Being as influential as it has been on popular music across the world, the United States of America offers an endless number of pilgrimages for any music lover. In almost any corner of the country you care to visit, you’ll find a bit of music history not too far away, and quite likely a fairly robust contemporary music scene too. It’s all too much to cover in one lifetime, and certainly too much to fit into a single list.Nonetheless, at the risk of offending some music lover by leaving out their favorite city, here’s our list of places you must visit in the US if you love music.
Austin’s official slogan is “The Live Music Capital of the World”. Even if that’s an exaggeration (which it probably isn’t, going by the sheer number of live music venues in the downtown area), it’s certainly an indication of how seriously the city takes its live music. Any music lover will have heard of South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual festival that takes place in March every year, and Austin City Limits, the festival that takes place in the fall and the influential, award-winning television show featuring live concerts. However, these two icons don’t even begin to represent the music scene in the city.
It’s estimated that there are over 100 live music venues to choose from each night in Austin, in addition to which you can simply walk around listening to some amazing buskers. There are several more music festivals to attend, just in case you can’t make it for SXSW or Austin City Limits. These include the Urban Music Festival, Fun Fun Fun Fest, Chaos In Tejas, Blues on the Green, and Old Settler’s Music Festival. Going beyond pop, rock, and blues, Texas is also home to two orchestras and the internationally renowned Austin Lyric Opera, all of whom put on some stunning and diverse performances each year.
Blues and its associated styles are inextricably linked with Chicago. The city is where the distinctive styles of Chicago blues and Dixieland jazz were born, with artists including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Nat King Cole, and Benny Goodman. Chicago continues to be a great place for the blues today, and if you can, you must make it for the Chicago Blues Festival, which takes place in June every year. However, Chicago has continued to have an exciting and diverse music scene through the decades: the city has produced numerous punk and punk-based artists including Big Black, Screeching Weasel, and Patti Smith; alternative rock artists including Ministry, The Jesus Lizard, and The Smashing Pumpkins; and most recently, acts including Rise Against and OK Go. Chicago has also always had an exciting, eclectic hip-hop scene, and has produced numerous rap and hip-hop artists of note, from MC Juice to Kanye West.
Detroit’s biggest contribution to music is probably Motown. Motown was the name of a style/sound of soul music in the ‘60s, the name of the record label that created it, and the nickname of the city itself. Artists such as Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, and the Jackson 5 were part of the Motown movement, and it’s still possible to explore their legacy in the city at the Motown Museum, where much of this music was recorded.
Detroit’s music history however goes back considerably further – John Lee Hooker, like many other blues musicians, moved here in the ‘40s, and in the ‘50s the city became an important jazz center. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Detroit continued to produce a number of popular and influential musicians, including the Stooges, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, and Alice Cooper. Later, the city was home to a number of hardcore punk acts, as well as hip-hop artists, of which the most famous would be Eminem. The city’s live music scene is extremely vibrant and diverse, with numerous live music venues and annual festivals across genres.
Pick almost any contemporary musician, and you’ll be able to trace a substantial portion of their influences to Memphis. Blues, soul, gospel, country, and rock ‘n’ roll all came out of Memphis. They weren’t necessarily invented there, but many of the definitive artists in these genres were either from Memphis originally, or made it big there. And speaking of invention, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips has in fact often been described as the man who “invented rock ‘n’ roll”. Phillips and Sun were responsible for discovering artists who radically changed the course of popular music: Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and of course Elvis Presley. One of the great things about visiting Memphis is that you can actually take a tour the original Sun Studios, and see where history was made. You can also visit the Stax Museum, located on the premises of what was once Stax Records, who were also hugely influential in music, signing artists such as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Isaac Hayes.
With such a legacy, it’s difficult for any contemporary scene to hold its own in comparison, but Memphis still boasts a fairly vibrant live music scene today. In particular, the city has some amazing blues artists, and it’s magical to be watching a great blues band in a city with such a rich musical history.
Located as it is in southeastern Florida, Miami enjoys great weather and a diverse population with a substantial number of Caribbean and Latin American communities, all of which have combined to create a unique and wonderful music scene. Miami’s most notable musical products are probably its Latin jazz and pop – Ana Cristina and Gloria Estefan are probably the most recognizable names to come out of here. However, disco also thrived here in the ‘80s, and through the subsequent decades, numerous other forms of dance music either originated or became popular here, including freestyle, techno, trance, and Miami bass.
