Blues highway

With international borders open again – it's time to get back to that road trip bucket list.

Highway 61 leads from New Orleans to Memphis through the soul, blues and gospel belt of America – definitely one for the ultimate road trips ‘to do’ list.

3 June, 2022

New Orleans is a seductive city. The air is steamy and spice-laden, early Spanish architecture erupts in curlicues, and the bourbon flows. America’s puritan attitudes dissolve in this laissez-faire southern town, leaving a rich residue of vampire stories, decadence and French and Caribbean influences. New Orleans means Mardi Gras and the nightlife along infamous Bourbon Street, where visitors dance and stagger, and music screeches from nightclubs and bars. Well at least it did before COVID-19 came along, but this is a place that’s hard to put down, and the wild times are sure to return.

Get your motor running, though, because the music trail heads far beyond the nightclubs and jazz bars of New Orleans, through the cotton and sugarcane fields of the Deep South and back through the history of R&B, blues, gospel, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. All these music forms emerged here, and you can croon and twang all the way to Memphis and find out how modern music began.

Don’t follow Interstate 55 directly north, though. The drive is shorter (six hours) but not as interesting. A longer detour on Highway 61, which first heads northwest to Baton Rouge and then follows the sluggish Mississippi, could take you days. This is the blues heartland of America. BB King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner and many others abandoned its poverty-stricken farms and murky bayous to head up the tarmac, and in doing so transmitted the sound of its churches and ramshackle bars to the world.

Don’t follow the Interstate 55 directly north though – the drive is shorter (six hours) but nowhere near as interesting

Bar on St Peter Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
Celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

As the highway heads north, though, you enter Gone with the Wind country, where hanks of moss hang from giant oak trees and bayous gurgle

Baton Rouge isn’t high on the tourist agenda, though its pink Old State Capitol is an eye-popping Gothic folly. As the highway heads north, though, you enter Gone with the Wind country, where hanks of moss hang from giant oak trees and bayous gurgle. The countryside is dotted with antebellum mansions set in lush gardens. For your best Scarlett O’Hara moment, stop off at Oak Alley in St Francisville, where you can learn about the Civil War, slavery, and pecan and sugarcane growing.

On you drive past country clubs, correctional facilities and Pentecostal churches to Natchez, a good place to overnight. The town was established in 1716, which makes it one of the Mississippi valley’s oldest settlements. The wonderful town centre is packed with historic bars, hotels and mansions. The town hosts an April blues festival, but at any time you might catch jazz bands playing at Under-the-Hill Saloon, which dates back to the rough-and-tumble days of early river trading.

From here a lonely stretch of Highway 61 heads north to Vicksburg, popular for its museum dedicated to the American Civil War. A drive of just under three hours then brings you across steaming bayous and between cotton plantations to Clarksdale. Rusting farm machinery lies abandoned by the roadside, rickety shacks contrast with cheery-coloured fast-food joints, and sometimes the only movement is the slow clank of a train across the flat landscape. 

Dunleigh historic house in Natchez.
Historic plantation-day relic Houmas House outside Baton Rouge.
The National Cemetery in Vicksburg.

No surprise that musicians wanted to escape, and so they headed up the highway to change the sounds of pop culture. Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum tells the story, and has exhibits focusing on legendary bluesmen Son House, Charlie Musselwhite and Muddy Waters. The town’s Rock & Blues Museum features musical memorabilia from the 1920s to the 1970s: Howlin’ Wolf’s first record, BB King’s autographed guitar, and stage props from Beach Boys concerts. 

Local band Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats (including piano player Ike Turner) left Clarksdale in the early 1950s and headed up Highway 61 into a Memphis music studio to record ‘Rocket 88’, considered the first true rock ‘n’ roll song. Follow in their wake as the highway gains more lanes and heaves its way into the city.

Elvis Presley is the reason most people visit Memphis. Pilgrimage sites for diehard fans include Elvis’s place of birth and The Arcade restaurant where he ordered his favourite peanut-butter sandwiches. If you aren’t quite that obsessed, then head to Graceland, the King’s opulent mansion that summarises the extraordinary transition of soul music from sound of the disenfranchised rural poor to soundtrack of the entire world – and money-making machine. 

You can inspect Elvis’s purple and pink Cadillacs, two private jets and many personal belongings, including spectacularly hideous gifts from fans and The King’s personal record collection. Graceland is more theme park than mansion, and much of it is faux and fur-lined, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

Elvis Presley is the reason most people visit Memphis, with pilgrimage sites for diehard fans including Graceland, the King’s opulent mansion 

The sign marking Beale Street in Memphis.
Sunset on Beale Street – Memphis.
B.B. King's Blues Club in Memphis.
A BB King marker along the Delta Blues Trail in Indianola.

You can also visit the Gibson Guitar factory, which made blues guitars for Chuck Berry and Herb Ellis and electric guitars for greats such as Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton

If you really want to delve into Memphis’ musical history, however, there’s plenty more to see. Blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll came of age in this steamy Tennessee town. Many top musicians have called it home – including Otis Reading, BB King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Justin Timberlake, whose latest albums feature a distinctive ‘neo soul’ influence. Musical wannabes still play in clubs along Beale Street.

Elvis Presley (as well as Johnny Cash and many others) cut their records at Sun Studio; Elvis was discovered here in the 1950s when he arrived to record a song for his mother’s birthday. You can stand by the same microphone he once sang into, and see the studio where ‘Rocket 88’ was produced. 

You might also want to head to Stax Museum, which replicates the legendary studio Stax, which recorded the likes of Arethra Franklin, Al Green and the Jackson Five. It’s packed with musical memorabilia, including record producer Isaac Hayes’ pimped-up, gold-trimmed 1972 Cadillac Eldorado. 

Another fascinating wander is provided at the Gibson Guitar factory, which made blues guitars for Chuck Berry and Herb Ellis and electric guitars for greats such as Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton. You’ll see how some of the world’s best guitars are formed, fitted and waxed. Strings twang, sawdust flies and the air hums with the potential of music yet unmade.

Graceland – home of The King – in Memphis.
A glimpse inside the life of Elvis – Graceland interior.
Rock and Soul Music Hall of Fame in Memphis.
The legendary Sun Studio in Memphis.