7 Cities That Reshaped American Music History

From the Memphis blues to Seattle grunge, the United States’ unique musical genres are products of the cities that birthed them.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA USA- FEB 2 2016: An unidentified  local jazz band performs  in the New Orleans French Quarter, to the delight of visitors and music lovers  in town.

Excellent jazz music is easy to find in New Orleans.

Photo By GTS Productions/Shutterstock

Think of the United States as a compilation album. Each city is like a track that’s had its signature sound shaped by its unique history. The results? Such instantly recognizable genres as brass-heavy New Orleans jazz, sun-drenched SoCal rock, and moody Seattle grunge. A visit to one of America’s most musical cities might include a pilgrimage to the places where legends lived, recorded, or performed their hits—from rowdy honky-tonks to hallowed concert halls—but it also offers a chance to catch up with newcomers who are keeping their legacies alive. The United States’ musical history is vast, but this is our attempt at a greatest hits, coast-to-coast list of seven cities that move to the beat of their own drum (or twangy banjo or distorted electric guitar . . .).

New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans is the undisputed birthplace of jazz, where the genre was created by the same cross-cultural collisions that brought us gumbo and Mardi Gras. Some music historians trace its roots to the mid-18th century, when enslaved West Africans would gather in Congo Square to keep their drumming and dancing traditions alive during Sunday markets, and ragtime and the blues later added more spice to the pot, culminating in the rise of Dixieland. Today, jazz suffuses the city so completely that the genre is embedded in funeral traditions here, as brass bands often accompany mourners from the church to the cemetery in a celebratory display.

You can catch live jazz nearly anywhere, over brunch or in your boutique hotel, though purists swear by the French Quarter’s Preservation Hall, which opened in 1961 and hosts nightly sets. Just beyond the quarter’s boundaries, the 500 and 600 blocks of Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood used to be for locals only, but the cool cat’s out of the bag at popular venues like Snug Harbor, Three Muses, and d.b.a.

By day, don’t miss the New Orleans Jazz Museum, a 25,000-artifact-strong collection housed in the old U.S. Mint building, or the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, which hosts ranger talks, drum circles, and live performances.

Where to stay

The Pontchartrain Hotel’s Bayou Bar used to host the likes of Frank Sinatra and Truman Capote, and now it features live music every Tuesday through Saturday.

Rows of curved seating backed by colorful stained-glass arched windows

The hallowed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville got its start as a church before welcoming the Grand Ole Opry.

Photo by Nick Agee on Unsplash

Nashville, Tennessee

Perhaps no American city is as synonymous with a genre of popular music as Nashville is with country: With more than 190 recording studios, 80 record labels, and 43,000 industry jobs, music is a $15.6 billion industry in the metropolitan area. You don’t have to look far to immerse yourself in that sweet twang, whether you’re scoping out up-and-comers at the Bluebird Cafe (where Taylor Swift was discovered at the age of 14), honoring the greats at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, or catching a set by a living legend at the Ryman Auditorium, which was famously the home base for the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974. Since 2021, the city has also been home to the National Museum of African American Music, which celebrates achievement across genres, from gospel and the blues to jazz and R&B.

There are venues for all kinds of music lovers who want to catch a live show: the Station Inn for bluegrass jams, Robert’s Western World for Western swing, and The Basement East (or “The Beast”) for a more rock-tinged lineup. If you can handle crowds, explore country music’s more raucous side on the whiskey-soaked Honky Tonky Highway, a stretch of Lower Broadway where many of the bars are owned by musicians like Alan Jackson, Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, and Blake Shelton.

Where to stay

The Graduate Nashville features a Dolly Parton–themed rooftop bar called White Limozeen, featuring an enormous pink bust of Backwoods Barbie made out of chicken wire.

A bench covered in trinkets and written words on a hill in a park next to a tall tree, with a house in the distance

A makeshift memorial for Kurt Cobain has emerged on a bench in Seattle’s Viretta Park near his final house.

