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There must be something in the water. Blues, soul, jazz, country, rock and roll – the genres that shaped the 20th century were all born along the banks of the Mississippi.
The sounds of the South are one of the great joys of a cruise in the region, with the chance to hear live performances and visit historic sites as you roll along the river. The great music powerhouses of Memphis and New Orleans often bookend voyages on the Lower Mississippi; for Nashville, you’ll need to book an option that takes a turn on to the Cumberland River.
Visiting Elvis Presley’s private estate on the outskirts of Memphis is a gloriously over the top experience. Tour the mansion, including the kitsch Jungle Room recording studio, then visit a museum dedicated to his career, with records, movie memorabilia and costumes, and a collection of his favourite cars, including his pink Cadillac. In the grounds, you can step aboard the King’s private planes, the Lisa Marie and the Hound Dog II.
2. Sun Studios
In contrast, Sun Studios in downtown Memphis is a diminutive brick building with unremarkable looks that belie its significance. Rock and roll was born here in 1951, when Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats recorded Rocket 88, and artists including Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Roy Orbison all laid down hits. The studio tour guides are worth their weight in gold, full of anecdotes, and playing hits and out-takes, including footage from the famous Million Dollar Quartet – an impromptu jam session featuring Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
3. Stax museum
Don’t let the sleek presentation and smooth sounds at the Stax Museum distract you – the racially integrated team of staff and artists who worked there in the tense atmosphere of Memphis in the Fifties and Sixties were courageous in more than just their music. There’s an exact replica of Studio A where stars such as Otis Redding recorded, Isaac Hayes gold-plated Cadillac Eldorado, and even a dancefloor showing vintage episodes of Soul Train.
4. Beale Street
Once you’ve learnt about the history of music in Memphis, it’s time to listen to something live. Musicians have been performing on Beale Street since the 1860s, including W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters and – of course – the Beale Street Blues Boy himself, B.B. King. Now, this is a slick entertainment district, with three blocks of venues playing blues, soul, jazz, rock and roll, R&B and alternative music – simply select your genre and get the drinks in.
5. Grammy museum Mississippi
Sister to the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, this outpost in Cleveland – deep in the Delta, half-way between Memphis and New Orleans – reflects the fact that the state produces more Grammy nominees per capita than any other. This technologically advanced museum is highly interactive – you can learn to dance with Ne-Yo, record your own blues song in a production pod and try your hand on a range of electronic instruments.
6. B.B King Museum
Indianola’s B.B.King Museum is simultaneously a tribute to one of the legends of the blues, and about much more than just one man. The focus on King’s long, storied life allows for exhibits on sharecropping in the Delta, Memphis in the Fifties, and the Civil Rights movement across the wider USA. The museum’s memorial garden is home to King’s grave.
7. Preservation Hall
Playing and preserving traditional New Orleans Jazz since 1961, this venerable establishment in the heart of the French Quarter hosts five intimate, acoustic sets per night, 350 days a year, with performances from a stable of more than 100 local artists. The sound is unsurpassed, but this is a heritage building with no frills – there are no toilets, and it’s BYO on drinks. If you’d rather not stand in line for general admission tickets, book Big Shot seats in advance via the website – you’re also guaranteed a spot at the front.
8. Frenchmen Street
Leave the French Quarter and head instead to Frenchmen Street for the best live music venues in New Orleans. It’s no longer the off-the-beaten-track spot some might claim, but the bars, restaurants and music are reliably good. You’ll find a selection of genres, but you can hear the city’s famous jazz at Blue Nile, The Spotted Cat, and pair it with dinner at Three Muses.
9. Grand Ole Opry
In 1925, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company launched a radio station in Nashville to promote its business. Instead, it turned Nashville into Music City, USA. WSM’s Grand Ole Opry was broadcast coast to coast from the Thirties, and every country star from Hank Williams and Johnny Cash to Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton got their big break here. Tour the hall and buy tickets for a performance.
10. Country music hall of fame
At this giant shrine to country music in downtown Nashville you’ll find Carl Perkins’ blue suede shoes and Hank Williams suit appliqued with musical notes. The permanent collection traces the roots of country from its 19th century beginnings right up to contemporary stars such as Taylor Swift, plus there are a host of special exhibitions and events, including performances, sessions with songwriters and the chance to meet musicians.
All Lower Mississippi river cruises will include some musical highlights. For a sharper focus, book a themed cruise, and get extra excursions, on board performances and lectures.
An 8-day, music-themed Lower Mississippi River Cruise between Memphis and New Orleans on American Harmony departing May 31, 2020 starts from £3,942pp (americancruiselines.com).
A 9-day Music of America Clarksville (Nashville) to Memphis cruise on American Duchess departing September 20, 2020 starts from £2,075pp (americanqueensteamboatcompany.com).