Road Trip from Nashville on the Natchez Trace Parkway: Americana, History, and a Whole Lot of Music
The Natchez Trace Parkway, a national byway that spans three states, was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps following the Native American trading route of the same name. Today it’s a journey with ties to thousands of years of American history, from Native tribes to the Civil War to the modern era. It’s probably too difficult to do the whole 400-mile route on a vacation, but the region around Florence, Alabama—close to the one-fourth mark as the Parkway heads south from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi—is a destination in its own right. The town became a hub for musicians in the 1960s after the “Muscle Shoals Sound” and has a downtown area with a boutique hotel, trendy shops, and restaurants. Use the town as your base to explore some of the parkway’s brightest destinations, since it’s not far from the airports in Nashville and Birmingham.
Less than three hours north of Florence, Nashville is the undeniable capital of country music. There are dozens of attractions that focus on music history, from the Country Music Hall of Fame to the Broadway bars that have hosted some of America's most famous acts over the years. But true music fans should go on the tour of RCA Studio B, the historic space that recorded over 35,000 songs. Operated from 1957 to 1977, iconic tunes like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” and Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never” were recorded in the studio.
Three important War battles took place near Nashville, which spent most of the conflict as an island of Union forces in a state mostly controlled by the Confederacy. One of the war's last clashes was the Battle of Franklin, which was also one of the bloodiest, leaving 10,000 dead. Carnton plantation and the Carter House, located 30 minutes off the parkway, tell this story. Carnton (pictured), up to then a private home, became a field hospital to treat the Confederate wounded (bloodstains on the flood are still visible), while the Carter House was used by the opposing side as Federal headquarters (the bullet holes were preserved). Tours of the sister sites cover life in the area before, during, and after the war. There is also a tour that focuses on the enslaved people that lived at Carnton until the war freed them.
A small community outside of Franklin, Leiper’s Fork was settled in the 1700s by Revolutionary War veterans. In later years, it became a center for trade for travelers on the Natchez Trace. The town is one of Tennessee’s most charming, a village of art galleries, antique stores, and restaurants. While there are other Puckett’s locations in the area, this Puckett's Grocery outpost is the original, opened in a 1953 grocery store. The restaurant menu is known for its burgers, but it's the live music that brings fans from Nashville and beyond. Past performers on its stage include Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Bela Fleck, and Abigail Washburn, but open mic nights showcase up-and-coming talent.
Best known for his 1804–1806 expedition to the West with William Clark and Sacagawea, afterward, Meriwether Lewis traveled through the Natchez Trace region. He stayed at Grinder’s Stand in 1809 with an U.S. Indian Agent to the Chickasaw tribe and the man’s enslaved servant. A few days alter, Lewis died under mysterious circumstances from gunshot wounds and was buried nearby. In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge created a national monument to honor him, later managed by Shiloh National Military Park. Now an official part of the Natchez Trace Parkway, the monument and grave marker is located at milepost 385.9.
Tom Hendrix was looking for a way to honor his Native American ancestors, who were among the 60,000 people removed from the Southern United States on the Trail of Tears. Legend says that one Yuchi girl, Hendrix’s great-great grandmother, was able to find her way back home to Alabama by following the sounds of the “singing river.” One day, he went to the Tennessee River and brought rocks home. He continued to do this until he had built a wall. Over the years, curious visitors road tripping on the Natchez Trace would stop by to see him and his wall, even bringing items of their own to leave. Hendrix passed away in 2017, but the site is still open to those paying their respects, only twenty minutes from downtown.
Visit the birthplace of American icon Helen Keller, who lived with teacher Annie Sullivan and her parents. When Keller was an infant, an illness caused her to become deaf and blind, but Sullivan’s persistence, documented in The Miracle Worker, led Keller to an extraordinary life, later graduating cum laude from university. You can see the water pump where she learned her breakthrough word “water” plus exhibits on Keller’s life, such as her Braille books, various honors from politicians and organizations, and photos of Keller and Sullivan. Every summer, the house, named Ivy Green, puts on a production of the famous play on her life on the grounds.
The Alabama towns of Sheffield, Florence, Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoals are generally known as Muscle Shoals, and they're famous for music. Artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin recorded some of their most iconic tunes in the area’s studios. It was where producers like Rick Hall, owner of FAME Studios (pictured), brought together people of all races in an otherwise segregated time and where session bands like The Swampers played. Both FAME and 3614 Jackson Highway studios (which is on the cover of a 1969 album by Cher) are open to visitors, thanks in part to restoration by Dr. Dre’s Beats Electronics.
In the Muscle Shoals area, but there’s nowhere as unique for live performances than the Rattlesnake Saloon, which opened in 2009. This former farm now holds live music in a cave on the property that was previously used as a hog pen. Open seasonally, the rock outcropping makes for unrivaled acoustics for touring and local bands. Belly up to the authentic saloon, complete with swinging doors, for burgers, beer, and wine. It’s a natural setting, so casual attire is essential and the general admission seats open at 5 pm, along with the bar.
Named for the leader of the Chickasaw nation who served in the War of 1812, this part of the state has been inhabited for 9,000 years. The Natchez Trace road runs through the Tishomingo State Park, which is known for its large rock formations set in the Appalachian foothills. Stop for a picnic at the Civilian Conservation Corps-constructed shelters before setting off on one of the hiking trails, all of which are under three miles and fairly easy. Rock climbing on the sandstone bluffs is available by permit. There’s also a nature center, which interprets the county’s history with exhibits featuring artiracts such as arrowheads.
The man that would be The King of Rock and Roll was born in a humble shotgun home in Tupelo, Mississippi, where he shared the two rooms with his parents before moving to Memphis as a young man. The cottage was restored to the way it looked when the Presleys lived there, when Elvis' talent was on the rise. The Elvis Presley Birthplace complex has a museum about the singer's early life in northern Mississippi as well as the little Assembly of God church he grew up in. Visitors from all over the world come to see this place, especially during the annual Tupelo Elvis Festival, held in early June, when festivities include tribute artist competitions, a parade, and a re-enactment of young Elvis buying his first guitar from Tupelo Hardware.