The South's Best Musical Landmarks
The Allman Brothers Band Museum at the Big House
Little Richard built Macon’s musical foundation, but it was the long-haired Allman Brothers and their band who put their town and their Southern brand of rock on the map in the 1970s. A three-story, Tudor-style rental home on Vineville Avenue became the headquarters for a rotating cast of bandmates and crew—as well as their growing families. Linda Oakley, wife of bassist Berry Oakley, dealt with the real-estate agents and managed to secure the lease by putting on a domestic demeanor that didn’t exactly reflect the temperament of the future occupants. The Big House is now a museum where visitors can see many of their past possessions along with the window seat where Dickey Betts wrote “Blue Sky” and the kitchen table where he scribbled the lyrics to “Ramblin’ Man.”
See it: The Big House Museum offers tours Thursday through Sunday. It’s just a short drive from H&H Soul Food, where the bandmates were regulars, and Rose Hill Cemetery, where brothers Duane and Gregg Allman were both buried.
Playlist pick: “Blue Sky” by The Allman Brothers Band
Ball & Chain
One of the first nightclubs in what is now Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, the Ball & Chain transformed from a 1930s and 1940s gambling grotto into a musical hot spot. Artists such as Billie Holiday, Count Basie, and Chet Baker each established their own half-baked residences here, knowing they could stay at Ball & Chain owner Henry Schechtman’s Tower Apartments, located nearby. Holiday once babysat his children, and Basie set up daytime jam sessions that patrons would pay to watch. Although the club closed in 1958, becoming the Copa Lounge Tavern and later the Futurama furniture store, the Ball & Chain has been brought back as an entertainment venue with a Cuban-style restaurant, a bar, and a fresh set of its signature green-and-white-striped awnings.
See it: The Ball & Chain hosts shows, from salsa to jazz to mambo, from noon until late into the night.
Playlist pick: “It’s You or No One” by Chet Baker
Billie Holiday Statue
Before Billie Holiday became known as “Lady Day” and a legendary jazz vocalist, she spent her childhood in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore. Though her life was short (she died at age 44) and her formative years not idyllic (her jazz musician father was absent, and her mother struggled to support her), Holiday channeled her often painful life experience into her work. The soulful and heart-wrenching timbre she brought to songs like “Summertime” and “Strange Fruit” separated her from other female jazz singers of the time period. A beautiful statue of Holiday, which was created by African-American sculptor James Earl Reid, stands as a memorial to the legendary singer at the corner of West Lafayette and Pennsylvania avenues.
See it: Throughout the Fells Point area, there are murals depicting iconic images of Holiday.
Playlist pick: “Lady Sings the Blues” by Billie Holiday
Birthplace of Country Music Museum
In 1927, Ralph Peer set up shop in the city of Bristol, which straddles the Tennessee and Virginia state line. Peer placed newspaper ads inviting area musicians to cut records with him using his brand-new, portable recording equipment, and he paid them $50 for each side. The resulting 76 songs transformed “hillbilly music” into a commercially viable genre, especially with two new acts he discovered during his time here: the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Now, Bristol is home to the recently opened Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which chronicles the effects of the 1927 Bristol Sessions and also holds the Rhythm & Roots Reunion that brings musicians like Dwight Yoakam together with local country and bluegrass players.
See it: Open Tuesday through Sunday, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum offers visitors self-guided tours in addition to weekly concerts and other events. The Rhythm & Roots Reunion takes place during the third week of September.
Playlist pick: “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” by Jimmie Rodgers
Buddy Holly Center
Elton John wore glasses (even though he didn’t need them) because of him; Keith Richards and Eric Clapton tried to play guitar like him; The Beatles named their group in reference to his backing band, The Crickets. Just a kid from Lubbock, Texas, Buddy Holly had an impact on some of the world’s most important musicians, even though he lived just 22 years. Marked by a giant sculpture of his signature glasses, the Buddy Holly Center displays his Fender Stratocaster guitar, his recording contracts, and even his report cards. The restored home of Crickets drummer J.I. Allison, where Holly wrote songs such as “That’ll Be the Day,” also sits on the property.
See it: Visitors can take self-guided tours Tuesday through Sunday. The center celebrates Holly’s birthday every year on September 7 and remembers his passing on February 3, known as “The Day the Music Died.”
Playlist pick: “That’ll Be the Day” by Buddy Holly and The Crickets
The historical marker reads “Birthplace of the Blues?” If there’s any place that might be the answer to that question, it’s Dockery Farms. Situated on 40 square miles of land in the Mississippi Delta, Dockery Farms became an employment hub for African-American laborers during the early 1900s. Among them were Henry Sloan and Charley Patton, considered to be the fathers of blues. They taught the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Honeyboy Edwards, Pops Staples (Mavis’ father), and the most enigmatic of all, Robert Johnson.
