500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights cities, museums, and trips throughout the world. The five destinations below represent the best U.S. sights for music lovers.
What: Graceland: Memphis Music Mecca
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Memphis, Tennessee
To many music fans, Memphis, Tennessee, means one thing: the world's greatest Elvis shrine, Graceland. But chances are your kids know more about tacky Elvis impersonators than they do about the King himself. So when you come to Memphis, show them the whole story -- the amazing music heritage that first drew the shy teenager from Tupelo, Mississippi, to this Tennessee river city.
Begin on Beale Street, the nerve center of the South's most vital postÂ?Civil War black community. W. C. Handy brought the blues sound up Highway 61 from Mississippi at the turn of the century and it caught fire in the clubs of Beale Street; later such legends as B. B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf added their voices. Stroll along the street, read the historic markers, and check out who's playing at the nightclubs between Second and Fourth streets. Visit the W. C. Handy House Museum, 352 Beale St. (tel. 901/527-3427), and the Smithsonian's Rock 'n' Soul Museum, 191 Beale St. (tel. 901/205-2533), with photos, recordings, and artifacts from a satin Elvis Presley suit to Ike Turner's piano.
In 1950, in a tiny brick corner storefront, recording engineer Sam Phillips opened Sun Records Studio, 706 Union Ave. (tel. 901/521-0664; www.sunstudio.com), where then-unknowns Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley took the blues sound, mixed it with country and bluegrass, and came up with a new sound: rock 'n' roll. You can tour Sun Studio's surprisingly Spartan setup; records are still made here by current artists like U2 and Bonnie Raitt.
Yet another sound was born in Memphis in 1959, when Stax Records began recording such soul-music greats as Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, 926 E. McLemore Ave. (tel. 901/942-SOUL), has such evocative exhibits as a re-created gospel church and the dance floor from the TV show Soul Train.
Now that you've placed Elvis in music history, head out Elvis Presley Boulevard to Graceland, the colonial-style mansion Elvis bought in the late 1950s for the then-huge price of $100,000. As the King's fame grew, 14-acre Graceland became his refuge, and eventually his retreat from reality. Touring the mansion, you'll get a glimpse of the lavish lifestyle the poor Delta boy chose once he hit the big time: carpeted wall-to-wall in white, with gold accents and satin drapes everywhere. Walls covered with gold record plaques, mannequin after mannequin sporting Elvis's stage outfits -- it's an assault on the senses. Don't miss the flower-laden memorial garden where Elvis is buried alongside his parents. It completes the whole arc of Elvis's career, from raw young rockabilly to hip-swiveling teen heartthrob to sequin-jumpsuited mega-star. As you drive away, play a mix-tape of Elvis hits from That's All Right Now Mama and All Shook Up to Love Me Tender and Suspicious Minds. Now the kids know who Elvis is.
Contact: 3734 Elvis Presley Blvd. (tel. 800/238-2000 or 901/332-3322; www.elvis.com).
What: Highway 61 Revisited -- Again
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: Memphis, Tennessee, to Leland, Mississippi
When Bob Dylan named his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, his folkie fans said, "Where?" But what Dylan was doing was acknowledging his debt to Delta blues: U.S. 61 is the two-lane road that took legendary bluesmen north from the cotton plantations of the Mississippi Delta. Drive down this highway -- which begins as 3rd Street in Memphis -- and you'll pass through a flat landscape of fertile fields, endless railroad tracks, and run-down shacks. Load up some appropriate CDs for the drive -- maybe Eric Clapton's Me and Mr. Johnson -- and surrender yourself to the heart of the Deep South. You don't have to be a blues maven to appreciate it, but it just may turn you into one.
Where Highway 61 meets Highway 49, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a guitar statue marks The Crossroads, the spot where, legend has it, 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the gift of playing genius guitar. The so-called Father of the Blues, W. C. Handy, was playing ragtime in Clarksdale in 1903 when he first heard this heady local mix of African-American gospel and cotton-field work songs. Clarksdale was a regional railroad hub, and at the station, Handy wrote, itinerant musicians "would pour out their hearts in song while the audience ate fish and bread, chewed sugar cane, dipped snuff while waiting for trains to carry them on down the line."