More recently, popular artists such as Flo Rida, Pitbull, and Trick Daddy have emerged from Miami, as well as more indie acts such as Cat Power and Iron & Wine. No matter what your musical tastes are, one thing you must do in Miami is catch an open air concert.
In most people’s minds, Nashville is pretty much synonymous with country music. It’s where you’ll find the Grand Ole Opry and the historic Ryman Auditorium; it’s also the birthplace of the Nashville sound, which became the defining sound of country music. It’s where numerous country music icons either came from or went to make it big, and where numerous artists from other genres went to explore a country-inspired musical direction. If you love country music and any of its associated styles, you absolutely have to go to Nashville and explore the classic clubs, museums, honky-tonk bars, theatres, live music venues, and other pieces of history, many of which are still active.
However, the city isn’t as dominated by country music as most people imagine. Going back as far as the ‘20s and ‘30s, Nashville has had a number of great jazz bands, and the city has for a long time now nurtured an exciting rock music scene. The Basement is one of Nashville’s most iconic non-country venues, but there are plenty more, hosting musical performances in almost any genre you can imagine.
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans is famous as the birthplace of jazz, going all the way back to Dixieland. Since then, jazz itself has branched off into numerous genres, and New Orleans has adopted several other styles of music, including rock ‘n’ roll, heavy metal, and hip-hop. The city has had a particularly vibrant metal scene since the ‘80s, and is the home of a number of influential bands, including Down, Eyehategod, Crowbar, and Superjoint Ritual.
However, jazz is what remains at the soul of New Orleans, and it’s impossible to miss, whether you’re at one of the big music clubs on Bourbon Street, a little bar in the French Quarter, watching a funeral procession, participating in the Mardi Gras celebrations, or attending one of the city’s numerous jazz festivals. New Orleans is completely steeped in jazz and jazz history, and is an unforgettable experience for any music lover.
New York City, New York
As with most things that New York has to offer, the music scene here is stunningly diverse, with something for every budget, every taste, and every generation. Historically, New York has always been an exciting place for music. Because the city is such a melting pot of cultures, practically every style you can think of has found a home here and has developed in unique, unexpected ways, from classical music to the blues, from punk to hip-hop, and from folk to metal. The city is of course also the home of both Broadway and Tin Pan Alley.
New York has such an abundance and variety of venues, record stores, festivals, musicians, institutions, and landmarks that it would take a whole book to even come close to listing them all. The best thing to do is to simply get there and dive right in, savoring everything that comes your way.
San Francisco, California
Visiting San Francisco will give you the rare opportunity to catch a show at a historic venue: the Fillmore, which hosted iconic acts including the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin, among many others. The city was the hub of the ‘60s counterculture movement and much of the music that came out of it, and the Bay Area alone has either produced or been home to many more influential rock and metal artists through the years, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young, Metallica, Faith No More, Counting Crows, Dead Kennedys, and Green Day. San Francisco’s Bay Area has also produced a number of rappers, and was where the hyphy movement began. Its most famous rap act however is the legendary Tupac Shakur.
Even today, San Francisco continues to a great place to explore music. There are an incredible range of venues in the city, both big and small, both famous like the Fillmore and almost entirely unknown, and featuring practically every genre of music. San Francisco also has some amazing record stores, some of which are pretty much local, if not national, institutions.
Seattle’s most famous musician today is probably pop/hip-hop artist Macklemore, but what the city is best known for in terms of music is probably grunge. Five of the biggest, most influential grunge bands – Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Mudhoney – were based out of Seattle, and were responsible for the explosion of grunge music in the early ‘90s. Music label Sup Pop, who are generally considered to have played a pivotal role in popularizing the genre, were also based out of Seattle, and continue to have a number of major, influential acts on their roster, including Wolf Parade, the Shins, and the Seattle-based Fleet Foxes.
However, the city’s musical legacy goes back much further. Jimi Hendrix was born in Seattle, and his grave is now just outside the city. That, by itself, is probably good enough reason for any music lover to visit Seattle. The city’s EMP museum (the Experience Music Project) also has major displays on both Hendrix and Nirvana, and plenty more.
However, if you expand your scope beyond rock and pop music, Seattle’s history goes back further still. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra is over 100 years old, and is supposedly one of the most recorded orchestras in the world. The city is also home to several opera and ballet companies, and hosts a number of excellent chamber music festivals through the year. There’s also a vibrant Broadway music scene, with around 100 theatre companies and around 30 venues, of which the 5th Avenue Theater is the most famous.
What iconic music venues are there where you live? What’s your favourite US area for music? Let us know in the comments!