Seven Small-but-Mighty Music Towns in the South

Lyrical points beyond the big cities

A crowd gathers in front of a stage

Photo: Heidi Holloway

The Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival in Virginia.

“Southern music cities” brings to mind Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans. But there is no shortage of music and music history in some of the South’s most charming smaller cities and towns. A journey to any of these road-trip-worthy music destinations, including the Birthplace of Country Music and the Hit Recording Capital of the World, just might inspire you to sing with the windows down.

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Bristol, Tennessee and Virginia

photo: Hannah Laney
Amythyst Kiah on stage at the 2023 Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion.

When Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company traveled from New Jersey to Bristol in the summer of 1927, he set out to mine the sounds, songs, and stories of Appalachia’s “hillbilly music.” Those early recordings became known as the Bristol Sessions, introducing musicians such as Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and Blind Alfred Reed to the rest of the world. The influence of country music’s “big bang” can still be heard in modern country, bluegrass, and American roots music, and in 1998 Congress officially named Bristol the Birthplace of Country Music. 

photo: The Birthplace of Country Music
Inside the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

Bristol, which straddles both Tennessee and Virginia, has long embraced its place in music history. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is a major venue on the Crooked Road: Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. Bristol is also home to the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, an annual music festival across fourteen stages each September. Whether you catch a concert at Paramount Bristol, stay at the Sessions Hotel, take a selfie in front of the Country Music Mural, or wander on both sides of State Street, there’s much to interest a music lover in Bristol.

Macon, Georgia

photo: courtesy of Visit Macon
Outside the Big House Museum, the Allman Brothers Band members’ former home.

Once home to Lucille Hegamin, Little Richard, Otis Redding, and the Allman Brothers Band, Macon sits at the intersection of soul and Southern rock. It’s where brothers Phil and Alan Walden signed and recorded some of the biggest names in the latter genre at Capricorn’s iconic Studio A. Today, Mercer Music at Capricorn has been restored as a fully functional recording studio that doubles as a classroom for students at Mercer University. Visitors can tour the studios or the interactive Museum at Capricorn that details Macon’s layered music heritage.

photo: visit macon
Musical memorabilia at the Otis Redding Foundation.

Other spots not to miss: The childhood home of Little Richard has been preserved and relocated just a few blocks from downtown Macon as the Little Richard House Resource Center. The Big House Museum remains decorated as it was in the early seventies, when members of the Allman Brothers Band lived there with their families—and penned some of their greatest hits. The Otis Redding Foundation museum and philanthropic organization is operated by the Redding family, and shares the legacy of its namesake while educating the next generation of musicians. The foundation’s second King of Soul Music Festival is slated for September 6–7.

Wilkesboro, North Carolina

photo: courtesy of MerleFest
Sierra Hull on stage at MerleFest.

In 1988, Doc Watson played a concert to raise money to install a garden on the campus of Wilkes Community College. What was supposed to be a one-time festival has grown into an annual four-day reunion of musicians and fans honoring the memory of Watson’s son, Eddy Merle Watson, and the legacy of Doc, who died in 2012. The focus of MerleFest is “the traditional music of the Appalachian region, plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play,” Watson stated.

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Wilkesboro is also home to the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame, part of the Wilkes Heritage Museum. Just thirty miles away in Boone, the musical stories continue: This is where Watson famously discovered Old Crow Medicine Show members busking on King Street. A statue honors Watson, and the Jones House Cultural Center celebrates the local legend with “Doc Watson Day,” a two-day music event in August. 

Leipers Fork, Tennessee

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With just over six hundred residents, the tiny village of Leipers Fork punches above its class musically. Aubrey Preston, owner of the acclaimed local music venue and restaurant Fox & Locke, includes this picturesque community in the rural tourism movement dubbed “Nashville’s Big BackYard.” He describes Fox & Locke as the “Ellis Island gateway for musicians looking to make it in Nashville,” with a popular Thursday open mic night. The likes of Wynonna Judd, Jason Isbell, and Carrie Underwood have all made appearances, and some artists who have been discovered at Fox & Locke have gone on to play at the Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival  in nearby Franklin. Celebrating its tenth anniversary this September, Pilgrimage hosts an eclectic lineup of artists spanning country, pop, gospel, and Americana.

The Shoals, Alabama

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It’s hard to believe Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Willie Nelson, and countless others have all recorded chart-topping hits in this sleepy little town along the banks of the Tennessee River. In 1959, Rick Hall, Billy Sherill, and Tommy Stafford founded Florence Alabama Music Enterprises and worked with some of the greatest musicians in history. In 1969, four former FAME session musicians opened Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Located at 3614 Jackson Highway, the physical address even became the title of Cher’s sixth studio album. 

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You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” or the Rolling Stones’s hauntingly beautiful “Wild Horses”—so it’s no surprise Muscle Shoals is known as the “Hit Recording Capital of the World.” Today, both FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio remain fully operational, and visitors can tour both studios. Come November, the Muscle Shoals Songwriters Festival highlights the work of more than thirty songwriters across venues around the small but vibrant region.

Shelby, North Carolina

photo: Cora Wagoner
The Infamous Stringdusters on the Flint Hill stage during the 2023 Earl Scruggs Festival.

Reminiscent of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry and located in the rolling foothills of North Carolina, Shelby was home to Earl Scruggs, the renowned bluegrass musician famous for his three-finger banjo style. In the heart of uptown Shelby, the Earl Scruggs Center is part museum and part music venue, honoring the legacy of its native son. Dragonfly Wine Market and the Don Gibson Theatre are local favorites to catch nightly live music, but the jewel of this region is the family-friendly Earl Scruggs Festival held in September at the nearby Tryon International Equestrian Center. “Music isn’t just a part of Shelby’s identity,” says Mary Beth Martin, executive director of the Earl Scruggs Center. “It’s the thing that brings us together.” 

Nacogdoches, Texas

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Established in 1779, this charming East Texas destination has the distinction of being the Oldest Town in Texas. If you’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, you might remember Nacogdoches as the place where the Kid first meets the ruthless Judge Holden, but if you’re a fan of music, you’ll recognize it as the title of Willie Nelson’s 1999 studio album recorded at Encore Music. The musical heart of Nacogdoches is Banita Creek Hall. Built in 1907, the space ran a cotton gin before becoming the region’s premiere country dance hall. Blackberry Smoke, Kacey Musgraves, Old Dominion, Lainey Wilson, Eric Paslay, and Turnpike Troubadours have all played in front of what the hall boasts is “the largest dance floor in 150 miles.”

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