The ultimate American music roots road trip

Travel to the birthplace of the blues, soul, rock’n’roll, jazz, house and rhythm and blues

As an American expat living in France, people love to talk to me about traveling to the States which is really cool. In my experience, the majority of people want to see—or have been to—New York, Miami, the Southwest, California or Route 66.

Inexplicably, the Midwest and the South get overlooked. I’ll give you that I’m biased because I’m from Chicago and have family scattered throughout the Midwest and the South. But no matter. If you’re a music lover, this road trip is a must.

It’s my mission to enlighten people about American music roots and encourage them to make this trip. My husband and I drew up this itinerary and traveled it a couple of years ago. It’s my go-to answer to anyone who asks me where to travel in the States.

Let me know what you think in the comments or contact me if you have any questions.

American music roots itinerary

Summary

  • Start/end city: Chicago, Illinois
  • Travel by vehicle
  • 12 days
  • 7 cities: Chicago, Memphis, Clarksdale, New Orleans, Nashville, Cleveland, Detroit
  • 2,500 miles / 3,950 km
DayActivityOvernight
1Visit ChicagoChicago, Illinois
2On the roadMemphis, Tennessee
3Visit MemphisMemphis, Tennessee
4On the road (Blues Trail), visit ClarksdaleClarksdale, Mississippi
5On the road (Blues Trail)New Orleans, Louisiana
6Visit New OrleansNew Orleans, Louisiana
7On the roadNashville, Tennessee
8Visit NashvilleNashville, Tennessee
9On the roadCleveland, Ohio
10Visit the Rock & Roll Hall of FrameCleveland, Ohio
11On the road, visit Motown RecordsDetroit, Michigan
12On the road

Day 1. Chicago

The Blues and the birth of House music

The playlist

What to see

  • Chess Records — 2120 South Michigan Avenue. Formed and run by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, was as company that produced and released many important singles and albums, which are now regarded as central to the blues and rock music genre. At one time, Chess Records was considered “America’s greatest blues label” with notable acts including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Etta James, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Willie Dixon was one of the main producers, songwriters and arrangers of the signature “Chess Records Sound”.
  • Honorary Frankie Knuckles Way — In August 2004 Jefferson Street between Monroe and Van Buren became honorary “The Godfather of House Music” Frankie Knuckles Way, near the site of the Warehouse, a club where Knuckles was DJ between 1977 and 1982.
  • The Warehouse and other iconic house clubs — 206 S Jefferson St. Formerly The Warehouse, the birthplace of house, with Robert Williams as owner & Frankie Knuckles as resident.

Where to party

In no particular order, Blue Chicago, Kingston Mines, Buddy Guy’s Legends, B.L.U.E.S., House of Blues Chicago, Rosa’s Lounge


Day 2. On the road

Chicago to Memphis
8 hours, 532 miles / 856km

The playlist


Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee
Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee / Photo by Heidi Kaden Lopyreva on Unsplash

Day 3. Memphis

Home of the blues, soul & rock’n’roll

What to see

  • Graceland — Graceland was Elvis Presley’s home for 20 years starting in 1957.
  • Sun Records — Sun Records is an American independent record label founded by Sam Phillips in Memphis, Tennessee in 1950. Sun was the first company to record Elvis Presley, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash.
  • Stax Records — Stax Records is critical in American music history as it’s one of the most popular soul music record labels of all time – second only to Motown in sales and influence, but first in gritty, raw, stripped-down soul music. In 15 years, Stax placed more than 167 hit songs in the Top 100 on the pop charts, and a staggering 243 hits in the Top 100 R&B charts.

Where to party

Beale Street — The music and entertainment pulse of downtown Memphis.


