Playing, listening, recording and appreciating, here are the ten best music cities in the USA in ascending order.
#10 Memphis, TN
Memphis is a legacy music town, which is to say that its greatest contributions are in the promotion and performance of its formidable past. Home to Elvis Presley, B.B. King and Beale Street, Memphis spotlights its legacy with museums, tours and plenty of live music, all of which are great fun, but few of which suggest an organic scene beyond what can be trundled out for the satisfaction of tourists.
In 1977 Beale Street was officially declared the Home of the Blues, and immediately descended into urban decay. It was only revived in the 80’s after Graceland was opened and began drawing Elvis fans to the King of Rock and Roll’s former home. Today Beale Street is largely a cluster of plasticky chain establishments like Coyote Ugly and the Hard Rock Café, but the street music is reminiscent of New Orleans and what the area lacks in authenticity it makes up in enthusiasm, which is why Memphis makes the cut onto our list of ten best music cities.
#9 San Francisco, CA
Back in the late 60‘s San Francisco gave the world a distinctive style of music known as The San Francisco Sound. Among its greatest practitioners were Jefferson Airplane, Santana and The Grateful Dead. That sound is rightly regarded as the predecessor of today’s jam bands.
However, following the 60’s, and during the next decades, the Bay Area departed from that singular focus and went on to produce a diverse, even disjointed, array of music from Journey to Romeo Void to Chris Issak. Currently, it’s best loved native sons are Green Day and Counting Crowes.
These days San Francisco stands out more for the variety and quality of its offerings than for any single contribution. You will find clubs devoted to every genre from jazz to blues to hip hop. Music festivals like the Stern Grove Music Festival and the San Francisco Jazz Festival provide something for a range of musical tastes, and the San Francisco Symphony and Opera offer something for more refined palates. If you love good quality music, you can find it in San Francisco.
#8 Portland, OR
There is a gathering storm in Portland, a musical deluge that seems about to burst forth from the clustering of big name musical talents. Portland’s unique dynamic is that, increasingly it is the home (literally) of successful musicians. Everyone from Johnny Marr of The Smiths to Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Pepper seems to be moving there.
Last year Slate magazine declared Portland the new indie rock mecca largely on the basis of its formidable indie rock citizenry, noting that it is now the residence of Modest Mouse, the Shins, Pavement, Spoon, the Decemberists and Death Cab for Cutie. Add to that Portland’s reputation for being a magnet for hipsters, artists, hippies and others seeking quality in authenticity, and you have the recipe for something big in the way of a musical breakout. Portland is trembling on the verge of becoming a top American music city.
#7 Detroit, MI
Detroit’s musical contributions are broad and deep. For more than 75 years Detroit has produced groundbreaking musicians and sounds. In the 1950’s Detroit gave the country a bounty of great jazz musicians including Elvin Jones, Paul Chambers, Yusef Lateef, Milt Jackson, Kenny Burrell and Pepper Adams.
In the 1950’s it helped usher in the rock and roll era with Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”; and in the early 1970’s it introduced a raw and messy new sound with bands like MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges that eventually became known as punk. Detroit has produced pop and rock artists galore. The city gave us Grand Funk Railroad, Bob Seger, Kid Rock and The White Stripes, not to mention Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Mitch Ryder and Madonna.
But by far Detroit’s greatest legacy is Motown, that bastion of 60’s soul that produced hit after hit by such durable luminaries as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, The Four Tops and Parliament Funkadelic. With such a deep musical resumé and the promise of more to come, it’s nosurprise that Detroit makes it to number 7 on our list of 10 best music cities.
#6 Los Angeles, CA
So much music is produced and recorded in L.A. that it’s no surprise it attracts a wide variety of talent, and there is no shortage of places to see them. Legendary music clubs like The Troubador, The Roxy, and Whisky-a-Go-Go provide venues for more established artists while lesser known clubs and premeditated dives like Tiny’s K.O. and The Joint let newbies have their fling.
With a rich musical legacy comprised of surf music from The Beach Boys, folk music from the likes of The Byrds and The Eagles, plenty of hair metal from groups like Motley Cru, Poison and Ratt, power pop from Van Halen, and the hip-hop inflected punk of Red Hot Chili Peppers, L.A.’s musical legacy is broad and deep. This says nothing of the contributions of the gangsta rap subgenre of West Coast hip hop that burst onto the scene in the late 90’s and dominated airplay for the better part of a decade. If one city can be said to be responsible for more record sales than any other, it would certainly be L.A.
#5 New York, NY
The musical heritage of New York City is second to none. The same city that gave us Tin Pan Alley gave us the Jazz giants of Harlem in the 1950’s, the folk singers of Greenwich Village in the 1960’s, and the punk rockers of the East Village in the 70’s and 80’s. The clubs and venues are legendary: the Apollo Theatre, the Village Vanguard, CBGB’s and The Fillmore East. The composers are justly renowned: Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, John Cage.