See it: Dockery Farms is open to the public from dawn till dusk. On the drive there, download the Mississippi Blues Trail app to listen to expanded content about this site and some others nearby.
Playlist pick: “Down the Dirt Road Blues” by Charley Patton
Drake Vintage Music & Curios
It might look like a post office (the signs are still up), but this humble building in Drake, Kentucky, is actually a museum that’s dedicated to the Carter Family and the beginnings of country music. It’s run by 91-year-old Drake native Freeman Kitchens, who started the Carter Family Fan Club in the early 1950s. Unlike most fan clubs, which were created by record labels, the grassroots organization Kitchens established would stoke demand for reissues of songs by country music’s “first family.” (Kitchens’ niece says that William Faulkner once wrote to him to ask a question about a particular Carter Family tune.) Inside his shop, Kitchens’ curated collection of Carter Family items includes stacks of records for sale, fan-made folk art, and walls covered with headshots.
See it: Open daily, Drake Vintage Music & Curios is a 20-minute drive from Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Playlist pick: “Wildwood Flower” by the Carter Family
Earl Scruggs Center
Although Earl Scruggs may not have invented the banjo-picking style that is now named after him, he certainly revolutionized it. While growing up in western North Carolina, Scruggs was surrounded by the music of his five siblings and local pickers who taught him how to strum the instrument using three fingers instead of five (known as the clawhammer technique). Scruggs took the method on the road with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Exhausted from touring, he and fellow banjoist Lester Flatt decided to quit and start their own group, Flatt and Scruggs. They wrote The Beverly Hillbillies theme song and also brought bluegrass out of the hollers and into the national spotlight. The Earl Scruggs Center is part museum and part performance space, where banjo players come to celebrate Scruggs-style playing.
See it: The center is open for docent-guided tours from Tuesday through Saturday and also hosts events—from conventions to a bluegrass-themed 5K race.
Playlist pick: “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Flatt and Scruggs
FAME Recording Studios
Muscle Shoals, AL
When Johnny Van Zant sang out “Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers” in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s opus “Sweet Home Alabama,” he was referencing the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a group of session musicians who made their home at this legendary studio. Their sound, a mixture of sweet melodies on top of booming blues beats, the area’s sonic terroir, turned FAME into a recording destination and created the Muscle Shoals sound with artists such as Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Dan Penn in the 1960s and 1970s. Founder Rick Hall, who passed away in January, created a reputation for FAME as a haven for artists of color in the segregated South. This can be heard best in Wilson Pickett’s scorching cover of “Hey Jude” alongside Duane Allman. The two recorded it during their lunch break after they decided a trip into town together might incur a chilly reception.
See it: Still active today, the studio offers tours Monday through Saturday.
Playlist pick: “Chain of Fools” by Aretha Franklin
The Floyd Country Store
After more than 20 years, this general store’s Friday Night Jamborees have become a cultural touchstone of Appalachian music, where bluegrass and folk players convene to share and preserve the area’s musical heritage.
See it: The Floyd Country Store hosts bands almost every weekend, and the Friday Night Jamborees attract quite a crowd. Grab a seat early.
Playlist pick: “Merry Mountain Hoedown” by The Traynham Family
Hank Williams Museum and Gravesite
In 1952, Cecil Jackson rotated and balanced the tires of a behemoth baby blue Cadillac, and then he drove it back to Lillie Williams’ boardinghouse. The car belonged to her son, forefather of country music Hank Williams, who nodded at Jackson through the door. Just two days later, Williams died from heart failure in the back seat of that same car. The singer was only 29 years old. Jackson (who passed away in 2010) became a lifelong collector of Hank Williams memorabilia. In 1999, he and his daughter Beth Petty established a museum housing such artifacts as 17 of Williams’ embroidered suits, some made by Nudie Cohn of Hollywood; the star’s 1937 Gibson guitar; and the baby blue Cadillac. Nearby at the Oakwood Annex Cemetery is Williams’ plaza-like burial site, covered with artificial turf, where his cowboy hat lies perpetually captured in marble along with his iconic lyrics “Praise the Lord—I saw the light.”
See it: The museum is open daily for self-guided tours; the cemetery is open to the public from dawn till dusk.
