1950s on.
In Nashville, visitors can get an overview to country and its related genres through the Country Music Hall of Fame, in addition to attending the historical Grand Ole Opry and hearing up-and-coming artists in local venues.
Visitors to Lafayette and Opelousas are treated to authentic Cajun and zydeco music in dancehalls and other venues, in addition to world-renowned festivals such as Festival International de Louisiane in April and the Original Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival on Labor Day weekend.
“Music is not background noise in these parts,” said Herman Fuselier, Opelousas journalist and music historian. “Cajun music and zydeco are family traditions, economic drivers, tourism magnets. The rest of America may think of an accordion as a nerdy, old-fashioned instrument. Here, Cajun and zydeco accordion players are star quarterbacks who date the head cheerleaders. They win GRAMMYS, draws tens of thousands to festivals and trail rides, tour around the world.”
One of the most fascinating cities not widely known for its musical heritage is Muscle Shoals, Ala., where FAME studio cranked out numerous hits with its rhythm section, the Swampers, four men who went on to create their own studio at 3614 Jackson Highway and produced even more hits. Both are open for tours, constantly amazing visitors learning of the stars who came to this small town to make music.
“We've cut some of the greatest records in the world,” said FAME founder Rick Hall, listing Wilson Picket, Aretha Franklin, the Osmonds, Otis Redding, and many more.
Of course, New Orleans is known for its jazz but so many other musical genres as well, such as brass bands and funk. Visitors can hear live music on any day of the week at numerous venues throughout the city. For the purists, Preservation Hall in the French Quarter still performs traditional Dixieland jazz.
Now hear this
Events held along the Americana Music Triangle's routes are listed on the website. Spring events include the 17th annual Dewey Balfa Cajun and Creole Heritage Week in Lafayette; the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Miss.; the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans; and the Bull Pen Blues and BBQ Festival in Oakman, Ala.
The Americana Music Triangle has no staff and formal funding, reliant upon volunteers for its upkeep and tourism types for spreading the word. Since the website's debut last year, the word is getting out, Preston said.
“We've had over 600 million impressions (on the website) worldwide,” he said. “We've seen a renaissance vibrancy of interest in America's music and these towns.”
But then, American music can be heard around the world, spawning a constant interest in viewing its origins, Preston said.
“It's the most powerful language in the world,” he said. “It's the blueprint that almost all popular music works off of.”
Cheré Coen is a contributor from Lafayette, La.
March/April 2016 Issue
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