So why isn’t New York number one on our list? Because today, despite its storied past, New York doesn’t possess the kind of pulsating soulful ferment that distinguishes cities with great music scenes. The cost of living in Manhattan has driven artists out to places like Brooklyn and Hoboken, which, while they are certainly hotbeds of musical artistry, has dissipated what was once concentrated and intense, weakening a scene that once produced the greatest music in the country.
#4 Seattle, WA
A vibrant music scene is one that is alive and flourishing, a magnet for players aspiring to a certain ideal. Seattle certainly fits the bill. Having produced minor tremors prior to the late 60’s, its first notable achievement was the emergence of native son Jimi Hendrix in 1966. In the mid-70’s the band Heart took the charts by storm, followed by Queensryche and Candlebox. But the real eruption occurred in the 1990’s when Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Nirvana blew the lid off the rock world with the powerful sound of grunge, the first uniquely local music sound since the San Francisco Sound of the late 60’s.
Unlike L.A. or New York, Seattle clubs are open and democratic. They welcome players and enthusiasts alike with a down-to-earth, show-us-what-you-got attitude. On the other hand, there is a strong musical establishment in Seattle in the form of the Seattle Symphony and the Seattle Opera. There is jazz and blues. There is alternative and indie. Seattle is an all-around music town with a vibrant, magnetic scene that attracts aspiring players from all over the country.
#3 Nashville, TN
Nashville is the third largest recording center in the country after New York and L.A. Its streets swarm with producers, session musicians and up and coming artists. The acts recorded there read like a who’s who of country music from Johnny Cash and Tammy Wynette to Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson
Beginning with the birth of the The Grand Ole Opry radio program in 1927, Nashville became a magnet for country music artists. From 1943 to 1953 the Opry attracted the likes of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Lefty Frizzell and Faron Young. In 1954 a teenager named Elvis Presley appeared on the Opry stage. That same year Owen Bradley of Decca Records, with the help of Chet Atkins, built a recording studio on what would become Nashville’s Music Row. By the mid-1960’s recording studios had cropped up all over town, many of them recording a unique style that would become known as the Nashville Sound.
Today Nashville remains the undisputed center of the country music world. Walk the streets of Nashville and sooner or later you will hear someone strumming a guitar. Like all great music towns, music permeates the culture and is everywhere. Nashville wears its moniker proudly. They call it “Music City USA”.
#2 Austin, TX
In 1975 Clifford Antone opened a club called Antone’s on 6th Street in Austin which provided a venue for blues legends like John Lee Hooker, Clifton Chenier and Muddy Waters. It also provided a showcase for exciting up and coming Texas blues artists like Stevie Ray Vaughn and The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Meanwhile outlaw country artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings settled in Austin to escape the more traditional country music scene in Nashville. And at the same time a place called The Armadillo played host to a succession of punk/new wave acts like the Police, Joe Jackson, Blondie and the Talking Heads.
All this musical ferment provided fertile ground for the development of Austin as a premier music town, resulting in a number of top-notch musical festivals like the Austin City Limits Musical Festival, Blues on the Green and the nation’s most beloved music festival established by and for musicians, the South by Southwest Music Festival.
Today, Austin is home to great intimate music venues like The Continental Club, Threadgills and Emos, and produces a torrent of groundbreaking talent that melds American music from a variety of traditional forms into a unique and compelling new sound. Few would argue, Austin is one of America’s greatest music cities.
#1 New Orleans, LA
Walk the streets of New Orleans and music is in the air. Brass bands play impromptu on the door steps, wander the streets aimlessly, or join in behind parades, blowing and thumping in high spirits. Jazz trios improvise in cobblestoned courtyards. Rock bands blare from open air nightclubs. Blues players tinkle on old upright pianos in the backs of 18th century Creole houses on gas lit corners. The culture of New Orleans is the culture of music, and has been for more than a hundred years.
As early as 1835 slaves congregated in Congo Square to dance and sing. The influence of ragtime and brass bands on that music eventually evolved into jazz. The first practitioners, people like King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, emerged in the late 1920’s and early 30’s, and New Orleans jazz went on to form the back bone of big band jazz and be bop. It continues to thrive in the city today, proclaimed nightly by exuberant players who happily share the stage with players of Louisiana’s other indigenous musical form, Zydeco.
Most cities can’t claim even one unique sound. New Orleans can claim two, both of which they cherish and proclaim with endearing ardor. If sincerity, passion and authenticity are the measure of a great music city, New Orleans is number one.
Image Attributions: BB King, Heinrich Klaffs; Haight Ashbury sign, Nancy; Portland, USGS (public domain); Motown, TMPuekert (public domain); Kreator Live at Hole in the Sky, Christian Misje; View of the Apollo Marquis; William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress (public domain); Nirvana, P.B. Rage; Music Row Nashville, Malcolm Logan; Louis XIV at Emo’s in Austin, Ron Baker; Jazz Funeral, Infrogmation.