Playlist pick: “Lost Highway” by Hank Williams
The Hit Factory Criteria Recording Studios
From Eric Clapton’s and Duane Allman’s searing guitar solos on “Layla” to James Brown’s opening howl for “I Got You (I Feel Good),” the Miami sister studio of New York City’s Hit Factory became just that. An unassuming, industrial building that’s enshrouded by palm trees, Criteria looks more like a warehouse than a studio, but it has conjured some of the biggest albums of all time. In the 1970s alone, Criteria recorded tracks for the Eagles’ Hotel California, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, The Allman Brothers Band’s Eat a Peach, and The Bee Gees’ contributions to the soundtrack for the iconic blockbuster Saturday Night Fever. Today, the studio has become a hub for R&B, pop, and hip-hop artists like Lil Wayne, Jennifer Lopez, and even Justin Bieber.
See it: While Criteria allows tours only for musicians who book the space to work, the studio is visible from 18th Avenue.
Playlist pick: “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac
James Taylor Bridge
Chapel Hill, NC
While photographs of a young, long-haired James Taylor often show him in New York’s Greenwich Village or in California singing with Carole King, Taylor grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his father was the dean of the medical school at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. The landscape of the singer’s native Piedmont region often comes into focus in Taylor’s songs, especially in “Copperline,” which recalls Taylor and his dog Hercules roaming together beside Morgan Creek.
See it: Not far from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, drivers can cross over Morgan Creek via the James Taylor Bridge on U.S. 15-501.
Playlist pick: “Carolina in My Mind” by James Taylor
Johnny Cash Boyhood Home
A white, five-room house planted in the middle of a cotton field near Dyess gave rise to the famous Man in Black. Johnny Cash’s family received the house and 20 acres of farmland as part of a Works Progress Administration program that set up what was known as the Dyess Colony, complete with a shell-style theater, administration building, hospital, and school. The cast and crew of the 2005 film Walk the Line came to Dyess to shoot the movie’s opening scenes, but Cash’s former home had fallen into disrepair in the shifting clay soil. Several years later, Arkansas State University restored the properties and the house, returning Cash’s home to its 1930s condition.
See it: Tours of Cash’s boyhood home are offered Monday through Saturday. In the fall, Arkansas State University holds the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival, with events happening throughout town. Last year, Cash’s daughter Rosanne played with Kris Kristofferson.
Playlist pick: “Five Feet High and Rising” by Johnny Cash
Johnny Mercer Gravesite
Oscar-winning Savannah native Johnny Mercer wrote many of the Great American Songbook’s best standards—from “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” to “Moon River” and “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.” He left his hometown for Hollywood in 1935 and wrote songs performed by legendary actors and musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Julie Andrews, and Audrey Hepburn. His success led him to cofound the music institution Capitol Records. Eventually, Mercer returned to the Hostess City of the South—after he passed away in 1976. He is buried underneath sprawling oak trees that are draped in Spanish moss in the historic Bonaventure Cemetery, which is near marshes that connect to the real Moon River. The gravestone features a line drawing of Mercer and a marble bench that’s engraved with a few of his most enduring lyrics and song titles.
See it: Mercer’s gravesite is located in Section H of Bonaventure Cemetery.
Playlist pick: “Moon River” by Johnny Mercer
Loretta Lynn’s Home Place in Butcher Holler
Van Lear, KY
The tiny town of Butcher Holler, Kentucky, had a massive impact on Loretta Lynn’s iconic music. Along with her seven siblings, the country music singer grew up in a small cabin nestled in the hills of the Van Lear mining community, where her father worked. (She came by her moniker of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” honestly.) Throughout Lynn’s career, imagery from her childhood has appeared in her lyrics for songs like “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” “Blue Kentucky Girl,” and “Van Lear Rose,” which she cowrote with Jack White in 2004.
See it: Tours are offered daily (weather permitting) to visitors who venture down the single-lane road from Van Lear. Be on the lookout for Webb’s Grocery, the general store that the tours depart from.
Playlist pick: “Coal Miner’s Daughter” by Loretta Lynn
The place Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and the boys were singing about in this town’s eponymous country song is not on the way to anywhere. Established by German immigrants who settled in the rolling Texas Hill Country, once-thriving Luckenbach is now a ghost town with an assemblage of wood buildings including a former post office (circa 1854) turned into a general store, a bar named Hondo’s, and a dance hall where Nelson and other country artists still come back to play. While it may seem as though there’s not much to see here, drinking a Lone Star longneck under live oak trees while watching bona fide line dancing is a rare and refreshing American experience.
See it: Luckenbach is a 15-minute drive from Fredericksburg via I-290 and State 1376.