61 Highway Blues trail marker in Vicksburg, Mississippi
61 Highway Blues trail marker in Vicksburg, Mississippi / Photo by Jimmy Emerson on Flickr

Day 4.On the road, the Mississippi Blues Trail & Clarksdale

Delta blues territory

Memphis to Clarksdale via U.S. Route 61 the Mississippi Blues Trail
1h30min, 80 miles / 130km

The playlist

What to see

  • The Mississippi Blues Trail markers tell stories through words and images of bluesmen and women and how the places where they lived and the times in which they existed–and continue to exist–influenced their music. The sites run the gamut from city streets to cotton fields, train depots to cemeteries, and clubs to churches.
  • Clarksdale and the Devil’s Crossroads monument — The intersection of Mississippi Highways 61 and 49
  • The Delta Blues Museum — Clarksdale, Mississippi has been a center for blues culture since the 1920s. Its location as a transportation hub where Highways 61 and 49 connect, where the Illinois Central and other railroads maintained depots and passenger terminals, and where the Greyhound Bus Company built a station made Clarksdale an economic boom town. Flush times created audiences with money to spend for entertainment, and the blues flourished in the city. Many now-legendary musical artists were born and raised in and around Clarksdale: Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner, Jackie Brenston, Sam Cooke, Junior Parker, and W. C. Handy, among them. Clarksdale was a major market for the Delta’s constantly traveling musicians, and the likes of Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Charley Patton are also associated with the city. Today, that historic blues culture is preserved for visitors while contemporary musicians carry on the great Delta blues tradition.

Where to party

Ground Zero Blues Club, Red’s Blues Club


Dockery Farms, the birth of Delta Blues, Cleveland, Mississippi
Dockery Farms, the birth of Delta Blues, Cleveland, Mississippi / Photo by The old perfesser on Wikimedia Commons

Day 5. On the road, continue on the Mississippi Blues Trail

The birth of the Blues

Clarksdale to New Orleans via U.S. Route 61 the Mississippi Blues Trail
8 hours, 400 miles / 644km

The playlist

What to see

  • Dockery Farms Historic District — Take Route 8 for 8 miles at Cleveland, MS. Dockery Farms was established in 1895 to produce cotton, America’s biggest export at the time. African Americans who worked at Dockery, including blues pioneer Charley Patton, created a culture that inspired the music we know as the blues. These musicians, who lived on and around Dockery Farms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, invented a new style of singing and playing guitar. At Dockery Farms, they sang, played, and wrote the haunting songs that influenced music from jazz to rock & roll: Henry Sloan, Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Pops Staples, Honeyboy Edwards.

Brass band musicians on Frenchman Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
Brass band musicians on Frenchman Street, New Orleans, Louisiana / Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

Day 6. New Orleans

The birthplace of jazz

What to see

  • New Orleans Jazz Museum — The New Orleans Jazz Museum celebrates jazz in the city where it was born. Through dynamic interactive exhibits, multigenerational educational programming, research facilities and engaging musical performances, the music New Orleans made famous is explored in all its forms.
  • Louis Armstrong Park — In a city famous for its musical traditions, perhaps no other single location claims as much musical and cultural history and importance as Louis Armstrong. Located at 701 N. Rampart Street on the edge of the French Quarter, the park is dedicated to one of the City’s most celebrated native sons and to the tradition of jazz in the City. The park is located in the Tremé neighborhood, birthplace of many of New Orleans’ most famous jazz musicians.
  • Second line parade — Second line parades are the descendants of the city’s famous jazz funerals and, apart from a casket, mourners and a cemetery visit, they carry many of the same traditions with them as they march down the streets. There are dozens of different second line parades put on throughout the year, usually on Sunday afternoons, and held in the French Quarter and neighborhoods all across the city..

Where to party

Frenchman Street — Frenchmen Street is the capital of live music in New Orleans and one of the premiere nightlife destinations in the country. There are 20+ bars, venues, and restaurants all within a 2 block area, each hosting various live music events and shows 7 days a week 365 days a year.


