Daydreaming of sweeping southern mansions, cotton fields, tex-mex food and music that would stir my deep dark soul, I headed off on a music road trip that would take me through some BIG name destinations.
There are a lot of stereotypes about the southern states of the US – top of the list must be that it’s full of rednecks, followed closely by fried chicken for every meal and banjo toting honky tonks at every turn. Thankfully those turned out not to be true, from our experience anyway – but a few turned out to be brilliantly correct… southern hospitality for one, beautiful sweeping landscapes, grand plantation houses and rustically divine barbeque are just a few more!
And best of all? Texas blues, Delta blues, and New Orleans jazz. If you can’t find some serious soul here then you never will.
Getting acquainted with the big south
It’s not often I visit a new city without having at least lived it through travel forums and blogs and lonely planet write ups and movies. But Austin was a stranger to me – it was lucky really that we landed in the beating heart of this unexpectedly vibrant city, far removed from the conservative, grandiose, oil-money Texan city I was expecting.
South Congress is 100% where you should base yourself in Austin. Cowboy boot stores nestle in next to juke joints, mexican cantinas, outdoor barbeque and music spaces. A menagerie of sounds spilling out from each of them make walking down the street a sensory overload – this is, after all, the live music capital of the world.
We were lucky enough to be there during the big band street music festival, one of the many festivals that SoCo (that’s what the locals call the area!) hosts to keep that vibe at max liveliness. There were trumpets and trombones and saxophones and tubas all over the place, and it was AWESOME.
Don’t forget to fuel another one of your senses – there are some proper taste sensations around here, including some of the best mexican I’ve ever had at the legendary Guero’s Taco Bar. This might be showing how uncool I am, but don’t be surprised when you’re judged for ordering something non-alcoholic for breakfast. My first breakfast went a little something like this:
“Good morning mam, would you like a bloody mary or a mimosa?”
“Ummm… could I just have a cup of tea please?”
“Aahhhhh. Oh. Yeah, I guess. Hold on, let me see what we have.” **Looks at me like I have two heads**
Maybe just embrace the morning booze. It’s just easier.
Of course there is more to Austin that South Congress – the city centre is packed full of live music venues and thriving bars and restaurants, and it’s a quick trip over the river on one of the rickshaw type bike taxis that roam the city.
If you love live music, you need to experience Austin. Here are a few quick tips:
- Stay in South Congress – we had the perfect AirBNB which was super easy and really convenient.
- For live music you have to check out the Continental Club on South Congress for an eclectic mix of musicians ranging from country to blues to rock, The Elephant Room in the city for more of a jazzy vibe, and the infamous Antones, the home of the blues here in Austin.
- Go and pay homage to the legend Stevie Ray Vaughan. There is a statue on the southern side of the river just a little west of South Congress – if you aren’t familiar with his work then get some for your trip soundtrack, it’s the immortal sound of the godfather of Texas blues.
- Have breakfast or brunch at South Congress Cafe (their omelets and migas are amazing!), lunch at Hopdoddy Burger Bar (people don’t line up around the block for average burgers now do they?) and dinner at Guero’s Taco Bar (for the best dang Mexican you’ll have north of the border).
It’s the birthplace of the blues. The locals live and breathe it, and even though there is absolutely no ritz and/or glitz to this place, the music seems to be all they need.
It’s Clarksdale, Mississippi, and it’s an experience you need to have if music ever finds its way into your soul. I know that sounds corny, but hey…
It’s about 10 hours drive from Austin, which is a long way – you can either swallow the massive drive day and go for it, or make some stops along the way. There are loads of different routes, one that could take you through Dallas and Little Rock, or you can go through Houston and Shreveport like we did. I’ll be honest, there isn’t a huge attraction to either of those places, but they make for good pit stops.
But let’s get back to the music road trip, and get down to it – Clarksdale is rough. Really rough. You’d be forgiven for stopping in to get a sandwich on your way through to Memphis, and deciding to get straight back in the car to find another option.During the day it looks like a deserted town that has seen far better days – empty shops, boarded up windows, and very few people out and about. At night, it’s a bit the same, except darker. But there are pockets of magic in this town. There are so few people that the music venues take turns hosting local musicians singing the blues, but it means the venues are comfortably packed and the atmosphere is comfortingly affable.
