In the land where great sounds began, Winston Aldworth charts a musical roadtrip.

The language that gave us Shakespeare, also gives us country music lyrics.
"You tore through my life," sings Rodney Crowell, "like a tornado looking for a trailer park."

The Bard couldn't have put it better. Music be the food of love, indeed.

The lyrics of country music — and it's younger, brasher cousin rock 'n' roll — may have a rough-hewn edge, but there's grand artistry at play. And the American South is where the art was born. It thrives there today.


The music of the South spread along the highways, railway lines and rivers of America.
Jazz from New Orleans, rock 'n' roll from Memphis. Pretty much everything out of Nashville. And when television and radio took off, the music took to the airwaves.

You don't need to go far to encounter great music in the South. Austin, in Texas, has seen it all. At the Continental Club, on South Congress — one of the coolest little neighbourhoods in the world, by the way — manager Diane shows us around the small live music venue which used to be owned by Bob Crane, the star of Hogan's Heroes and, as noted by ABC News "a sex addict before the term was invented".

It's a tight little venue, comparable to, say, the dear departed Kings Arms. The blackened walls make it feel even tighter when we watch a local rock 'n' roll act there that night.

South Congress (SoCo) was a good neighbourhood in the 1950s, but things went sharply downhill, so much so that in the 60s, the Continental's happy hour went from 6am-9am.

Today, it's cutting edge cool. There are fabulous restaurants and boutique shopping — including the remarkable Allens Boots — along the street. Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant is a regular at the Continental and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons often pops in to play.

Kermit Ruffins invites you to the Little Gem Saloon, New Orleans

They're no strangers to big names at the Austin City Limits studio. Soul diva Aretha Franklin's rider insists that there's no air conditioning in the dressing room. For glum mod-goth Marilyn Manson, the dressing room has to be painted black with the temperature a steady 13.8C.

When Chrissie Hynd plays, it's vegan meals all round for the staff. Our tour guide Jac Molloy recalls John Mellencamp turning up. "His crew warned us: 'Don't look at Mr Mellencamp.'

"Those stories you hear about artists being demanding … well, they're kind of true."

In Memphis, it's Beale St. Punters wander from one venue to the next. I left my group watching an eight-piece R&B tribute and walked across the road, into a bar where a black-T-shirted rockabilly outfit hammered out fast-paced two-minute gems with a stand-up bass, Elvis quiffs and a killer beehive on the frontwoman. No idea who they were but they were terrific.

Beale St is known as the Home of the Blues. But Memphis, to you and me, will always be, first and foremost, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Spare a thought, too, for the great Al Green. If you're in town on a Sunday, you can pop into the Full Gospel Tabernacle church, where Green is the ordained pastor, delivering song and sermon.

Green's presence at the pulpit is typical of the awesome, casual musicality of America. In dive bars and blues joints from Chicago to Seattle, pick-up bands are killing it, night after night. From church pulpits to street corners, the land that gave us the most interesting popular culture music of the past century continues to deliver.

It's one of the things that makes that vast land of sonic highways such a rewarding place to visit.

We've all had big days in the workplace. But few of us can match Dolly Parton's productivity at her peak. Tennessee's finest wrote I Will Always Love You and the peerless Jolene in one afternoon.

There's a plaque in her honour at the Country Music Hall of Fame, in Nashville. Across the southern states, the lion's share of honours go to Johnny Cash. Man, do they love a bit Johnny Cash in the South. There's a Johnny Cash Museum, and entire rooms dedicated to the Man in Black in various other country music and rock 'n' roll museums.

Where other artists — particularly in today's charts — will tell you in their lyrics about what bad bastards they are, Cash just wears it in his eyes. With a look from beneath his heavy brow he tells his audience of the menace in his heart, and his struggle to contain it.

In the Johnny Cash Museum, in Nashville, the heart-breaking video for Cash's 2003 cover of Nine Inch Nails' Hurt is celebrated in one darkened corner. The video, parts of which were shot in the House of Cash, the original Johnny Cash museum, is as poignant now as it was when released. To stand in the polished new museum watching footage of the old, ailing Man in Black filmed in his dusty, worn-out and long-since closed down original museum is a weird experience.

Elvis, the patron saint of Memphis, recorded 262 of his songs in Nashville, at the RCI Studio, his position on the floor — in the studio's sweet spot — still represented with a taped-X on the ground. It took weeks for sound engineers to find the sweet spot after the studio was opened.

Elvis, an insomniac who would start work at the studio at about midnight, had his own lighting system installed to set the mood. When the lighting was red, the King wanted to rock.

The crowds who go to New Orleans for Bourbon St have it all wrong. The best music — in the best city in America — is on Frenchmen St, where pick-up bands form incredibly tight groups, brass is king, and you can find a little bit of every playlist worth listening to.

Louis Armstrong was born in this beautiful, battered city and for me, it's the best music destination of them all. Every music lover must visit New Orleans at least once in their life. Kids on street corners flip buckets over to beat out driving rhythms, vast brass bands busk for coins and at the Maple Leaf bar, on Tuesdays, the Rebirth Brass Band blow minds. The whole dusty city is a live music venue.

You'd do well to finish your Southern States road trip of sonic highways on Frenchmen St. The drinks are cheap and the bands — pumping out rhthyms that will stay with you for years — are often playing just for tips.



Air New Zealand

flies daily from Auckland to Houston.


has a 9-night Bluegrass & Bourbon Trail self-drive holiday, including 10 day rental car hire, from $1199pp twin share. Add on 3 nights at the Crowne Plaza Memphis Downtown from $279pp twin share.