Day 7. On the road

New Orleans to Nashville
8 hours, 540 miles / 870km

The playlist


​The Hall of Fame Rotunda in the Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville, Tennessee
​The Hall of Fame Rotunda in the Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville, Tennessee / Photo by Matthew LeJune on Unsplash

Day 8. Nashville

The epicenter of country music and bluegrass

What to see

  • Ryman Auditorium — “The Mother Church of Country Music”. When the the Grand Ole Opry put down roots here in 1943, the world would never be the same as the live radio and TV show brought the likes of Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Minnie Pearl, Patsy Cline, and Roy Acuff to the stage and into living rooms around the country for thirty one years. On December 8, 1945, Earl Scruggs made his debut with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, completing the historic line-up that would serve as the prototype for the bluegrass sound: Monroe on mandolin, Scruggs on banjo, Lester Flatt on guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Howard Watts on bass.
  • Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum — The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum seeks to collect, preserve, and interpret the evolving history and traditions of country music. Through exhibits, publications, and educational programs, the museum teaches its diverse audiences about the enduring beauty and cultural importance of country music.
  • RCA Studio B — Built by Dan Maddox in 1957, RCA Studio B first became known as one of the cradles of the “Nashville Sound” in the 1960s. A sophisticated style characterized by background vocals and strings, the Nashville Sound both revived the popularity of country music and helped establish Nashville as an international recording center.
  • Music Row — The fabled Music Row in Nashville forms a rectangle between Sixteenth and Seventeenth Avenues South and Division and Grand Streets. While tourists may be surprised to find that its outward appearance resembles a neighborhood punctuated by a few corporate office buildings, this tree-lined stretch is the heartbeat of Nashville’s music infrastructure. Major labels, publishing firms, booking agencies, and recording studios all call this area home as they generate musical products heard around the world.

Where to party

Broadway Street — Broadway is a major thoroughfare in the downtown area in Nashville, Tennessee. It includes Lower Broadway, an entertainment district renowned for honky tonks and live country music.

The Bluebeard Café — The 37-year-old Bluebird Cafe is Nashville’s best loved live music venue, featuring up-and-coming as well as hit songwriters in an intimate setting. The Bluebird Café is a listening room where the songs and the stories are the most important thing. Two shows nightly, seven nights a week. Reservations recommended.


Day 9. On the road

Nashville to Cleveland
8 hours, 530 miles / 853km

The playlist


The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio / Photo by Lance Anderson on Unsplash

Day 10. Cleveland

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — In 1983, Atlantic Records co-founder/chairman Ahmet Ertegun spearheaded the formation of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. Ertegun enlisted a group of music industry lifers—including Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau, attorney Suzan Evans, and record executives Seymour Stein and Bob Krasnow—and together the organization set out to celebrate the musicians who founded, changed and revolutionized rock & roll.

The nonprofit Foundation’s first goal was establishing the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In January 1986, the first class of inductees were honored at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Grand Ballroom. A few months later, Cleveland was selected as the permanent home of the brick-and-mortar Rock Hall.


Detroit, Michigan
Detroit, Michigan / Photo by Doug Zuba on Unsplash

Day 11. On the road and Motown Records

Cleveland to Detroit
2h 40min, 170 miles / 274km

The playlist

What to see

Motown Records — As an irresistible force of social and cultural change, Berry Gordy’s legendary Motown made its mark not just on the music industry, but society at large, with a sound that has become one of the most significant musical accomplishments and stunning success stories of the 20th century. Diana Ross & the Supremes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson & the Jackson 5, the Marvelettes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Lionel Richie & the Commodores, Teena Marie, their music communicated and brought together a racially divided country and segregated society, around the world, touching all people of all ages and races.


Day 12. On the road

Detroit to Chicago
4h 20min, 280 miles / 451km

Michael Jackson’s childhood home, 2300 Jackson St., Gary, Indiana / Photo victorgrigas by Wikimedia Commons

What to see

  • Michael Jackson’s childhood home — 2300 Jackson St, Gary, Indiana. Before there was the sprawling Neverland ranch in California, before he became a superstar with the best-selling album of all time, “Thriller,” a tiny house in the industrial city of Gary was home for Michael Jackson.

Feature photo of Chicago by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash

Icon: Road by Tim Torres / The Noun Project

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