Designing programs such as dinners with the Grand Ladies of the Grand Ole Opry and studio parties with soundboard tours and circles with songwriters who’ve worked with Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood and Tim McGraw, Owen brings groups into the heart of the scene. “More than a place, Nashville is a feeling, one that you can’t find anywhere else,” he said.
With musical roots in the 1950s, Athens, Ga., once described by Esquire as “the mother of modern music,” has produced more than 400 bands, most famously alternative rock giants The B-52s (see “From the Time Capsule”) and R.E.M.
Kicking off in 1980 at a friend’s birthday party inside the abandoned St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (1869), R.E.M. soared to global fame before moving on in 2011.
Founding member and bassist Mike Mills noted the toll time has taken on some of his favorite local venues.
“Most of our establishing venues are gone, through fire and attrition,” he said. “The history is pretty ethereal now, sadly.”
Yet, some stomping grounds remain.
Likened to The Beatles’ Abbey Road crossroad for R.E.M. pilgrims, St. Mary’s under-renovation 40-foot steeple (the “R.E.M. Steeple”) headlines Classic City Tours’ group (and self-guided) Music Heritage programs. Now in its fifth incarnation, the famed 40 Watt Club hosted early R.E.M. gigs and recently, a January 2017 reunion. The band also performed and recorded videos at the landmark Georgia Theatre.
“Athens has continuing claim as home to hundreds of bands, plus live music venues, recording studios, record companies and soon, a vinyl record press plant,” said Hannah Smith, director of marketing and communications for the Athens CVB. “We remain a great destination for music lovers, with a broader range of music genres than ever appealing to a wide audience.”
From the Jazz Age, when greats like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong played the 1939 Showbox Ballroom (now The Showbox), to grunge rock, Seattle has made sound waves for decades, showcased in Visit Seattle’s online “Sounds by the Sound” videos and other content.
Born here in 1942, Jimi Hendrix got his chops down following Chuck Berry on the radio. His gravesite attracts thousands of fans each year. Other Seattle stars include Heart, —“the female Led Zeppelin”—hip-hop star Sir Mix-A-Lot and rapper Macklemore.
In 1991, Nirvana exploded overnight behind Nevermind and its smash single Smells Like Teen Spirit. Previously simmering in the Seattle punk scene, their grunge rock became all the rage, heightened by other Seattle signatures such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains. All played at Belltown grunge landmark Crocodile Cafe, now the Crocodile and accommodating private events for 50 to 500 people.
The 1907 Moore Theatre, Seattle’s oldest, staged Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains videos, and a Soundgarden live album. Other event-ready showcases include the Museum of Pop Culture (formerly the Experience Music Project) and perched on Pier 67, The Edgewater Hotel.
Built for the 1962 World’s Fair, this 223-room icon, offering 10,000 square feet of event space, has serious rock cred. Among the highlights: The Beatles fishing from their suite window in 1964 (there is a Beatles suite); the Village People singing “YMCA” in the bar; Led Zeppelin playing soccer with fans in the lobby; and KISS parading about in full costume.
Another heritage-soaked “delta” is the Americana Music Triangle, a 2015 collaborative tourism initiative celebrating some 1,500 miles of highways connecting Memphis, New Orleans and Nashville along the “Gold Record Road.” Encompassing Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, curated driving journeys (some, advisedly, in impoverished areas) explore the roots of nine original American styles, from the blues to zydeco.
Essential coordinates include Alabama’s Shoals region, two hours north of Birmingham. Opened in 1959, tour-capable FAME Studios is where greats such as Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett recorded with the Swampers, the house band immortalized in “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
In early 1969, the Swampers founded nearby Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Captured in the 1970 documentary film Gimme Shelter, that December, days before their Altamont fiasco (see “A Quick One with Joel Selvin”), the Rolling Stones laid down three timeless tracks here, including Brown Sugar and Wild Horses. Throughout the ’70s, stars following their footsteps included Cher, Paul Simon and Rod Stewart.
Known also as 3614 Jackson Highway, the studio closed around 1979, with periodic revivals such as the recording of blues-rock indie duo the Black Keys’ Grammy-winning 2010 Brothers album.
In January 2017, behind a near-million-dollar restoration gift from rap legend and Beats Electronics CEO Dr. Dre, the studio reopened for daytime tours (groups of 15-20) and nighttime recording. With event hosting presently considered “case by case,” the national landmark is attracting significant traffic as the Alabama Tourism Department’s top attraction for 2017.
In Memphis, Tenn., Sun Studio was founded by renegade producer Sam Phillips in 1950. Widely regarded as the birthplace of American rock and roll, Sun legends include Elvis Presley’s first recorded song (My Happiness, in 1953) and his impromptu 1956 “Million Dollar Quartet” jam with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Contemporary artists recording here include U2, Tom Petty and Bonnie Raitt; groups can take a free shuttle service to Memphis’ other major attraction, Graceland, Elvis Presley’s event-capable former home.
Other group-capable Triangle sites include the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis and New Orleans’ French Quarter jazz headquarters, 1961 Preservation Hall.
Call Me Anytime
Historic moments in historic venues can be emotional affairs. Just ask Jimmy Webb, a NYC punk and rock celebrity since 1975, about seeing Blondie’s Deborah Harry perform at CBGB on the venue’s penultimate night before closing, in October 2006.
“Moving through a sea of people, I handed flowers to Debbie,” recounted Webb, longtime manager and buyer for famed NYC rock and roll clothing store Trash and Vaudeville. “She called me up on stage and kissed me on the lips. Leaving as she sang ‘Call me, call me anytime,’ I walked all the way to the West Side in tears.”
For groups seeking memories where great memories were made, ground zero is surely Bethel Woods Center of the Arts, the multivenue cultural campus opened in 2006 at the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival.
Several years ago, I crested the festival field (a gently sloping hill) with Wade Lawrence, museum director of the site’s LEED-certified Museum and its rich multimedia displays of Woodstock and the Sixties.
“Many memorial sites commemorate battlefields and war,” he said. “Here, we celebrate peace.”
For this feature, Lawrence shared a story of original Woodstock performer Carlos Santana.