Memphis to New Orleans: A Music Lover’s Road Trip
Road Trip Travel
Growing up in Mississippi, music was deeply embedded in our day-to-day lives. From hymns on Sunday morning to Paul Simon coming out of my mother’s speakers as she hung clothes on the line. It was soulful music that told a story. And believe it or not, much of our country’s own story, from music to Civil Rights to pop culture, grows right out of that stretch of the Deep South between Memphis and New Orleans. This road trip down Highway 61 is perfect for any with a deeper love of music than most, and anyone who is Southern-curious.
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Where to stay
The Central Station Memphis, Curio Collection by Hilton
Historic hotel located in the Memphis' Central Station with a refined French restaurant and DJ nights in the hotel lobby.
Picture-worthy millennial heaven with an all-day bakery with coffee and cocktails, a shuffleboard bar and a poker room.
Sleek hotel with luxurious rooms and a high-end spa in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.
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Day 1 & 2: Memphis
Get all shook up at Graceland
Elvis-mania can be hard to imagine today, but Graceland surely delivers. The second most visited home in America, Graceland is a time capsule of the late ‘50s to late ‘70s when Elvis was “King.” The Graceland complex covers 120 acres where you can tour Elvis’s mansion, airplanes, an automobile museum, and a career museum. Plan to spend three to four hours here to make the most of your visit.
Groove through Memphis' music museums
Tour Sun Studio, where Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Louis were discovered. The hour-long tour of the studio takes you back through the history of the studio. Be sure to get a photo singing into the microphone that Elvis used to record his first song.
You’ll want to dance your way through The Stax Museum of American Soul Music while viewing over 2,000 pieces of memorabilia that pay tribute to Stax Records studio, and the musicians who made it legendary, like Otis Redding, Booker T. and The MGs, and William Bel.
Designed by the Smithsonian, The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum honors the Memphis music story and the musicians who made the “Memphis Sound.” Listen to an audio guide while touring the museum’s seven galleries featuring instruments, costumes and other memorabilia. You’ll find the museum on historic Beale Street.
Flip out on Beale Street
The iconic Beale Street is an essential stop on any trip to Memphis. W.C. Handy, Muddy Waters and B.B. King got their start playing the clubs along the three-block strip. While strolling Beale Street, keep an eye out for the Beale Street Flippers, an acrobatic troupe of street performers. Fill up on barbecue or fried catfish at Blues City Cafe, then head over to BB King’s Blues Club for some live tunes.
Visit vinyl heaven
With a collection of over 60,000 records, The Memphis Listening Lab is a vinyl enthusiast’s dream! The Lab, which opened in the summer of 2021, was built around the collection of John King, a co-founder of Ardent Records and Memphis music promoter. The 3,000-square-foot space is fitted with state-of-the-art equipment, floor-to-ceiling shelves, and mid-century décor. You’ll find it hard not to spend all day there. Pull any record from the wall, grab a pair of headphones, and cozy up to a turntable at one of the many dedicated listening stations! We spent a long rainy afternoon here flipping through record after record. If you’re overwhelmed by the options or if you want to hear something new, the MLL staff are super knowledgeable and always happy to make a recommendation. Admission is free!
Day 3 & 4: The Delta
Pick up the blues trail
The Gateway to the Blues Museum in Tunica is a great first stop in the Mississippi Delta. The museum offers an introduction to how the blues was born in the Delta. In addition, the museum guides can provide assistance and information on other essential Delta stops.
Down in Clarksdale, the Delta Blues Museum showcases the history of the Blues. Exhibits include guitars of John Lee Hooker and BB King, artifacts from Delta juke joints, and a collection of Blues music memorabilia.
The Grammy Museum Mississippi in Cleveland cannot be missed! We especially enjoyed the museum’s interactive exhibits – record a blues song in a sound booth, learn dances from the past on a lighted dancefloor and play an instrument. You’ll also see some of your favorite Grammy outfits, music artifacts and an MTV-dedicated exhibit.
Mississippi Delta-born and raised, Mr. Sylvester Hoover has been leading his Delta Blues Legend Tours for over 40 years. On this three-hour walking and driving tour of Greenwood, Mr. Hoover shares about growing up in the Delta and how the history of the Blues and the Civil Rights all flow through Greenwood. You’ll visit the Tallahatchie Bridge of Bobbie Gentry fame, the remains of Bryant’s Grocery where Emmett Till visited, Robert Johnson’s grave, the childhood home of David “Honeyboy” Edwards and filming locations of The Help. Tip: The tour is cash-only.
Located in Indianola, Mississippi, The B.B. King Museum chronicles the life of American blues legend B.B. King. From his early childhood spent on a cotton plantation across his career as a chart-topper, the museum covers it all with a mix of audio, visual and interactive exhibits. A tour of the museum takes about two hours.