How fitting, then, that the Delta Blues Museum, 1 Blues Alley (tel. 662/672-6820; www.deltabluesmuseum.org), is based in the old depot. Here you can see B.B. King's guitar Lucille, as well as a case of the sort of improvised instruments that early blues musicians used: juice harps, bottleneck slides, and harmonicas. Artifacts from Mississippi musicians such as Son House, Sonny Boy Williamson, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, and Albert King are displayed, and in the center of the museum is the reconstructed log cabin where cotton sharecropper Muddy Waters was living when musicologist Alan Lomax discovered him.
Drive by local blues radio station WROX, which broadcasts from a bright yellow building near The Crossroads, at 419 State St., and the Riverside Hotel, 615 Sunflower Ave. (tel. 662/624-9163), once a blacks-only hospital where blues singer Bessie Smith died after a car crash in 1937. After it was converted to a hotel, Sonny Boy Williamson, Ike Turner, and Robert Nighthawk stayed here. Another good stop is Cathead Delta Blues & Folk Art, 252 Delta Ave. (tel. 662/624-5992; www.cathead.biz), where you can buy just about any blues CD or DVD.
If you continue south on Highway 61 for another 65 miles, stop in the small town of Leland at the Highway 61 Blues Museum, 400 N. Broad St. (tel. 662/686-7646). Though it's only one large L-shaped room, there are enough photos, instruments, farm implements, and other artifacts to make it worth seeing. It ain't big and it ain't glitzy -- but then, neither is the blues, man.
What: The Nashville Music Scene: Country Music's Capital
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville: The very name is synonymous with music, specifically the brand of country music played on the Grand Ole Opry radio show, broadcast from here since 1927. To perform on the Grand Ole Opry is to officially "make it" in country music, and thus it's a town buzzing with music-biz execs, state-of-the-art studios, and happening clubs, with a surprising amount of jazz and rock going down as well. I love Nashville, and even though I'm no country-music aficionado, it only takes a couple hours here to get hooked on its twangy energy.
A music pilgrimage to Nashville centers on three areas: downtown near Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Opry; in the West End along 16th Avenue, known as Music Row, where you can often spot music stars going in and out of the studios; and east of town at the vast Opryland complex where the Opry relocated in 1974. Out at Opryland, the current Grand Ole Opry House, 2802 Opryland Dr. (tel. 615/889-6611; www.opry.com), produces three live TV shows a week, April to December -- order your tickets well in advance. Exhibits at the Grand Ole Opry Museum next door at 2804 Opryland Dr. celebrate Opry stars past and present. For a more rounded idea of country music, though, head downtown for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 222 5th Ave. (tel. 800/852-6437 or 615/416-2001; www.countrymusichalloffame.com). From sequin-spangled costumes to historic guitars to over-the-top custom cars (a crucial status symbol in country music culture), it's an impressive roundup of artifacts, and the kids really get into the video and audio clips, interactive jukeboxes, and touch-screen computer kiosks, exploring the differences between intertwined musical genres -- bluegrass, cowboy music, rockabilly, Cajun, honky-tonk, country swing.
Once you're grounded in the music, walk 2 blocks to the Ryman Auditorium, 116 5th Ave. (tel. 615/254-1445; www.ryman.com), aka The Mother Church of Country Music (built as a church in 1892, it still has stained-glass windows). Dowdy as it looks outside, inside it's a finely restored arena-like theater with top acoustics. By day, it offers memorabilia exhibits, a backstage dressing room tour, and a booth where you can record your own live CD; by night, it has a full roster of live concerts. Then take in an early-evening show at the Bluebird Café, 4104 Hillsboro Rd. (tel. 615/383-1461; www.bluebirdcafe.com), to hear today's up-and-coming singer-songwriters.
Contact: Nashville Visitor Information Center, Gaylord Entertainment Center, 501 Broadway (tel. 615/259-4747; www.nashvillecvb.com).