It sounds like an odd place, and it is in a lot of ways – but it’s an unforgettable experience, and a piece of the country that most people don’t know about or don’t bother with. It’s places like these that really offer you a slice of a different kind of life – and isn’t that what travel is all about anyway?
Plus, you can stay at one of my all time favourite hotels – the Shack Up Inn. It’s a bunch of old cotton plantation shacks (yes, there is actual cotton growing in the fields next to the shacks) surrounding a central bar and restaurant that plays host to local musicians and really decent food. 5 star it is not, but it has everything you need and it’s the middle of nowhere, where a bunch of like-minded, blues loving travellers converge to enjoy the peace and the simplicity and the music.If you love blues then Clarksdale is for you – here’s how to do it:
- Stay at the Shack Up Inn. It’s often busy though because there are limited accommodation options in town, and they run guitar camps which fill up the rooms, so make sure you book in advance. An alternative is Ground Zero, which is Morgan Freeman’s blues club in downtown Clarksdale. If you’re a light sleeper maybe avoid this as the rooms are right above the blues club that goes late.
- Ask around for the best live music spot for the nights you’ll be there – definitely check out Ground Zero (one of the few places that is on pretty much every night), Cat Head Delta Blues and Club 2000. Expect very low-key service (at Club 2000 I think you’re expected to guess which of the patrons is actually the bar tender, but hey, the drinks are cheap). Don’t forget to tip the bands, they are usually fantastic and they do it for the love of it and to feed themselves, so don’t be stingy.
- Eat at Rust Restaurant, Shack Up Inn’s in-house diner. The food is really good, it’s cheap and convenient, and served with a side of live blues.
- Day trip up to Memphis, or make that your next stop, it’s only 1.5 hours drive away – keep the music going with a visit to Graceland and Sun Studios, with lunch on famous Beale Street.
- Another way to pass the daylight hours until the music starts is to day trip over to Oxford, home of William Faulkner, a phenomenal bookstore and Ole Miss (that’s Mississippi University for anyone that hasn’t seen The Blind Side).
Talk about a big name spot! I’ve always wanted to visit New Orleans, and it didn’t disappoint. If you take Bourbon Street out of the equation that is – it’s just gross. But surrounding the slightly tacky, touristy, bachelor/ette party mecca of Bourbon Street are beautiful, soulful areas of historical architecture, delicious southern/cajun food and music just everywhere.
If I haven’t got the message across already, let me make it clear – take a walk down Bourbon Street because you just have to see what all the fuss is about, but then get out of its way and find the more New Orleans-y parts of this fantastic city.
The rest of the French Quarter is fascinating, find some balcony dining and drinking (there are live jazz bands in nearly every bar), tour the more-than-just-a-bit creepy cemeteries, walk through the trees in the Garden District and pay your respects at the Katrina exhibition.
Stay tuned for more detail on New Orleans – but for now here are some of my top tips:
- Stay in the French Quarter if you can, or Treme if you want it to hurt your bank balance a little less but still be close to the action. We stayed at this great AirBNB, a fraction of the price of some of the French Quarter hotels.
- Make sure you ride a famous New Orleans tramcar down St Charles Ave and into the Garden District, it’s beautiful and quintessential.
- Enjoy any mealtime at Eat – it’s delicious at any time of the day, but if you want to drink make sure you take a bottle with you, it’s BYO only.
- Pay your respects for the victims of Hurricane Katrina at the exhibition within the Louisiana State Museum – check for opening times though, it’s closed on Mondays.
The only way to beat the blues
This is just the start of it – there are so many other regions and cities to explore in the gorgeous and enigmatic deep south of the USA, I could literally spend months there. Don’t even get me started on South Carolina.
But if you’re after a road trip that will intrigue all of your senses, and to discover a bit of proper soul, put your daydreams to action and get over there, stat!