Eight great US cities every music fan should visit

From throbbing techno hits to silky-smooth jazz, the country’s musical landscape is as diverse as its physical one. Offering rich snapshots of American history, here are the greatest music cities to tune into.

Elkhorn stage at the bluegrass Railbird Festival, Lexington.

Photograph by Charles Reagan
By Jacqui Agate, Zoey Goto
Published 7 Mar 2023, 07:00 GMT

1. Lexington: bluegrass

Folksy, string-filled offshoot of classic country, bluegrass is rooted in the musical styles of early British and Irish settlers across Appalachia. But it grew legs in Kentucky’s bluegrass area — so called because of the meadow grass that flourishes here — when Bill Monroe founded the Blue Grass Boys in 1938. The genre took its name from this fast-fingered, Stetson-sporting band, and the music is still alive and well in Lexington, the region’s biggest city. 

In June 2023, the city’s long-running Festival of the Bluegrass will return for the first time since the pandemic began, with new organisers as well as a new name: Spirit of the Bluegrass. Held at the sprawling Kentucky Horse Park, a working farm, it sets the stage for both modern and veteran acts. 

There’s also the Railbird Festival, which debuted in 2019 and is scheduled to come back at the Red Mile racetrack this summer. The event’s musical acts run the gamut from rock to bluegrass and previous performers have included Billy Strings, an icon of the modern bluegrass scene. What’s more, Bourbon from some of Kentucky’s finest distilleries will also be on offer. 

Beyond the festivals, Red Barn Radio invites audiences to its live bluegrass broadcasts at ArtsPlace, while al fresco concerts take place at the Moondance Amphitheater throughout summer. You can also listen in on foot-stomping jam sessions at bike-shop-cum-cafe Broomwagon every week. JA

2. Nashville: country

The twang of country music can still be heard ringing out loud and proud in Nashville, mainly in the honky-tonks on Broadway. But country purists should book early to nab a seat at The Bluebird Cafe, a small venue outside the city centre, where stars including Taylor Swift and Faith Hill have pulled up a stool to play pared-back acoustic sets in the renowned listening lounge. On a Saturday night, a visit to the hallowed Grand Ole Opry is a must — the singer emerging from behind the velvet curtain just might be the next Dolly Parton. 

But as Music City continues its relentless boom, attracting travellers and musicians from across the globe, its tuneful landscape has diversified to offer something for every taste. Head to the hip neighbourhood of Five Points for rocking venues including the East Room, home to a punk scene and a long-running goth dance party, or Cannery Ballroom near Downtown, where bands such as Bully and HARD (Have A Rad Day) thrash it out on stage. 

And after two decades in the making, the long-awaited National Museum of African American Music is a welcome attraction on Nashville’s superstar circuit. Wander through the hands-on galleries dedicated to jazz, R&B, hip-hop, gospel, blues and rock’n’roll. ZG

The Bluebird Cafe, a Nashville country music institution.

The Bluebird Cafe, a Nashville country music institution.

Photograph by Bluebird Cafe

3. Memphis: soul 

A swirl of rhythm and blues, gospel and doo-wop, soul music emerged from African-American communities in the 1950s. And Memphis soul was born in this city, pioneered by Stax Records and popularised by artists such as Otis Redding. Stax was a place of creativity and racial integration in a city and era that was fiercely divided. Now, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music — which was added to the US Civil Rights Trail last year — is the ultimate pilgrimage for fans of the genre, with riches including Isaac Hayes’s gold-plated Cadillac and a replica of hit-making Studio A. 

Next door is Stax Music Academy, where the next generation of soul singers are nurtured. You can catch their shows around the city, including stripped-back performances in the Stax Museum car park. Nearby, a commemorative marker identifies the house where Aretha Franklin was born. 

Northwest of ‘Soulsville’, blues music resonates on neon-soaked Beale Street. Duck into BB King’s Blues Club, where the All-Star Band belt out a heady mix of R&B and rock’n’roll. Further east, open-air theatre Overton Park Shell has played host to soul heavyweights, including Booker T & the MG’s. It now hosts a schedule of free concerts from late spring to autumn. JA

4. New York: hip-hop

Hip-hop isn’t just a music genre in the Big Apple, it’s a state of mind. And with the launch of the (R)Evolution of Hip Hop exhibition at the Bronx Terminal Market, aficionados visiting the city are in for a treat. Beatboxing its way through the golden era of hip-hop, this pop-up runs until May 2023, harnessing everything from old-school mixtapes to new-school augmented reality to showcase how the city danced to its own, groundbreaking tempo.  

If the Bronx Terminal Market show is the warm-up act, then the headliner arrives in 2024, with the opening of the Universal Hip Hop Museum. The $80m (£65m) hub will lean heavily on immersive technology, including holograms, to bring New York’s hip-hop history to life. 