Playlist pick: “Luckenbach, Texas” by Waylon Jennings
Mount Calvary Baptist Church
Before there was jazz or blues, there was the ring shout. This call-and-response style of singing and percussion was first brought to the barrier islands of Georgia by enslaved people in the 1700s, and it ultimately became one of the roots that grew into American music, branching into rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop. But the ring shout has become an endangered art form, now practiced regularly only by The McIntosh County Shouters, who belong to Mount Calvary Baptist Church in the tiny Georgia community of Bolden (also known as Briar Patch). The McIntosh County Shouters tour the country, showing audiences their circuital movements as they beat sticks on the floor and clap out rhythms while singing traditional hymns that were passed down from their ancestors. Every year on Watch Night (New Year’s Eve), large crowds come to Mount Calvary Baptist Church to see The McIntosh County Shouters put on a spirited performance at midnight. Just last year, under Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the National Museum of African American History & Culture released the first album The McIntosh County Shouters have recorded since folklorist Alan Lomax first captured their unforgettable sound 83 years ago.
See it: In addition to Watch Night at Mount Calvary, The McIntosh County Shouters also perform at the church during African American History Month and at other special events. Check the calendar on their website for current dates.
Playlist pick: “Sign of the Judgement” by The McIntosh County Shouters
Muscle Shoals Sound Studios
The exterior of the small, nondescript stone building on a rural highway belies the vibrant and inventive sounds that were created inside this studio started by four members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. The group produced and played on albums like The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. You can hear Mavis Staples give a shout-out to bassist David Hood in “I’ll Take You There,” a Civil Rights Movement anthem. The studio was recently renovated with a grant from Apple, Inc. and subsidiary Beats by Dr. Dre with state-of-the-art audio and visual equipment built to mimic the original 1970s aesthetics. The funding has also made it possible for the studio to share its legacy with international tourists, who make up almost half of the annual visitors here.
See it: Tours are available Monday through Saturday.
Playlist pick: “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones
Nina Simone Childhood Home and Statue
Although Nina Simone’s music has been sampled by artists like Kanye West, and her life story has even been told in a Netflix-produced documentary, the home that belonged to the civil rights icon and jazz musician was, for a time, left in limbo. Fans and residents of Simone’s hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, were uncertain of the property’s fate until last year, when four African-American artists pooled their money and purchased the house for $95,000. With plans to transform the home into a museum that honors Simone’s career, they want to make sure that future generations will be able to step inside the place that brought the troubled singer some of the few happy years of her life. Although Simone’s house is currently only visible from the street, you can also go to Nina Simone Plaza on Trade Street to admire the beautiful bronze statue that commemorates the singer’s life as a Tryon resident.
See it: Visitors can see Nina Simone’s childhood home from East Livingston Street, and less than a mile away, her namesake plaza on Trade Street is open to the public.
Playlist pick: “Little Girl Blue” by Nina Simone
Ralph Stanley Museum
Before Ralph Stanley won a Grammy in 2001 for his work in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, he was already a bluegrass legend. He toured the country first with his brother Carter Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. After Carter passed away, Ralph went solo and wrote some of the genre’s standards. Filled with artifacts from a career that lasted until he died in 2016, the Ralph Stanley Museum makes its home inside a historic four-story, columned house that’s also a workshop and convention center for bluegrass artists.
See it: Self-guided tours of the museum are available Monday through Saturday, but it closes for the winter between late November and mid-March.
Playlist pick: “I’ll Fly Away” by Ralph Stanley
Ray Charles Childhood Home
While Ray Charles might bring Georgia to mind, his musical life actually began in Greenville, Florida, where he grew up during the Great Depression. Charles lost his sight at age 7, but his mother taught him self-sufficiency by giving him daily chores to complete, like chopping wood for their stove. Sent to the Florida School for the Deaf & the Blind, he was later orphaned as a teenager. His tiny childhood home was then left behind, becoming so dilapidated that it was almost demolished in 2006. Greenville’s then-Mayor, Elesta Pritchett, who played with Charles when they were children, organized the preservation of the house in 2008.
See it: While the home isn’t open for tours, you can view it and the accompanying historical marker from the sidewalk. A statue of Ray Charles at his piano sits in a park at the intersection of Hayes and Broad streets.
Playlist pick: “Hallelujah I Love Her So” by Ray Charles
RCA Studio B
On the linoleum-tile floor of RCA’s Studio B, there is a tiny cross of blue tape. It marks not just the vocal sweet spot but also the place where iconic artists from Dolly Parton to the Everly Brothers and Waylon Jennings stood to record some of the biggest hits in music history. RCA would go on to become home to the Nashville Sound, which has experienced a renaissance and redefinition thanks to current musicians like Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves, who have recorded their successful albums in the neighboring Studio A. Saved from redevelopment in 2014, the 60-year-old Studio B has become one of the city’s most popular music-tourism spots, and it also serves as a hands-on classroom for Nashville students.
