USA holidays for music lovers

Expedition Cruises
By Neal Baldwin
Home » USA holidays for music lovers

It’s said that music has the power to move. And that’s certainly the case in the vacation business.

While it’s rare that clients want to holiday just because of a particular artist or genre of music, the fact remains that agents can get US bookings over the line with a bit of extra knowledge about some of country’s favourite destinations.

Southern comforts

When it comes to American music, all roads lead to the Deep South. Grab a map, stick in a pin – yep, you’ve hit a city with a tuneful story.

Clients asking for musical tours are, more often the not, after a full-on experience that mixes sounds and styles. The southern states of Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana strike the right note, given that they can lay claim to being the spiritual home to jazz, blues, Cajun, country, soul and rock ‘n’ roll.

There’s a host of well-known trade-friendly operators to choose from offering a range of tours – Newmarket Holidays, Collette, Gold Medal, Amtrak Vacations and Titan Travel among them – and typically these offer at least two of the three states mentioned.

As a starter, agents should invariably look for itineraries that include both Nashville and Memphis, since these offer the opportunity to cram in lots of experiences.

Nashville’s highlights include the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which delivers an incredible insight into the history of country music from its folk roots and is recognised as one of the world’s finest historical archives. In the same vein, a trip to the Grand Ole Opry – country’s leading live venue – is another must-do. A trip to the Gibson Guitar factory, meanwhile, is less well-known but well worth it. For something a little more kitsch, drive four hours east to Sevierville, birthplace of Dolly Parton, to her Dollywood amusement park for some homespun outdoor fun.

Memphis is easily worth a four-day visit on its own. Situated on the banks of the Mississippi, the city is soaked in musical heritage. Head to Beale Street’s bars, which still pump out the unique Mississippi Blues sound of BB King and Muddy Waters before a trip to Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion. Sun Studios, where the likes of Elvis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison recorded, offers a fascinating glimpse into the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, while the Stax Museum of American Soul Music tells the story of the label that included Otis Reading, Sam and Dave and Isaac Hayes among its alumni.

New Orleans is a colourful, fun-filled option. Its famously colourful Mardi Gras festival begins on January 5 (Twelve Night) each year, culminating on Shrove Tuesday, and is a melting pot of cultures and musical styles.

Music oozes from the soul of the city. Jazz and Dixieland grooves light up the neon streets of the picturesque French Quarter, while intoxicating zydeco rhythms that have their roots in Creole and Cajan culture rattle the iron balconies and hidden courtyards that throng with merrymakers deep into dark.

And while the east and west coasts of the US typically lay claim to rap and hip-hop, it was actually New Orleans that led much of the genre’s innovation. The city pioneered ‘bounce’ – it’s own style of hip-hop – back in the 1980s, which is characterised by call-and-response-style lyrics and Mardi Gras Indian chanting.

New York

As the main entry point to the US for immigrants over many years, it’s probably no surprise that the Big Apple simply shouts creativity.

While New York itineraries should always include traditional attractions, agents with a bit of knowledge can easily create a memorable tour for clients packed with some serious soul, disco, punk and hip-hop credentials. The big sights are easily accessible too, giving the option to squeeze plenty of activities into a few days.

The Radio City Music Hall is an easy starting point. The iconic Art Deco theatre in the Rockefeller Center recalls a bygone age of big bands, with its glitzy reception and giant 5,960-seat main hall true wonders of the age. A short stroll away, the Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park is a place of quiet reflection paying tribute to the former Beatle John Lennon.

Heading north into Harlem opens a world of possibilities. Specialists offer tours focusing on the ‘Harlem Rennaisance’ inter-war period, which saw jazz traditions transformed by pioneers such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Alternatively, take in a Harlem Gospel tour – these friendly outings are typically led by born-and-raised locals in association with religious groups, and include visits to churches for uplifting performances, along with a visit to the Harlem Heritage Tourism and Cultural Center to learn how music shaped the civil rights movement. Elsewhere, a legendary night can still be had at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, a venue played by the biggest soul and funk stars.

