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Blues. Jazz. Country. Rock n’ roll. Gospel. Southern Gospel. Cajun-zydeco. Soul/ R&B. Bluegrass.
Nine of America’s most well-known music genres now have their own road map.
Led by Nashville preservationist Aubrey Preston, a group of historians and music lovers have come up with the “Americana Music Triangle.”
Stretching from Nashville to Memphis to New Orleans — and encompassing points in between — the triangle includes locations in the South that contributed to the birth of the musical genres, from Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of blues masters Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, site of the famed music studio where Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones and many others recorded songs.
Destinations are connected by the so-called “Gold Record Road,” a 1,500-mile stretch of highway made up of Interstate 40 from Nashville to Memphis, Highway 61 —the Blues Trail — from Memphis to New Orleans, and the Natchez Trace Parkway from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi. Travelers planning road trips can use a flashy website, or web “guide,” pinpointing destinations in the triangle and describing points of interest in more than 30 communities in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas.
Preston hopes the triangle gives traveling music lovers, both foreign and domestic, a multi-state, Internet-based, interactive guide of the cradle of America’s music, while also spurring enough interest for community leaders to preserve these spots for future educational and tourism opportunities. State and local tourism officials hope much-needed dollars flow into their towns from travelers with cash to spend on restaurants, music shows, shops, and even gas stations and car washes.
“We’re giving an anchor, a cloud of information … that’s easily accessible and connects places, stories, people and music to information that people can get from any place in the world,” said Preston, whose last-minute purchase of Nashville’s legendary RCA Studio A in October 2014 saved it from being torn down.
Events scheduled on Monday and throughout next week in six cities will launch the Americana Music Triangle.
Historian Colin Escott says the triangle accurately spotlights locations that will draw people to the South: The jazz halls of New Orleans, the rock n’ roll and soul studios of Memphis, the cotton plantations of the Mississippi Delta.
“People do seem to want to touch something that’s real,” said Escott, co-writer of the book and musical “Million Dollar Quartet” and contributor to the triangle project. “They love this music throughout the world, and it is like a universal currency.”
A city of about 17,200 about 1 ½ hours’ drive south of Memphis, Clarksdale has seen its share of population loss, poverty, troubled schools and blight, like other small towns in the triangle.
But, in recent years, the city has tried to boost its agriculture-driven economy with tourist spending and the sales taxes it generates. Downtown has seen an increase in restaurants and accommodations like loft apartments, and population appears to be growing. Tourists from overseas are making more frequent treks to Clarksdale, according to Mayor Bill Luckett and co-owner of Ground Zero Blues Club.
“Pulling this project off will be a tremendous help to this whole region,” Luckett said. “It puts money in this economy that wasn’t here before.”
Luckett says promoting tourism does not exploit the city’s more disadvantaged residents, some of whom may resent that so much attention is being paid to tourists while they struggle.
“There are some people who are going to express some resentment. I read it, I hear it,” Luckett said. “Frankly, it’s unfair and untrue.”
Tourism and civic leaders in each location are encouraged to direct tourists to other spots on the trail, even if they are in another state. This sets the project apart from government-run initiatives that won’t promote tourism experiences outside their purview.
The project’s supporters hope that, as more people are drawn to these locations, governments, philanthropists and nonprofits will move to preserve the sites and increase opportunities for musicians.
“If you have more regular (visitor) traffic, then you can start to have more music,” said Roger Stolle, owner of the Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art store in Clarksdale. “It not only means that venue is going to be there for a long time, but it gives a reason for musicians to be there.”