See it: Tours of Studio B are available daily; advance reservations recommended.
Playlist pick: “Coat of Many Colors” by Dolly Parton
Robert Johnson’s Gravesite
Robert Johnson’s life is as mysterious as it is fabled. Although allegories abound (like his encounter at the Crossroads), little remains of his short time here except an album’s worth of recordings, black-and-white snapshots with his guitar, and his gravesite in an eerily quiet cemetery next to Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Mississippi’s Money Road.
See it: A 2-mile drive from Greenwood, the cemetery is open from dawn till dusk.
Playlist pick: “Love in Vain” by Robert Johnson
The Ryman Auditorium might be named after the former steamboat captain and businessman who built it, but it was a woman who turned the establishment into the “Mother Church of Country Music.” After leasing the entire building, with its unique church-pew seating and arching stained glass windows, the tenacious Lula C. Naff began booking shows with performers from Harry Houdini to Mae West. In 1943, she decided to let the Grand Ole Opry use the Ryman as its home, and the auditorium then became a hallowed hall. There, some of country music’s biggest stars were born, including Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, and Johnny Cash, who met his future wife, June Carter, backstage. Although the Ryman sat vacant through the 1970s and 1980s, the restored auditorium has endured as a bucket list venue for contemporary musicians who know they have made it when they set down their drumsticks or guitars in one of the dressing rooms upstairs.
See it: Self-guided tours of the auditorium are available daily, but guided tours of the backstage area must be reserved in advance.
Playlist pick: “Crazy” by Patsy Cline
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
This record label’s rise, fall, and resurgence has become a metaphor for the city of Memphis itself. Once home to legendary artists like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, Stax was a powerhouse of soul and R&B hits such as “Green Onions” by Booker T. & the MG’s. Set up in a converted movie theater (with a marquee and neon lighting out front), Stax was also situated both physically and artistically in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. With regularly occurring marches—sometimes led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—happening only miles away, it became a safe space for African-American artists who were looking to find their voices in a tumultuous time. After Otis Redding died tragically in a plane crash, Stax soon fell apart under conflicting ownership and then was unceremoniously torn down in 1989. With the lights of Stax gone, the city of Memphis experienced a dark period too. Rebuilt as a museum to the label’s history in 2003, Stax has since staged a comeback, recently celebrating its 60th anniversary and also serving as the cornerstone of the Soulsville complex that includes a music-based charter school.
See it: At the museum, visitors can view Isaac Hayes’ distinctive fur-lined custom Cadillac and other artifacts on self-guided tours from Tuesday through Sunday.
Playlist pick: “Try a Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding
Threadgill’s and the Continental Club
The Live Music Capital of the World, Austin, Texas, became a music magnet thanks to the broadcast of the PBS show Austin City Limits (still airing after 43 years) and pioneering clubs Threadgill’s and the Continental Club. Though they were operating in different parts of town during the same era, they each became essential tour stops for big-name artists and helped make the local music scene what it is today. Janis Joplin wailed her Leadbelly-inspired songs onstage at Threadgill’s, while Stevie Ray Vaughan’s blues licks screamed over crowds at the Continental Club, which is still a career-launching venue.
See it: The Continental Club on South Congress Avenue hosts shows every night of the week; Threadgill’s now operates as a restaurant where locals come for chicken-fried steak, burgers, and house-made pies, but it also hosts music events at its two locations: Threadgill’s Old No. 1 on North Lamar Boulevard and Threadgill’s World Headquarters on Riverside Drive.
Playlist pick: “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!” by Janis Joplin
The Tic Toc Room
While there wasn’t an heirloom tomato salad on the menu back when Little Richard performed there, The Tic Toc Room stands as a downtown Macon mainstay. Known as Miss Anne’s Tic Toc in the 1940s, the restaurant doubled as a venue that hosted R&B forefathers Otis Redding and James Brown as well as Little Richard’s regular performances.
See it: The Tic Toc Room is open for dinner Monday through Saturday.
Playlist pick: “Miss Ann” by Little Richard
Tupelo Hardware Co./Elvis Presley Birthplace
In 1946, a mother took her 11-year-old son to the hardware store in Tupelo, Mississippi, to pick out a birthday gift. He wanted a rifle, but she handed him a guitar. After strumming it, he took it home. That boy was Elvis Presley, and the guitar he chose once again hangs in the store. Visitors come from all over to check it out.
See it: Tupelo Hardware Co. is open Monday through Saturday. Tours of Presley’s birthplace are offered daily.
Playlist pick: “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley