Born in the USA: Top 10 music cities

We hit the road to celebrate America's best music cities, taking in the sweet sound of jazz in New Orleans, the tenacious, gritty rap of New York, good ol' Memphis rock, and Chicago's inimitable blues, and more…

By Aaron Millar
Published 3 May 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 12:47 BST
Born in the USA

Born in the USA

Photograph by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

1. New Orleans

In the 19th century, slaves would gather on Sundays to play drums, dance and sing in Congo Square — one of the only places in the New World where they were allowed to do so. It's lucky they were. Because those dark, sensual rhythms of Africa collided head on with the bright sounds of Europe and created something that had never been heard before: jazz — that seminal American art form, which has inspired countless generations and spread around the world. But this isn't corduroy-wearing, head-nodding, polite jazz. New Orleans jazz has bite and pop. It sweeps you off your feet and makes you jump and clap and sing along. The great Louis Armstrong, who grew up here, said: "What we play is life." Music in New Orleans is more than just songs. Every note is imbued with heart and history, soul and a joyful celebration.

2. Chicago

During the Great Migration (1916-1970) when large numbers of African Americans left the South in search of better-paying jobs and equal opportunities in the north, Chicago was the promised land. People arrived in their thousands, bringing with them the sounds of the Mississippi Delta. Here, it mixed with the bright lights of the city and transformed into something bigger, electrified and symphonic. The Blues didn't begin in Chicago. It was born from the anguish of the cotton fields, but it was here that it found its voice and began to spread its message around the world.

3. Memphis

Memphis is the birthplace of rock 'n' roll. It was here in Sun Studios in the summer of 1951 that Ike Turner and his band the Delta Cats recorded Rocket 88, widely regarded as the first rock 'n' roll song. But, like so many visionary moments, it happened by accident — the guitarist's amp malfunctioned during the recording, creating a distorted guitar sound that would become a hallmark of the genre. People didn't know how to classify it, but they knew they loved it. The rest is history.

4. Austin

Austin calls itself the Live Music Capital of the World for good reason. Some cities have more history, others have bigger stars, but none have better fans. The secret is passion. There are over 250 live music venues in Austin, more per capita than anywhere else in the country and, despite the old joke about Texans liking both types of music (Country and Western), you can find any style you want, seven days a week.

5. Asheville

"Asheville is about playing music for music's sake," says John Stickley, one of bluegrass's young legends, who hails from here. "It's like Nashville, but not commercial." This town, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia, North Carolina, is perhaps America's greatest undiscovered musical city. Rooted in old-time bluegrass and mountain folk traditions, great songs just pour out of it — from some of the best live music venues in the country, from the free festivals held throughout the summer, and from the drum circle jams that bring hundreds of people to the main square every Friday night. Asheville — with its fast-picked guitars and foot-stomping tunes set against a backdrop of Appalachian hills rolling — may be undiscovered, but not for long.

6. Nashville

Nashville is not about celebrity; it's about the players. They call it Music City but that doesn't go far enough. Nashville is Music Top Gun. From the dives bars and the Ryman Auditorium to RCA Studio B and the honky tonks, this city is no museum: music is a living thing here. It spills out of every open window and door in a whirlwind of sound. It's not about selling records or packing shows. It's about the players, the circus: songs and sweat, dirty jeans and vintage guitars, candles burning through the night.

7. Detroit

Detroit has two claims to fame. Not only is it the birthplace of that soulful Motown sound; it was also here, in the 1980s, that a group of young kids, The Belleville Three, started experimenting with technology and music in a way that hadn't been done before. Yes, techno started in these gritty streets and it's still going strong. It's a great time to visit Detroit, a city with a remarkable story: one of the great boom towns of the early 20th century that went bust, spectacularly; its marble-clad towers slowly hollowed out from within, factories left broken and abandoned; half ghost town, half just clinging on. But today, they call it America's Comeback City for a reason.

8. New York

New York is one of the world's greatest cities. You can listen to all kinds of music. But to feel that true New York state of mind you have to leave the shiny towers and Broadway shows of Manhattan and head north to Harlem, and to the four other boroughs — the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island — where the sounds and the streets intertwine: beats and rhymes, breaks and spins — a whole art form born from just two turntables and a microphone.

9. Minneapolis

Minneapolis is Prince's town. He was born here, lived here and died here — it was his muse. And if you're a Prince fan, well, coming here is a pilgrimage you simply have to make. But it's at Paisley Park where the legend comes alive. This predominantly purple mansion in the suburbs features a Hollywood-style sound stage, four recording studios and a nightclub. Giant murals of Prince on the ceiling, with bursts of divine light shooting out of his hands; guitars and pearl-string outfits pinned to the wall; an entire room decked out in swirls of purple UV stars. This is how he lived, flamboyant to the end.

10. Seattle

Seattle was the home of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Blind Melon and more. Grunge exploded out of these streets in the early '90s — and though the scene has changed today, with electronica and underground hip hop just as big — it still smells like teen spirit. Visit the unofficial Kurt Cobain memorial in Viretta Park, where lyrics and love letters are scrawled on the two park benches near where he used to live; London Bridge Studio, where Sound Garden, Alice in Chains and others have recorded; and the Black Dog Forge, where the greats rehearsed. But don't stop there. Before grunge there was Hendrix, who was born and raised here. Jimi Hendrix Park, which opened last summer, is dedicated to the guitar god, with memorials, sculptures and lyrics etched into the purple-edged walkways.

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Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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