The Blues Highway: Discover Highway 61
Linking Minnesota to Louisiana, Highway 61 (officially US Route 61) runs clean north to south for 1,400 miles along the Mississippi River – but arguably the most famous section is that which runs from Nashville all the way down to New Orleans.
That particular stretch became known for carrying musicians and singers from their rural hometowns to the buzzing music scenes of the big cities, and was soon nicknamed the Blues Highway. Legendary names such as Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Bessie Smith, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters have all followed their dreams along this road at some point – making it a true bucket-list trip for music fans.
At the start of the journey, the highway’s story is shaped by a whole variety of musical influences from across country music and soul. Then, as you wind your way down to the romantic wilds of Louisiana, you’ll find yourself in the beating heartland of the blues.
Things to do in Nashville
Where better to start your journey into the blues than on the fabled streets of Music City? A revered destination for many a songsmith, the area boasts over 120 live music venues, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash Museum. Plus there are plenty of spots in Downtown and East Nashville where you can pick up some classic Southern cuisine to keep you going.
Of course, catching the weekly country music stage performance at Grand Ole Opry is one of the most iconic things to do in Nashville. Thanks to these shows, which have been broadcast live on the radio since the 1920s, the venue played a key role in putting the city on the musical map.
Memphis, home of Elvis Presley
Choose any big name in the glory days of popular blues and there’s a high chance they made their start in Memphis. Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis and Otis Redding are just some of the stars who made their start in this city, but perhaps the most famous of all is the King. Memphis is of course where you’ll find Graceland, the fabled estate of Elvis which houses multiple museums and restaurants, as well as musical events throughout the year.
Be sure to also stop at Sun Studio, where the King and many others recorded their first worldwide hits, and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Once you’ve finished sightseeing, while away the evening hours enjoying live music and local cuisine in the Beale Street Historic District, where the Memphis Blues was developed by the likes of Muddy Waters and Louis Armstrong in the area’s vibrant music clubs and venues.
Famous blues locations on your journey south
Beyond Memphis, you’re getting to the true beating heart of the blues – as signposted by the unassuming Gateway to the Blues at Tunica. The 19th-century former train depot now houses a museum and visitor information about the route ahead, so be sure to stop and get some local tips for your journey – or even record your own song as part of the centre’s interactive exhibits.
Onwards, to The Crossroads in Clarksdale, where blues legend Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a finely tuned guitar. Once you’ve tracked down the iconic blue guitars, head to the nearby Delta Blues Museum and the Ground Zero Blues Club. The latter, part-owned by Hollywood hero (and local resident) Morgan Freeman, is an old cotton warehouse transformed into one of the country’s most popular live music bars.
Things to do in New Orleans
Nashville may have 120 venues, but New Orleans doesn’t need them. Music is everywhere in the Big Easy, drifting out of windows and through the streets – an invisible thread that pulls the whole city together. This is a place that really knows how to add a little spirit to any occasion – and with 2018 marking the city’s 300th birthday, you’ll find no end of things to do in New Orleans.
Whatever time you arrive, head straight to Frenchmen Street – the ‘capital of live music in New Orleans’ – where you’ll find vibrant acts throughout the week both in and out of the venues. Bourbon Street is another must-see location in the pulsating heart of the French Quarter, the city’s oldest neighbourhood. Its famously hedonistic nightlife means there’s no better place to round off your New Orleans adventure in style.
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