In the meantime, fans should book a Hush Hip Hop Tour, for a whistle-stop trip around New York’s storied streets. Bronx tours stop at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, the exact spot where, in 1973, DJ Kool Herc birthed hip-hop by pioneering his breakbeat technique on the turntables. That night has since gone down as the ultimate block party. But what really sets Hush Tours apart is the guides, who are genuine architects of hip-hop. You may even end up with the legendary Grandmaster Caz and Ralph McDaniels leading your group. ZG

Left: Top:

Drum kit at Preservation Hall, New Orleans.

Photograph by Shannon Brinkman
Right: Bottom:

Classic architecture in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

Photograph by Getty Images

5. Chicago: house

It’s often said that house music rose from disco’s ashes — and those ashes were, almost literally, scattered in Chicago. At the tail end of the 1970s, the city played host to the controversial Disco Demolition Night, when folks descended on Comiskey Park to watch disco records be blown up before their eyes. 

But as the death knell rang for disco, a new sound was emerging from Chicago’s underground club scene. Legendary DJs such as Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy were experimenting with new ways of mixing, and house music — characterised by 4/4 beats at a mighty quick tempo — was born. 

The Warehouse (the venue from which house music got its name) is long shuttered, but new kids on the block include Le Nocturne, while Smart Bar is an old hand, hosting a Sunday-night house party called ‘Queen!’. You’ll also find veteran clubs such as Spybar in the River North neighbourhood.

Postponed three times, EDM festival Spring Awakening is gearing up for its 10th anniversary event this summer, while not-for-profit My House Music Festival will take over Pilsen, in Chicago’s Lower West Side. JA

6. New Orleans: jazz

As synonymous with New Orleans as raucous Mardi Gras parades, jazz is the lifeblood of the Big Easy. A fine place to take the pulse of the city’s scene is Preservation Hall, situated in the heart of the French Quarter. Half of the fun is in guessing who might perform: the dynamic house band play three or four sets every evening in this one-room venue, often accompanied by big-name musicians, who can casually drop by unannounced. 

For a glimpse into where the city’s jazz scene is heading, hot-foot it to the Maple Leaf Bar, where, if you’re lucky, you might catch the Rebirth Brass Band, a funky ensemble spearheading the brass revival. 

Worth a stop is the New Orleans Jazz Museum, where you can brush up on the history of the city’s joyful jazz culture, which, since the turn of the 20th century, has reflected the merging of African, Caribbean and European musical traditions. Afterwards, bed down for the night at Hotel St Pierre, frequented by the late, great Louis Armstrong.  

Following a two-year pause, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival made its comeback in 2022, and the 2023 iteration kicks off on the last weekend of April. ZG

Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at night.

Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at night.

Photograph by Aerial Agents

7. Cleveland: rock'n'roll

There’s a reason why ‘Cleveland Rocks’ adorns street murals in Ohio’s music city. It’s here that the phrase ‘rock and roll’ was first coined by Alan Freed, a 1950s radio DJ whose grave in the local cemetery has a jukebox for a headstone. 

Cleveland was also the first city above the Mason-Dixon Line where swivel-hipped Elvis Presley performed, while the city’s enthusiasm for The Beatles was such that fans repeatedly stormed the stage when the Fab Four rolled into town. Now Beatlemania has hit Cleveland once again, thanks to the Get Back to Let It Be exhibition at the city’s famous Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. After admiring items such as the band members’ handwritten diaries and Ringo Starr’s raincoat, continue through the seven levels of rockin’ exhibits.

As an essential stop for touring acts, Cleveland is also home to some impressive live venues. The grandfather is perhaps the Beachland Ballroom & Tavern, which is also known for its lauded weekend brunches and guest DJ sets, while the Agora has welcomed everyone from Bruce Springsteen to the Foo Fighters. And be sure to swing by Record Revolution, the oldest independent vinyl record store in the US. ZG

8. Detroit: techno

Detroit is most associated with Motown, but lesser known is the story of the Belleville Three — Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson — a trio of young, Black Detroiters who, in the 1980s, began using sequencers and synthesisers to create a brand new sound: techno. A beleaguered Detroit was fertile ground for the growth of this all-consuming music. Techno offered an escape for a youth disillusioned by conservatism, and it was played in basements and clubs across the city. 

Today the beat lives on. Interest in the thumping genre renewed when documentary God Said Give ’Em Drum Machines, which revealed the origins of techno in Detroit, came out in 2022. As for where to hear techno, the king of clubs is the TV Lounge, showcasing some of the biggest names in the business. The gritty Leland City Club is another frontrunner — Derrick May himself has spun the decks here — while the intimate Marble Bar keeps the genre alive with its very own record label. 

For extra background, Exhibit 3000 fancies itself the world’s first and only techno museum. The rather nondescript building belies the treasures inside, including a hodgepodge of early equipment, from synths to drum machines. Tours are by appointment only. JA

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