It’s been a long time dream of mine to travel through the American South. With its rich, albeit chequered history, amazing wealth of music, lush countryside and, of course, the delicious Southern cuisine, it’s a place whose magic has always had a special appeal.
With just a week off yet so much to see the hard part was to come up with an itinerary. But, looking on the map, a road trip from Nashville to New Orleans, travelling along America’s Music Highway, seemed like the perfect introduction to the South.
So we booked a muscle car, loaded a Spotify soundtrack, and hit the road. Starting in the city of Country, we headed south into the Blues delta and Rock and Roll heartland, and finished up our journey more than 500 miles later in the hometown of Jazz.
Here’s a little summary of our mini road trip.
Two nights in Nashville
Nashville is a small city with a huge reputation. Over the past decade or so, it has evolved beyond a music mecca to become one of the USA’s fastest growing cities, with a thriving economy, booming cultural scene, and a fantastic food industry, too. We stay in trendy East Nashville with its gorgeous architecture. We check out Music Row and Downtown visit the historic Ryman Auditorium, which, once the Union Gospel Tabernacle, became a performance space in the early 20th century and went on to host everyone from Johnny Cash to Dolly Parton and the iconic Grand Ole Opry radio show, as well as the likes of Sheryl Crow or Mumford and Sons in more recent years. We run out of time to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash Museum and fail to get into the iconic Bluebird Café, where the queue lines the block. Instead we indulge in Southern delights at some of Nashville’s top restaurants – Lockeland Table, Pinewood Social and Merchants (see my mini guide to Nashville restaurants) – and watch live music at the bars on Lower Broadway and the Printers Alley. Nashville is a city that has it all: music, culture, great food and friendly residents.
One night in Memphis
Driving 200 miles on Interstate 40 we get to Memphis, the capital city of Tennessee. It’s a big contrast to upmarket Nashville and feels a lot more edgy and real. Graceland is the first stop on our list. Initial impressions remind us of Disneyland but once inside the house, we’re quickly drawn into Elvis Presley’s world. His home is far more modest than we expect yet his spirit remains and we are touched by his unwavering support for the Memphis community. Next up: Sun Studio, where music legends like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded in the 1950s. The tour guide’s overenthusiasm is annoying but the history of the place is palpable. Our two restaurants of choice – Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous and the Majestic Grille – are both closed so we end up at McEwen’s before watching live blues at some of Beale Street’s famous bars, including the Rum Boogie Café.
Heading south into Mississippi, we take Highway 61, the Blues Highway, which parallels the majestic Mississippi River, which is magical. En route to Natchez, we stop at Yazoo City and Vicksburg, a gorgeous, historic town epitomising Southern heritage and culture at its best. In Natchez we have fried catfish po’boys for lunch at Magnolia Grill, overlooking the river. We visit a cotton plantation but are disappointed by the lack of acknowledgement of slavery as the tour guide only talks about the rich, white family who resided in the palatial home. We carry on through the lush, green countryside wishing we could drive on forever.
As we cross the border into Louisiana, the heavens open. We have three nights in New Orleans and spend these exploring the French Quarter, where we get lost in the history and romance of the city’s oldest area, with the fabled wrought-iron railings of its balconies, its cobblestone corridors and secret courtyard gardens. There’s live music everywhere: in the streets and at all of the bars, restaurants and cafés. We love the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street. The heat and humidity is draining. We visit above-ground cemeteries, ride a streetcar to the beautiful Garden District, catch a steamboat up the Mississippi River and go on a swamp tour to feed alligators marshmallows. We tuck into the famous beignets at the touristy Café du Monde, eat the best fried chicken at Cochon, endure shrimp and grits for breakfast and pig out on muffuletta sandwiches for lunch. Nawlins is a beautiful, happy place but there is poverty and sorrow too. Hours after we leave, nine people are shot on Bourbon Street.