Just outside of Cleveland, you can stop by Dockery Farms, a former cotton plantation and sawmill perched on the Sunflower River. In its heyday, Dockery Farms comprised 40 square miles of land, and Blues legends like B.B. King, Charley Patton, and Howlin’ Wolf all passed through Dockery Farms, which is why many regard the old plantation as the place the Blues was born. Today, you can take a self-guided tour of its remains and check out some of the industrial equipment used to process the cotton. It’s a short stop, but definitely worth it.
You’ve probably seen a photo of Po’ Monkey’s somewhere along the line, but seeing it up close is a whole different experience. Located in Bolivar County outside of Merigold, Po’ Monkey’s was an eclectic juke joint known for strippers, $2 beers, and raucous Blues music. Unfortunately, the club’s owner, Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry, passed away in 2016. Po’ Monkey’s closed for good, but it’s definitely worth a stop to see in person.
Juke joint jumpin' in Clarksdale
Owned by Mississippi Native and Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, Ground Zero is a hotspot on the modern blues trail. You can catch live music every Wednesday through Saturday, and on Thursdays, Ground Zero features an open mic night. Of course, the kitchen serves pub favorites like burgers and fried catfish late into the evening. If you really want to be close to the action, you can book an apartment-style room upstairs, right above the barroom.
Just around the corner from Ground Zero, you might miss Red’s if you don’t know what to look for. Red’s is an authentic juke joint that carries on in the same tradition as Po’ Monkeys (no strippers, sorry). Blues musicians from across the region play at Red’s in a stripped-down and close-up fashion. For a plate of food or a nice cocktail, stop somewhere else, but if you want to see the real, raw Blues, leave your inhibitions at the door and pull up a chair at Red’s.
In downtown Clarksdale, the Bluesberry Café offers a more relaxed atmosphere, but the Blues action is still hot. You can enjoy breakfast and a live Blues set on Saturday and Sunday mornings, along with dinner and music on Monday nights.
Day 5 & 6: New Orleans
Hear live music everywhere
From street corners to cafes to dive bars to music venues, New Orleans vibrates with live music. The New Orleans tourism board lists over 90 venues across the city, so it’s not hard to stumble on live music any time day or night. These are a few venues that should be on your list to visit:
Historic Preservation Hall is the quintessential New Orleans Jazz experience. With a history of hosting jazz musicians since the ‘50s, Preservation Hall has nightly, intimate performances from top musicians. Over the years, there have been a number of “surprise” performances from mainstream artists such as Dave Grohl, Pete Townshend and Elvis Costello. If you can only pick one venue, Preservation Hall is it. Tip: Buy tickets in advance. Be prepared to stow your phone or camera away because photos are not allowed during the show.
A New Orleans landmark dating back to 1977, Tipitina’s is named after a song written by the club’s patron saint Professor Longhair. Many legendary musicians have performed on the stage at Tipitina’s: Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, Fats Domino, the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, the Meters and the list goes on and on.
The newly reopened Chickie Wah Wah promises to keep the vibe of its former glory – intimate performances from local musicians and touring artists. With an eclectic lineup, this Canal Street venue always delivers a solid good time.
Part music venue, part one-of-a-kind art installation, The Music Box Village is inspired by the city around it. Designed by artists, musicians and local builders, each “house” was imagined with an interactive, musical element. Visit during public hours to explore the village, or check their calendar for one of their ticketed musical performances or workshops.
Can’t decide which of the venues you want to add to your itinerary? We would start with anywhere the Soul Rebels Brass Band, Cha Wa, Trombone Shorty, or John Cleary are playing in the city.
Additional Days in Tupelo
PUT ON YOUR BLUE SUEDE SHOES
Best known for being the birthplace of Elvis, Tupelo, Mississippi is a worthwhile addition to this music-lover’s road trip. Just a little under two hours from Graceland, The Elvis Presley Birthplace & Museum focuses on preserving the history of Elvis’s childhood. The two-room shotgun that young Elvis called home is the center of the site that also includes Elvis’ childhood church, a memorial chapel, a theatre, and a park.
In addition to the Birthplace, Elvis superfans can visit - Tupelo Hardware Co, where Elvis bought his first guitar; Johnnie’s Drive-In, a favorite local diner of Elvis’s; and the Lee County Library, with Elvis’s first library card on display. If you’re looking for a photo op, there are a handful of murals and art installations downtown that pay homage to “The King.”
GOOD MOOD MUSIC
For live music in Tupelo, Blue Canoe is THE spot. An intimate space, Blue Canoe is reminiscent of the juke joints of the delta. The bar’s CatHead Stage has hosted Alabama Shakes, Gary Clark Jr, Leon Bridges, Shovels and Rope, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones to name a few. The Canoe (as locals call it) doesn’t only serve up good music but also delivers on “good mood food.” Do not leave without trying the Connie’s Blueberry Donut Bread Pudding.
Every road trip needs a curated playlist to keep you company on your drive. I’ve got you covered with a Memphis to New Orleans curated playlist for your journey down Highway 61.
Need to Know
Looking to explore more of the American South? Check out my curated list of Things to Do in Savannah, Georgia.
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