5 Tennessee musical destinations that are worth the trip

The groundwork for popular music runs deeper in Tennessee than the roots of a tulip poplar. Blues, rock, country and soul each owe a serious debt to the Volunteer State.

The impact of those strains can still be heard, felt and seen at Tennessee’s well-stocked museums, music venues and longstanding landmarks. Don’t be surprised to bump into international travelers along the way, which echoes the significance of these destinations.

Country Music Hall of Fame

Whether you call it Music City or Nashvegas, Nashville remains the crowned buckle on country music’s Stetson. No other locale could lay claim to the Country Music Hall of Fame, and it sparkles like a rhinestone suit.

The permanent exhibit, “Sing Me Back Home: Folk Roots to the Present,” traces the genre’s beginnings (honoring such forebears as Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers) and brings the story up to the present, showcasing memorabilia and artifacts, video footage and audio recordings.

Among the museum’s current rotating exhibits are “Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City,” which looks at Bob Dylan’s late 1960s decision to record in Nashville and his friendship with Johnny Cash. “Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll: The Cosmic Genius of Sam Phillips” honors the Sun Records founder, who first brought international attention to Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and a host of others. Other temporary exhibits honor younger guns Eric Church and Keith Urban.

Perhaps the museum’s most impactful room remains the Hall of Fame Rotunda, where plaques of hall members, from Roy Acuff to Dolly Parton, feature images of their embossed faces and biographies of their storied careers.

222 Fifth Ave. S., Nashville. 615-416-2001, countrymusichalloffame.org.

The Bluebird Cafe

It may have only 90 seats and be in a Nashville strip mall, but the Bluebird soars with the reputation of a fertile breeding ground for successful songwriters of varying genres, including rock, pop and country. Garth Brooks, Taylor Swift, Kathy Mattea and others honed their chops within its walls.

Today, you’ll find rising scribes, successful song crafters and familiar faces taking the stage. An average nightly show features three or four songwriters huddling in the round, each sharing the spotlight with their own respective tunes while accompanying one another.

If you’re traveling to Nashville during the holidays, keep in mind the Bluebird will be closed Dec. 20-25. However, it promises a New Year’s Eve wingding with two shows, featuring Thom Schuyler, Fred Knobloch, Tony Arata and Jelly Roll Johnson in the round.

4104 Hillsboro Pike, Nashville. 615-383-1461, bluebirdcafe.com.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music

They don’t call it Soulsville U.S.A. for nothing. Memphis’ Stax Records churned out countless servings of hot buttered soul music for nearly two decades. Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Issac Hayes, Booker T. & the MG’s, the Staple Singers and a long list of others helped popularize what critics called “the Stax groove.”

Although its original studio burned to the ground, Stax rose from the ashes in the form of a museum, a spot-on re-creation of the converted movie theater.

Despite being located in the segregated South, Stax thrived as a totally integrated company, from the artists all the way up to label brass. The museum tells this story with an array of memorabilia, from super fly stage duds to authentic instruments.

The fruits of the Stax success story can be seen in the form of Issac Hayes’ gold-trimmed 1972 Cadillac El Dorado. The vinyl-lined walls of its Hall of Records shimmer with nearly 1,000 singles and nearly 300 albums, a testament to the label’s prolific releases. And the Express Yourself dance floor, a disco ball dangling from above, encourages you to shake your hips.

The real magic at Stax took place in Studio A, re-created in the spot where it originally stood, complete with its trademark slanted floor. Although guests guide themselves through the tour, avid fans can book a special experience with Wayne Jackson, half of the iconic Memphis Horns.

926 E. McLemore Ave., Memphis. 901-942-7685, staxmuseum.com.


Our president has the White House and Britain’s royals have Buckingham Palace. Rock’s most regal presence had Graceland.

Elvis Presley’s Colonial Revival home, which he purchased in 1957, continues to be a mecca for serious fans and a fascinating destination for the curious. No matter what category a visitor falls into, a tour allows guests to explore the place he called home, while viewing his unprecedented career and impact on popular culture.

The addition of the interactive iPad tour in 2014 helps tourists take care of business like never before. Throughout the tour, an image of each respective room and area materializes on the tablet’s screen with bonus features. Home movies of Elvis doing his thing in the room you’re standing in, family photos, audio snippets and other content amp the experience.

From blinged-out jumpsuits to the tiki-tastic Jungle Room, Graceland shakes, rattles and rolls out kingly artifacts. Additional exhibits, including a souped-up stroll through his car collection, offer even more insight.

Those who visit now through Jan. 8 get the added bonus of Graceland tricked out in yuletide cheer, a Presley family tradition.

3734 Elvis Presley Blvd., Memphis. 1-800-238-2000, graceland.com.

Rockabilly Rides

When Brad Birkedahl and Brandon Cunning decided to take Memphis tourists back in time, they skipped doing it in a DeLorean. Instead, these intimate jaunts take place in either a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air or 1959 Ford Fairline 500 Skyliner Galaxie.

Both Birkedahl and Cunning showcase Memphis-made melodies for a living by performing regularly in venues along Beale Street. It’s the same legendary stretch of real estate where W.C. Handy helped popularize the blues and B.B. King blazed on Lucille. So, it makes sense Cunning and Birkedahl would translate their passion for the city’s legacy into specialized tours.

Their Red, Hot & Blue tour, an Elvis-centric experience, replicates the treks Presley would take his Hollywood pals on when they visited the king in Memphis. The two-hour trip visits Presley’s high school, the outdoor stage of his first professional performance and more. It includes pointing out the legendary Sun Studio on Union Avenue, the site of Presley’s first recordings and worth a visit all of its own.

The Memphis 101 tour drives through history with a focus on downtown. The guides explain Memphis during the Civil War, the cotton industry, the yellow fever epidemic and the civil rights movement. It wraps at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the site of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

The folks at Rockabilly Rides say they’ll be adding a tour in the future focusing on the city’s soul music heritage.

126 Beale St., Memphis. 901-264-0819, rockabillyrides.com.