Touring America’s music meccas

FLORIDA may be slipping down the US hit parade this summer, but Memphis and the southern music tours are riding high in the charts.

Buoyed by the success of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and the perennial appeal of Elvis, operators are looking south for inspiration.

With a song sheet full of itineraries and destinations, it can be hard to know where to start. One good place is Rhythms of the South (, a consortium of three major southern music cities – Atlanta, New Orleans and Nashville.

Although Memphis is not part of the alliance, it is within pickin’ distance of Nashville and the Mississippi Delta.

Most operators offer both flydrives and escorted tours.The latter are often led by guides with a rich, anecdotal musical knowledge. They can’t, however, offer the freedom of a tailor-made flydrive.

Driving through Mississippi, clients might want to detour to Tupelo – Elvis’s birthplace – or the crossroads in Clarksdale, where Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil.

Trundling down Highway 61 or crisscrossing the back roads of Mississippi in your own set of wheels is an experience that few music junkies will be able to resist.

New Orleans, which claims to be the birthplace of modern American music, is the natural starting point for a musical flydrive.

Although operators report a reluctance of some holidaymakers to include New Orleans, the home of jazz is firing on all cylinders as far as tourism is concerned. I visited for Mardi Gras in February and in the touristy areas it was business as usual.

Packaged tours tend to concentrate on Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville but can incorporate other destinations. Atlanta, although not really a music destination, is the gateway city to the south – served direct from the UK by both Delta Air Lines and British Airways.

Music lovers should head east from Atlanta to Athens where the B52s and later REM surfaced, and to Macon, whose A-list includes the Allman Brothers, Otis Redding and Little Richard.

A tailor-made itinerary would also give clients the choice of taking Highway 61 through Mississippi or the scenic Natchez Trace, which passes Tupelo and ends up near Nashville.

The south’s premier music event is the New Orleans Jazz Festival in April but there are many more to choose from including the Elvis Presley Festival in June in Tupelo and Greenville’s Mississippi Delta Blues Festival in September.


Palm SpringsWhere:Palm Springs is in the heart of the Coachella Valley, a two-hour drive from Los Angeles.

On the stereo: the laid-back Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, held the last week of April, is a sort of Glastonbury in the sand. It attracts both indie and mainstream bands.

Backstage pass: cool clubs and even cooler hotels dot the various desert communities that line the valley floor.

Access all areas: for some high-end shopping, a mega-outlet mall will satisfy the most committed shoppers. The Palm Springs Ariel Tramway whisks visitors 6,000 feet into the San Jacinto Mountains in less than 15 minutes. Ski in the morning and horseback ride along the Indian Canyon’s desert floor in the afternoon.

Sample product: Virgin Holidays offers 10 nights’ accommodation from £739 per person in April 2007, based on two sharing. This includes Virgin Atlantic flights, three nights at the Wyndham Palm Springs and car hire. 

NashvilleWhere: In southern Tennessee, Nashville is the bona fide country music capital of the world.

On the stereo: Nashville attracts every country singer and band from mega stars to mega-hopefuls. The legendary Grand Ole Opry live country TV show is held at Opryland in Music Valley. This vast complex includes the Grand Ole Opry House and the Opryland Hotel, where many Americans spend their entire vacation. The Country Music Awards take place in November and the CMA Music Festival in June.

Backstage pass: Memphis has Sun Studios and Nashville has RCA Studio B, where the Nashville Sound was created. Elvis recorded a Christmas album there and you can cut your own Elvis track in the 1950s-style studio. The Country Music Hall of Fame is a must, as is ‘the Mother Church of Country Music’, the Ryman Auditorium.

Access all areas: The Blue Meade and Hermitage plantation homes are worth a visit and the Parthenon is the world’s only full-scale reproduction of the iconic Greek temple.

Sample product:North America Travel Service offer seven nights’ accommodation (four nights in Nashville, three in Memphis) from £845 per person in July, based on two sharing. The price includes return flights on Delta from Gatwick or Manchester and seven days’ Alamo Gold car hire.

AustinWhere: in the heart of Texas, the state capital is a surprisingly liberal city.

On the stereo: it’s not so much who comes from Austin, but who comes to Austin. South by Southwest, one of the world’s leading music industry gatherings takes place in May, attracting hundreds of up-and-coming bands, music industry types, wannabes and regular music lovers – this year the US discovered the UK’s Arctic Monkeys, and the UK discovered the US’s Tapes’n Tapes. Austin also hosts the PBS television show Austin City Limits and tickets are available for recordings.

Backstage pass: Austin bills itself as the live music capital of the world and that’s no pumped-up Texas claim. On weekends there are more than 200 live music venues to choose from. Many of these are centred on 6th and Red River streets. Another super-cool area to rock the night away is Guadaloupe Street, otherwise known as the Drag, bordering the University of Texas campus, where Janis Joplin was once a student. Stubbs’ Sunday Gospel Brunch on Red River St is a definite must.

Access all areas: the Texas State Capitol dominates Austin’s skyline and the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum brings visitors up to speed on colourful Texan history.

Sample product:America As You Like It offers seven nights’ bed and breakfast at the Clarion Hotel from £725, including return flights on American Airlines to Dallas Fort Worth and seven days’ economy car hire.

DetroitWhere: on the edge of Lake St Clair in the Great Lakes region, on the border with Canada.

On the stereo: the birthplace of Motown and techno, Detroit boasts a musical A list that rivals anywhere in the US. Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson lead the Motowners. Eminem, Kid Rock, the White Stripes and Ted Nugent represent the current crop. Other Detroiters include bluesmen John Lee Hooker, R & B stars Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett and let’s not forget Madonna. The Detroit Electronic Music Festival is held in May and the Detroit International Jazz Fest in September.

Backstage pass: the Motown Historical Museum – aka ‘Hitsville’ – and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame should not be missed.

Access all areas: a huge regeneration programme has turned around the fortunes of one of America’s most blighted city centres. An advantage of so many years of neglect is that many of Detroit’s stunning Art Deco buildings survived the developers’ wrecking balls. Remember that this is ‘Motor City’ –  recommend a visit to the Henry Ford Museum.

Sample product:America As You Like It offers four nights’ bed-and-breakfast accommodation at the three-star Comfort Inn Downtown from £679, based on two people sharing in July, including return flights on Northwest Airlines.


Escorted tours

Not everyone wants to drive themselves around the musical hotspots of the US.

Take a leaf out of the musicians’ book and get on the tour bus instead. Many operators offer coach tours with a musical theme. Here’s a selection of itineraries:

Cosmos Tourama offers the 13-day America’s Heart and Soul tour taking in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Louisville, Nashville and Memphis from £1,429 per person. Highlights include a Blues city tour in Chicago, the Motown Historical Museum in Detroit and the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Travelpack offers a 12-day Southern Rhythms tour, new for 2006. The round trip from Orlando includes time in Atlanta, Nashville and New Orleans and leads in at £1,262.

Jetsave offers an 11-day Southern Music and Dixieland tour. The round trip from Atlanta includes time in New Orleans and Nashville and leads in at £1,049.

North America Travel Service offers Tauck Tours’ Southern Charm Along the Mississippi itinerary, starting in Memphis and returning from New Orleans. The eight-night tour leads in at £1,950 per person and includes time in Memphis, Natchez, Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

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