What: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Cleveland Rocks
Who: Ages 6 & up
Why Cleveland? Why not? This is the town where DJ Alan Freed first coined the term rock 'n' roll, where Chuck Berry played his first public gig; it's the hometown of musicians from Phil Ochs to Chrissie Hynde to Trent Reznor. And what's more, it's within a day's drive of 50% of the U.S. population, so this high-profile shrine can be visited by as many music lovers as possible.
Designed by I. M. Pei, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame & Museum building is an all-shook-up mass of porcelain-tiled geometric shapes, piled up like a guitar and amps in the back of a roadie's van, with a glass pyramid jutting out from one side over Lake Erie. Inside is a cool collection of pop-culture memorabilia to browse through. Even if you and the kids don't listen to the same artists, there's plenty here for everyone to groove on. Exhibits display programs, posters, photos, instruments (from Junior Walker's lovingly shined saxophone to a smashed guitar from Paul Simonton of the Clash), and stage costumes (James Brown's red rhinestone-studded tuxedo coat, Neil Young's fringed leather jacket).
But what really grabs kids are the artifacts from rock stars' childhoods -- things like Jimi Hendrix's baby picture, Jim Morrison's Cub Scout uniform, John Lennon's report card, Joe Walsh's high-school football jersey. Not to ignore current chart toppers, on the plaza level a rotating exhibit features today's artists, from Destiny's Child to Rage Against the Machine. For those of us who actually remember the 1950s, the Rave On exhibit displays mementos from rock 'n' rollers like Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers on a curved wall evoking a chrome-and-neon diner.
Still, rock 'n' roll isn't about artifacts, it's about performance, which is why it's stirring to watch the filmed Hendrix performance in the Jimi Hendrix Surround Sound Theater. Up in the Hall of Fame, a video collage of all the 200-plus inductees is mesmerizing. The Hall of Fame includes mostly musicians (eligible 25 years after their first record release), as well as a few producers, DJs, and journalists. Though displays near the entrance focus on the most recent class of inductees, huge "virtual jukebox" stations let you access just about any song recorded by any Hall of Famer; their autographs are etched in glass on a great wall projecting over the lake. As with all such ventures, the list of who's in and who's not is controversial, but then that makes for great dinner-table arguments.
Contact: 1 Key Plaza (tel. 888/764-ROCK or 216/781-7625; www.rockhall.com).
What: Experience Music Project (EMP)
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Seattle, Washington
Gliding on the monorail from downtown Seattle to the Space Needle, Seattle's flying-saucer-ish landmark from the 1962 World's Fair, you'll roll right past an angular multicolored jumble of architecture -- Frank Gehry's controversial home for the Experience Music Project. While our local friends complained that the Experience Music Project was too pricey for what it is, I beg to disagree. Pricey it is, but we spent hours at the EMP, loving every minute of it, and if your kids are at all into rock music they will too.
The brainchild of Microsoft founder Paul Allen, this museum was originally intended as a tribute to Seattle native son Jimi Hendrix, and the Hendrix gallery is wonderfully comprehensive, from mementos of his childhood to stage costumes to a mixing board he used. But the collection grew to encompass a great deal more, from the early Northwest rock scene (bands like the Ventures, the Fleetwoods, and the Kingsmen, notorious for "Louie, Louie") all the way to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and the incredibly fertile grunge scene of the 1990s. Special exhibits feature current trends in music, and the dramatically lit specimens in the guitar gallery show the whole family tree of today's electric guitars.
The exhibits are somewhat text-heavy, although videos play everywhere, giving some kids their first taste of the magic of great performers of the past (the Bob Dylan exhibit we saw was especially good at setting the 1960s folk-music context out of which Dylan grew). Eventually, of course, it's not enough just to hear music, you want to make some of your own, and as you'd expect from a high-tech guru's pet project, there are extensive sound labs where you can try your hand at different instruments and studio production techniques. It seems like someone's always hogging the console you want, unfortunately, but patience is rewarded.
Connected to the EMP, the somewhat smaller Science Fiction Museum is offered as a possible add-on. While we were disappointed in it, hard-core sci-fi fans may feel differently.
Contact: 325 Fifth Ave. N (tel. 877/EMPLIVE or 206/EMPLIVE; www.emplive.com).
This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.