Photo by Iryna Makukha on Shutterstock

Seattle, Washington

As the 1980s drew to a close, the Pacific Northwest gave rise to grunge, and its distorted guitars and introspective, angsty lyrics will forever be tied to this cloudy metropolis on Puget Sound. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden remade the post-punk sound in their own flannel-clad image, and many were signed by underground label Sub Pop Records. (You can shop for merch and vinyls at the label’s stores on 7th Avenue and in the airport.)

While most of the dives and clubs where the bands made beautifully grungy music together have since closed, you can still catch live shows at Seattle’s oldest operating theater, the Moore Theatre, which opened in Belltown in 1907 and later served as the setting for Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow” video, and The Crocodile, where Nirvana opened for Mudhoney in 1991 under the secret name “Pen Pap Chew.” Other modern rock clubs include The Showbox, Neumos, Tractor Tavern, and the University District’s vaguely nautical Neptune Theatre.

For years, Gen X-ers have been making pilgrimages to an unofficial Kurt Cobain memorial bench, covered in messages and trinkets, in Viretta Park near the house where he died, while the Frank Gehry–designed MoPOP, or Museum of Pop Culture, includes Nirvana memorabilia in its wide-ranging collection.

Where to stay

At the overwater Edgewater Hotel, you can book the Pearl Jam Suite, which includes Ames Bros. tour posters, a Fender guitar, an amp, and rare vinyls.

New York City

New York may be the city that never sleeps because there’s always just too much to listen to. It played a seminal role in the creation of many genres of popular American music, from punk rock and disco to salsa and doo-wop. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the birth of hip-hop, which many fans trace to a 1973 back-to-school party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, hosted by the pioneering DJ Kool Herc. Over the years, the city has been a creative cradle for the likes of Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G., Run-D.M.C., Nas, and the Wu-Tang Clan, plus more recent stars like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B.

Visiting hip-hop–related landmarks can be a bit tricky because so many of the seminal moments happened in random apartment buildings around town, and many of the best clubs from those early days have since shut their doors. That’s why it’s best to leave it up to the experts: Hush Tours offers walking and bus itineraries in Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, during which you can watch B-boys and B-girls dancing and hear your guide freestyle. After dark, popular bars and venues hosting hip-hop nights include Schimanski and Cafe Erzulie in Brooklyn and the Afro-Latinx club SOB’s, which opened in 1982 in Soho and has welcomed the likes of Kendrick Lamar and A Tribe Called Quest.

Where to stay

Located on the same block as the Apollo, the new Renaissance New York Harlem Hotel opened in the tallest building north of Central Park and incorporates the facade of the 1917 Victoria Theater into its design. The hotel is filled with nods to Black music legends such as Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, and the location on 125th Street puts you in strolling distance from hip-hop–themed murals, soul food restaurants, and streetwear shops.

Neon signs for bars and restaurants light up a street filled with people

Beale Street is the center of the musical action in Memphis, lined with neon-lit juke joints hosting live shows.

Photo by Heidi Kaden on Unsplash

Memphis, Tennessee

This Tennessee town has always punched above its weight class musically—after all, it’s rare for one city to lay claim to being the birthplace of both rock ‘n’ roll and the blues. The legend of Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio looms large, especially thanks to its famed 1956 jam session with the “Million Dollar Quartet” of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. And, of course, there’s Graceland (and the Stax Museum, which tells the story of Stax and the soul musicians, including Otis Redding).

But this is blues country, with Memphis often called the unofficial capital of the Mississippi Delta, and the city hosts the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame Museum, which honors greats such as Muddy Waters, Etta James, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Father of the Blues, W.C. Handy, moved to the city in 1909, and though he didn’t quite invent the genre, he popularized the Delta-born folk tradition by publishing the music for a wider audience. You can visit the two-room shotgun shack where he settled, which was moved to Beale Street in the mid-1980s, before catching a live set in one of the clubs and juke joints on that storied thoroughfare, like B.B. King’s, Rum Boogie Cafe, and Blues Hall. (Venturing off the main drag will take you to less-touristed spots like Wild Bill’s Juke Joint and Earnestine & Hazel’s.)

