June 11, 2015

Buy a Guitar at Tupelo Hardware: The Americana Music Triangle, Part 2

  • By: Katherine Flynn

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Memphis’ Beale Street is an 1.8 mile long stretch of blues clubs and restaurants in the city’s downtown.

A few weeks ago, we introduced you to the Americana Music Triangle, a 1,500 stretch of southern highway that encompasses the heart and soul of American music. We took virtual tours from New Orleans to Natchez and Vicksburg to Memphis, highlighting some of the museums, juke joints, and one-of-a-kind pit stops (like blues legend Robert Johnson's three gravesites) along the way.

Here, we’ve compiled recommendations from three more driving trails: Memphis to Nashville, Nashville to Muscle Shoals, and Tupelo back up to New Orleans (where the "Gold Record Road" began.) You’ll find gems like Jackson, Mississippi’s Historic Farish Street District, a hub for African-American businesses up until the end of Jim Crow, and the Rhythm Nightclub Memorial Museum, a Natchez spot memorializing a 1940 fire that killed visiting patrons and members of the Walter Barnes jazz band.

“The more I learn, the more I get excited about how much there is to learn about our music history,” says Americana Music Triangle founder Audrey Preston. “I kind of woke up one day and realized it’s really right on our back yard here – the roots of the music that is the popular music of the world.”

Memphis to Nashville


Memphis is a natural next chapter after the Delta Highway trail. On your way up to Nashville, you’ll find the origins of the sounds that fueled blues, jazz, R&B, and gospel, as well as traces of the civil rights movement.

Beale Street—Memphis

Many black traveling musicians began performing on Beale Street in the 1860s, ushering in an era of musicians and merchants borrowing musical styles and sounds from each other. From the 1920s to the 1940s, greats like Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Rufus Thomas played on Beale Street, helping to develop the style that came to be known as “Memphis Blues.” Today, it continues to be a hotspot for blues clubs, nightlife, and restaurants.

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No trip to Memphis would be complete without a stop at Elvis’s Graceland.

Graceland

Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home from around 1957 until his death in 1977, stands as a well-preserved shrine to the groundbreaking musician’s life and work. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006, and as one of the most-visited homes in the U.S., it's attracted some 600,000 visitors each year since opening for tours in 1982.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music—Memphis

Stax Records, founded in 1960 as Satellite, recorded hits by greats such as Otis Redding and was known for its integrated team of artists and staff -- virtually unheard of in that time of Southern racial tension. You can visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis and dance along with Soul Train videos on the Express Yourself dance floor, or check out period recording equipment in the control room. A highlight: Isaac Hayes’ custom Cadillac Eldorado, featuring 24-carat gold exterior trim.

RCA Studio B, Music Row—Nashville

Nashville’s Studio B, or the “home of 1,000 hits,” was where Dolly Parton laid down “Jolene” and Elvis Presley recorded favorites like “It’s Now or Never.” The studio first became available for tours in 1977, and in 1992 it was donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame. While it’s no longer an operational studio, it remains open to visitors who want to learn more about “the Nashville sound” (characterized by strings and backing vocals and popularized in the 1950s), as well as middle and high school students who want to get their feet wet with an introduction to analog recording.

Nashville to Muscle Shoals


It’s a little under a three-hour drive from Nashville to Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals, but there are countless gems along the way. Here are just a few highlights.

Grand Ole Opry—Nashville

The legendary Grand Ole Opry is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year as the longest-running radio broadcast in history, and the “show that made country music famous” shows no signs of slowing down. The increasing popularity of the Grand Ole Opry mirrored Nashville’s growth and prominence as America’s country music capital. Visitors can purchase tickets to the weekly broadcast, as well as take a tour of the theater’s backstage.

Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall—Florence, Alabama

This stone wall near the Alabama-Tennessee state line is one man’s memorial to his great-great-grandmother Te-lah-nay, a member of the Yuchi Indian tribe that occupied the area near the Tennessee River up until the 1800s. After Te-lah-nay’s tribe was forcibly removed from their land and sent to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, she decided that she missed her homeland and its “singing rivers” too much and made the five-year journey back on foot. Tom Hendrix has spent the last 30 years stacking stones to create the largest unmortared wall in the country in her memory. Musicians recording in nearby Muscle Shoals have long claimed to get inspiration from the mystical “singing” Tennessee River.

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Nashville’s RCA Studio B opened in 1957, followed by Studio A in 1964.

Puckett’s Grocery—Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee

Puckett’s has expanded to a number of locations around Tennessee, but its original incarnation in Leiper’s Fork, built in the 1950s, is still going strong as a community kitchen and live music venue. The Thursday night open mic is not to be missed, as is the famous burger and the Southern fried catfish.

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio—Muscle Shoals, Alabama

Muscle Shoals may be out-of-the-way – it’s about a three-hour drive from both Nashville and Memphis -- but what it lacks in accessibility, it makes up for in rich rock and pop music history. The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Elton John all recorded there, and more recently, the Black Keys laid down their 2011 album Brothers. The Muscle Shoals Music Foundation hopes to eventually make the National Register-listed building a music museum.

Tupelo to New Orleans


This route along the Natchez Trace Parkway is quiet and scenic, and will take you right back to where we started, in New Orleans.

Tupelo Hardware—Tupelo, Mississippi

While this third-generation family-owned hardware store may seem like just another place to buy a hammer and some nails, it’s also the spot where Gladys Presley bought her son Elvis his first guitar. To keep the spirit of the King alive, the store still sells musical instruments. Reed’s Department Store, across the street, features Elvis memorabilia and photos.

Malaco Records—Jackson, Mississippi

Established in 1960, Malaco Records got its start booking African American R&B acts for white fraternity parties at nearby Ole Miss University. Since then, it’s grown into the undisputed premier gospel label in the country, known internationally as the “Last Soul Company.” The studio welcomes visitors; just call ahead for a tour.

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New Orleans’ Preservation Hall was established in 1961 with a mission to “preserve, perpetuate, and protect traditional New Orleans jazz.”

Magnolia Café—St. Francisville, Louisiana

Featuring live music every Friday night, the renowned Magnolia Café also serves up Southern specialties fried alligator bites and shrimp po-boys. It’s located right next to 3V Tourist Courts, the oldest motor court in Louisiana -- it’s even listed on the National Register as such.

Preservation Hall—New Orleans

A stop at Preservation Hall is an essential part of any music lover's trip to New Orleans. The hall was founded in 1961 to protect and honor the New Orleans jazz tradition at a time when jazz was considered to fading in the shadow of rock n' roll. With concerts every night at 8 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., look no further than this historic structure on St. Peter Street for living proof that jazz is alive, beloved and thriving.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

@kateallthetime

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