The Roads To Music History
(Looking for more music-related travel ideas? Read the Summer Travel Issue of GRAMMY magazine.)
When GRAMMY Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli was the head of education and public programs at Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, he led tours through pockets of the United States where the roots of rock and roll had been planted. Stops included several out-of-the-way places — authentic slices of culture not found on maps, such as late bluesman Junior Kimbrough's juke joint outside of Holly Springs, Miss.
Today, anyone seeking the rural outpost where Kimbrough and his friend, Mississippi guitarist R.L. Burnside, kept the music and moonshine flowing can simply follow the Mississippi Blues Trail, a series of historical markers labeling significant sites around the state and beyond. The shack itself burned down in 2000, but the spirits of those bluesmen — and so many pivotal people and places in American music — now live on via that trail and others designed to acknowledge their influence and impact.
These trails have been paved throughout the country. Mississippi has official blues and country music trails; there's the Arkansas Delta Music Trail; North Carolina boasts the Blue Ridge Music Trails; and in Southwest Virginia the the roots of American music beat strong on The Crooked Road: Virginia's Heritage Music Trail. There's also an entire trail in Alabama devoted to one of the most popular icons in country music history: Hank Williams. And a newly developing trail, the Americana Music Triangle, reaches through five Southern states (Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas), in an effort to provide a more cohesive picture of the region's musical contributions.
"There are nine music genres identified as being original to the triangle that are really the roots of American music," says Aubrey Preston, who conceived the triangle and Gold Record Road route, anchored by New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville, Tenn., to encompass the birthplaces of blues, jazz, country, rock and roll, R&B/soul, gospel, Southern gospel, zydeco/Cajun, and bluegrass.
"To answer any question you might have about [the region's] music history, all you've got to do is get on the Gold Record Road," says Preston, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who also conceived the Discover Tennessee Trails & Byways program and the restoration of the historic village of Leiper's Fork in Tennessee.
Santelli, who helped develop the Mississippi Blues Trail, recalls how difficult it was to do research when he first began traveling around the Delta.
"You were just completely, absolutely lost, relying on hearsay or bad directions from locals," Santelli recalls. "Now it's all laid out for you, and it's accurate and it's exciting and you can literally build a one- or two-week vacation, if you're a hardcore blues fan, just exploring all of these places and taking in the culture, the history, the food, and, certainly, the music. And be all the wiser for it."
Both the Mississippi trail and Gold Record Road include markers for the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi, the first GRAMMY Museum satellite opening in 2015 at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss.
Preston says efforts to spotlight these sites help attract the attention of leaders who can direct funding to them.
"There's quite a bit of economic development going on in anticipation of the Gold Record Road bringing in international traffic on a sustainable basis," he says. One example is the estimated $44 million Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center set to open in 2017 in Meridian, Miss., the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers and Peavey Electronics.
Woody Crenshaw, owner of the Floyd Country Store on The Crooked Road in Floyd, Va., says the trail "is harkening to a new future for the region." By offering incentives to draw artists and developing an infrastructure so they can support themselves, the region is establishing a new creative economy that provides balance to what Crenshaw calls "extractive" industries such as logging and coal.
Crenshaw, a Crooked Road board member, describes the trail as "a string of pearls" celebrating the heritage of the place where the European violin and African banjo first came together, when old-time "hillbilly" and bluegrass music rang through the Blue Ridge hills and hollows — often played on the porches of general stores such as Floyd's, which Crenshaw and his wife bought and restored in 2005. Now there's music multiple days a week, and the town is thriving.
The Crooked Road is divided into major venues, affiliated venues and wayside exhibits — freestanding information panels with corresponding audio clips accessible on car radios. Sites include the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Galax, Va., on the North Carolina border. The performance center, which also houses the Roots of American Music exhibit, is operated by the National Park Service and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.
The center is also part of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Music Trail. Wayne Martin, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council, says the trail, like the Americana Music Triangle, was conceived as "a new style of tourism [providing] multiple entry points into the more grassroots, authentic culture of the region."
Similar to the territories they cover, different trails foster different experiences.
"People who go to the blues trail in Mississippi, a lot of them are players, but a lot of them just love blues," Martin says. "But people who love old-time music, a lot of them want to participate."
At places such as The Orchard at Altapass on the Blue Ridge Parkway, visitors are welcome to join local performers or pick up clog-dancing steps from Bill Carson, who's been running The Orchard with his wife, Judy, and sister, Kit Carson-Trubey, since the latter bought the land in 1995 to preserve it from development.
Sharing "the Appalachian experience," Carson says, not only preserves its legacy, but helps keep it alive.
The Americana Music Triangle is designed to provide those experiences without the marketing limitations of regional or state tourism offices or the focus on attractions with advertising budgets.
"Certain attractions get all the spotlight," Preston says, "and you don't get to know where the locals go to for music in a lot of these places, [or] about so many things that people want to see, because there's nobody with any money advocating for them."
International travelers in particular want seamless multistate itineraries, he notes. "They want information in a sequence that works. And they don't want information in silos."
Regardless of whether they stay within or expand beyond state borders, Santelli would like to see trails grow wherever rich music legacies exist. From the Appalachians and the Ozarks to the Delta and the Dust Bowl, America's greatest contribution to the world, he says, is music.
"It's about time that we're acknowledging it, and from the trails come preservation and conservation efforts, which is a terrific thing. It's long overdue."
(Austin, Texas-based writer/editor Lynne Margolis has contributed to a variety of print, broadcast and online media, including American Songwriter and Paste magazines, Rollingstone.com, the Christian Science Monitor and NPR. She also writes bios for new and established artists.)