Where to stay

The Central Station Hotel has a 500-album vinyl collection and a listening lounge, and custom speakers from Memphis’ own EgglestonWorks can be found in each of the 123 guest rooms. Need help figuring out what to listen to? The hotel has curated themed Spotify playlists with names like Them Memphis Blues and Graceland Grooves.

A white castle-like building next to a curving street with a city skyline in the background

The infamous Chateau Marmont has loomed large over the Sunset Strip (and rock history) for decades.

Photo by 4kclips on Shutterstock

Los Angeles

Much like the city itself, L.A.’s musical legacy is sprawling. Thanks to its preponderance of record labels and recording studios, the city has touched seemingly every genre of popular music, from surf rock to heavy metal to West Coast rap. (It’s no surprise that one of the most defining sites on the skyline is the Capitol Records Building.)

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Sunset Strip came to define the SoCal rock scene, thanks to clubs including the Troubadour, the Roxy Theatre, and Whisky a Go Go, which played an instrumental role in the careers of Janis Joplin, the Doors, Mötley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses, and more. But the area would enter the pop culture consciousness even more for its raucous crash pads—the Chateau Marmont among them.

Nearby, up in the Hollywood Hills, Laurel Canyon had a decidedly groovier vibe, with the acoustic sounds of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, and James Taylor ringing out among the almost-rural neighborhood. While much of the music-making (and fraternizing) happened in private homes, you can still get in the spirit of the era at the Canyon Country Store, an unassuming corner market that Jim Morrison immortalized as “the store where the creatures meet” in “Love Street.” For a behind-the-scenes look at where the magic was made, book a Laurel Canyon Hippie Hiking Tour, during which your guide, a longtime-resident of the area, will take you past the former homes of Glen nFrey, John Lennon, Jackson Browne, Frank Zappa, and more.

Where to stay

Formerly nicknamed the “Riot House,” the Andaz West Hollywood is where Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham reportedly drove a motorcycle through the halls and Keith Richards dropped a TV out the window.

A statue of Willie Nelson with long braids and a guitar in front of a cement wall with a bronze plaque

A statue of the Texas-born Willie Nelson keeps watch over ACL Live at the Moody Theater.

Photo by Rolf_52 on Shutterstock

Austin, Texas

“Keep Austin Weird” has become a rallying cry for the Texas capital, which hosts such music festivals as SXSW and Austin City Limits, and in many ways it was the city’s weirdness that put it on the musical map in the ‘70s. A hippie-skewing group of musicians transformed an old National Guard armory building into the short-lived Armadillo World Headquarters, a music hall and beer garden that attracted free spirits such as Frank Zappa and the Flying Burrito Brothers. When Willie Nelson sought to escape the corporatization of Nashville’s country scene, he decamped to his home state, ushering in a new generation of outlaw country in Austin. An eight-foot-tall bronze statue of the Red Headed Stranger now sits outside ACL Live at the Moody Theater, where the PBS music series has filmed since 2011. Fun fact: It’s the first TV show to be awarded the National Medal of Arts.

While the Armadillo World Headquarters has long since been demolished, Austin still bills itself as the live music capital of the world; you’ll still hear that outlaw country sound, but Austin now births talent across all genres, from Spoon and Grupo Fantasma to Gary Clark Jr. and Shakey Graves. Today you can catch a set in unique venues, including the 60-year-old Broken Spoke honky-tonk; the intimate Continental Club; the Historic Scoot Inn, which opened in 1871; and the Cactus Cafe, on the University of Texas at Austin campus, where Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams cut their teeth. The beauty of Austin, however, is that you don’t need a plan: You’ll often stumble upon the next big thing simply by wandering around the bungalow bars of Rainey Street and the indoor-outdoor dives of East Sixth Street.

Where to stay

The Hotel Van Zandt, named for country legend Townes Van Zandt, is home to an in-house venue called Geraldine’s that regularly hosts jazz brunches, vinyl listening parties, and intimate concert sets.

Nicholas DeRenzo is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Brooklyn. A graduate of NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, he worked as an editor at Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel and, most recently, as executive editor at Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York, Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Sunset, Wine Enthusiast, and more.
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