Similarly, great live music can still be found in Greenwich Village, both at the Blue Note (for jazz) or Café Wha?, where Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix were regulars.

For something more hardcore, visitors can call in on CBGB’s – the club famous as the birthplace of US punk (it’s just a shop now, but grab a T-shirt!). Alternatively, take a wander to Electric Ladyland Studios, built by Hendrix in 1970 to record his famous album of the same name. It’s still in regular use by the biggest stars of rock and pop, so you might even bump into Taylor Swift…


A Midwestern town covered in snow for much of the year might not be top of every visitor’s list, but Minneapolis has the musical cred to stand on its own. And it’s only a recent thing, too.

African-American communities in the Northside and Southside neighbourhoods are responsible for the development of what became to be known as ‘The Minneapolis Sound’, a driving rock-funk fusion that incorporates the modern synthesiser sound of the 1980s. With Prince as the style’s flamboyant frontman, artists such as Morris Day and The Time, Garry “Jellybean” Johnson, Alexander O’Neill and Sounds of Blackness drove the genre forward.

Today, Prince-inspired attractions are big draws, including his Paisley Park studios and the First Avenue club where Purple Rain was filmed. New UK operator SoundAround Tours offers a dedicated Prince experience exploring the great man’s city.

Minneapolis also proudly celebrates its other sons. Counter-culture legend Bob Dylan first took to the stage during his time at university here, grooving with the beatnik coffee shop crew of the Cedar-Riverside area. Tours of Sound 80 studio, where he recorded songs for Blood on the Tracks, are a multi-sensory treat and include a visit to the Orfield Anechoic Chamber, which is acclaimed as the ‘quietest place on Earth’.


Motor City may once have thrummed to the sound of engines, but it’s musical heritage is sure to be more enduring.

You needn’t be a music aficionado to know about Motown. Bright, cheerful and irresistibly optimistic, this breezy forerunner to the pop we know today put the city on the musical map and made household names of many top artists.

Motown Records boss Berry Gordy Jr was responsible for the hits factory, with an in-house team churning out catchy tunes to an upbeat formula. And it helped break down barriers – many of the superstars created were black women, including Diana Ross, Martha Reeves and soul queen Aretha Franklin.

Today, classic venues including The Max and Bakers Keyboard Lounge offer a taste of Detroit’s historic jazz connection, while the Motown Museum delves into the label’s incredible rise.

For more up-to-date sounds, Detroit claims Madonna and Eminem as its own. The ‘Material Girl’ grew up in the city’s northern suburbs and fans love to visit gay club Menjo’s, where she worked as a dancer while in high school, along with the Ciccone Vineyard & Winery in northern Michigan, owned by her father Tony.

Eminem fans flock to The Shelter, an underground club where young Slim honed his flow in rap battles, such as those immortalised in his biopic 8 Mile.

Los Angeles

Think LA, think sunshine. For most people that invariably means the light and breezy California sound of The Beach Boys.

Successful as it was, the West Coast has plenty more to offer, especially where music crosses over into political and counter-culture protest. Bands such as The Byrds and The Doors played a central part in the anti-Vietnam movement while LA artists such as NWA later bought hard-edged political commentary into the mainstream.

LA’s musical influence spans many genres, with the Paisley Underground movement, big hair rock and nu-metal all finding a home there. Today hip-hop artists from the region continue to dominant the charts, with the likes of Childish Gambino and Kendrick Lamar out front.

Top attractions include The Grammy Museum – which looks at the history of popular music and regularly changing special exhibitions looking at the biggest names in music – and Central Avenue, which plays a major part in LA’s jazz story.

Clients might also like to visit The Troubadour, where the Eagles formed and Elton John broke America, and the infamous Whisky a-Go-Go bar, which has hosted the biggest bands in rock. Alternatively, visit in April and take a trip into the desert for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

  • This article was compiled with input from SoundAround Tours, which runs immersive music tours in tourist destinations.