Whether you’re into mainstream country, roots rock, blues, or even yodeling, nothing compares to hearing music live. It’s the roar of the crowd when the lights go down, the toasting with friends when the band plays your favorite song, and the standing in line (beer, bathroom, and post-show to get your vinyl record signed) that make it such an experience. And the South is home to some of the best venues in music, each with their own charm and appeal. Of the many, here are ten great ones to put on your must-visit bucket list.
One of the most prestigious venues in the world, the Ryman has an unparalleled history: It was the early home of the Grand Ole Opry as well as the birthplace of bluegrass when banjo player Earl Scruggs joined guitarist and singer Bill Monroe onstage in 1945. Now, the bookings encompass all genres from electronic to rock to folk, and, of course, country. And they don’t call it the “Mother Church of Country Music” for nothing; the performances—not to mention the pews—guarantee you’ll sit up and pay attention.—ryman.com
If the Ryman is like going to church, then Knoxville’s Tennessee Theatre is a trip to heaven. Originally built as a “movie palace” in the 1920s, the theater went through years of turmoil before reopening in 2005 after a painstaking $25 million renovation. The room is simply breathtaking, with a gorgeous Spanish-Moorish interior topped by the Faberge egg-like domed ceiling. The sound is exquisite, whether it’s the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra or the upcoming Big Ears Festival, perhaps the most adventurous music festival in the country, with three days of genre-bending performances ranging from avant-garde legends like Laurie Anderson to new jazz dynamos such as Kamasi Washington.—tennesseetheatre.com
Clarksdale is a must for any self-respecting blues fan, and Red’s is the town’s must-stop destination. It’s as close to a real juke joint as it gets: A no frills living room with mismatched chairs and lumpy couches. The bar only serves beer and soda, but where else can you see legends like Leo “Bud” Welch performing less than 10 feet away? There’s no sign—when you spot a smoker roasting ribs or chicken out front, you’ve found it.—398 Sunflower Ave, Clarksdale.
It’s a tough call in the ATL between the Tabernacle, the Fox Theater, and the new-ish darling, Terminal West. But the nod goes to the Tabernacle for its more eclectic, varied bookings. Originally built as a Baptist church, the gigantic stained glass windows remain, towering over the lower balcony, which rings the stage from one end to another. No matter who’s playing, it gives the room a trippy, psychedelic vibe unmatched by other venues.—tabernacleatl.com
Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts
Located just outside Washington, D.C., in the middle of a national park, Wolf Trap consists of three different performance spaces. The Filene Center, summer home to the National Symphony Orchestra, is a stunning outdoor amphitheater built out of Douglas Fir and Southern Pine. The Barns—two eighteenth-century barns combined into one space—is a snug, year round club, and the Children’s Theater in the Woods offers top-notch programming for the elementary-school set. Tip: The Filene Center is BYOB and you’ll want to arrive early to score the best spot.—wolftrap.org
Though it’s been in five locations since opening in 1979, the 40 Watt is unequivocally the premiere club in the South. End of discussion. The home base for countless number of Athens bands such R.E.M., the B-52s, and the Drive By Truckers (don’t miss the Truckers annual three-night homecoming shows in February), the 40 Watt gets everything right: Great sound, easy access to the bars, friendly staff, and even some couches in the back where you can rest those weary feet. If those walls could talk… —40watt.com
New Orleans, LA
Frenchmen Street is the epicenter of New Orleans’ jazz scene, and you can’t go wrong with the no-cover joints The Spotted Cat and Three Muses. But pony up the cash for entry into Snug Harbor where national acts and such local powerhouses as the Uptown Jazz Orchestra—led by Delfeayo Marsalis—squeeze into the room. Seating is intimate cabaret-style, with an upstairs that looks over the stage. Honestly, though, it really doesn’t matter who’s on the bill. Trust that it’s a pro, no amateurs allowed.—snugjazz.com
The locals—and the Chamber of Commerce—boast that Austin is the Live Music Capital of the World. If you had to pick just one place to experience it, choose the Continental Club, where the best of country, swing, and rockabilly hoot and holler until closing time. Don’t miss the upstairs gallery, which has a cozy living room feel. There’s a C.C. in Houston too, so double the fun!—continentalclub.com
After years without an easily accessible outdoor venue, Music City’s new Ascend Amphitheater has garnered universal raves since opening in 2015. Located right on the Cumberland River, the setting offers gorgeous views of the Nashville skyline as well as the neon glow of Broadway. The sound is perfect (no easy feat for an open-air venue) and concession stands are plentiful, featuring local brews and spirits like Pickers Vodka. An absolute warm-weather must.—ascendamphitheater.com
The Grey Eagle
The boho-hippie capitol of the South has a number of good places to catch a show, but the Grey Eagle rises above the rest for its gorgeous-sounding room, a pleasant patio out back, and plenty of parking (a rarity in town). There are reasonably priced local brews on tap, but get there early for a meal at the Taqueria, the Eagle’s in-house restaurant, which has exceptional gooey cheese arepas and tacos with chicken braised in chiles and beer (aka borracho for you taco nerds) all using fresh, local ingredients.—thegreyeagle.com