Jazz. Blues. Gospel. Country. Rock and roll. The south is the birthplace of so many forms of music that it’s impossible to visit without finding something you like — and discovering something completely new.
This region is one of contrasts — roadside dive bars compete with upmarket restaurants for the best BBQ, traditionally conservative people are absolute party animals at night, huge mansions sit on the same street as boarded-up homes. It’s one of the friendliest regions where we’ve seen the most poverty yet on our trip. And no matter where you go, you can hear live music every night of the week — much of it for free. If you don’t like drinking, dancing, or eating comfort food, this may not be the area for you. If you do, you’ll have the time of your life.
Tourists, bachelor parties, and college kids rip it up in country bars on Broadway (downtown), while earnest hipsters sing their hearts out in local dive bars in the eastern suburbs. Both are fun experiences, but we surprised ourselves (as non-country fans) to have the most fun boot scootin’ in honky tonks.
A few random exhibits at the country music hall of fame (a side on view of Dolly Parton’s “assets” and an Elvis car coated in crushed diamond and fish scales spring to mind) and in town (a full scale replica of Greece’s Parthenon in a local park) add to the slightly quirky nature of the city. It’s definitely a party town and gets bloody hot — we took it pretty slow during the day.
People warned us that Memphis was “grittier” than it’s sister music city but honestly, it was fine. The city has fewer posh areas than Nashville and certainly has a sense of lost wealth — with boarded up buildings right downtown— but we always felt safe in Memphis. We quite happily wandered around at night checking out blues bars and drove through the outer suburbs looking for (yet another) recommended BBQ joint. Sunday is one of the best nights to visit touristy Beale St, as the local blues commission puts together an open mic night with some of city’s finest at Rum Boogie.
There’s plenty to do during aside from listening to music — we checked out the ultimate ’70s pad, Graceland, visited the Civil Rights Museum, ate our weight in barbecue, and strolled along the Mississippi. It was also the first time I’ve eaten catfish (verdict: good when fried).
The Big Easy was a city of surprises: some good, some bad. There were more sketchy areas than expected but there was also an incredible nightlife. We has some of the most fun on our trip so far in New Orleans — and we definitely heard some of the best music and tasted some amazing food. We danced to all kinds of jazz, blues, rock and even marching bands on Frenchmen Street, and were lucky enough to be in town for a free jazz festival.
In a city known for it’s beautiful architecture in the French Quarter and Garden District, much of the city is still crumbling and not yet recovered from Cyclone Katrina nine years ago. We stayed in midcity, which definitely has some dodgy areas, but biked into town and back home at dusk without any problems, and caught the trolley during the day. I wish I could honestly say it was all fine but we did stumble onto what seemed to be a police crime scene one night (although that did force us to seek out the amazing local spot Chickee Wah Wah for some of the best jazz of the trip), and decided to stick to cabs at night after that. All up? The city is still on the road to recovery but it’s definitely worth exploring.
You can’t visit the south without sampling the food. It is so central to the southern experience and legendary southern hospitality, and good food is everywhere.
For instance, eating pork crackling outside a Louisiana gas station in Cajun country may seem like a new low, but you need to leave snobbery at the door when eating in the south. We learnt in Tennessee that the best BBQ is usually in the dodgiest looking highway joint — it’s rarely downtown or in an upmarket restaurant. The best po’boys we found in New Orleans were at Parkway Bakery & Tavern in midcity, not far from our hostel — life-changingly good. I learnt that simple Cajun red beans with rice and collards can somehow taste rich and delicious (not sure I want to know how).
Catfish, a bottom-feeder, is pretty good, and of course, everyone claims to have the “best fried chicken”, wherever you go. Our favourite? It’s a toss-up between a plate at the farmer markets in South Carolina, or at Prince’s Hot Chicken in no-frills strip mall in East Nashville, where we waited over an hour to dig in. Delicious.
We’ve just arrived in Austin, Texas and pretty excited explore this huge state — and I think we might just have more good music and BBQ in the days ahead.