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Country music is just “three chords and the truth,” according to songwriter Harlan Howard. While music has become more complex in the decades since his claim, today’s hits still provide a snapshot of real life. Perhaps that’s why country music has remained popular for generations: lyrics mirror local culture and help us connect with the artist.
This year, fill up your gas tank, sing along with the radio, and take a drive down country roads. A country music trip is about more than just great entertainment (although you’ll find plenty of that, too). With these seven destinations, you’ll take a closer look at how country music came to be. Learn about its roots in folk music and bluegrass, commemorate musical legends and discover up-and-coming artists.
As you can imagine, festivals and live concerts were in a state of flux in 2020 but most are gearing up for 2021 or early 2022 with safety protocols in place.
1. Nashville, Tennessee
Music City has always been the epicenter of country music, but there’s more to it than the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame. Branch out from downtown to find live music with a laid-back vibe. In East Nashville, the American Legion Post 82 has a small stage offering a giant dose of nostalgia. Visit on Tuesdays to dance with the locals while listening to old-school country.
Outside the city itself, there’s even more to love. Head to Madison — 15 minutes north of Nashville — for a night at Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge. Discover new voices at the weekly songwriter showdown or check the calendar for classic performances. South of town, the city of Franklin is also a fantastic side trip. Stop in to Arrington Vineyards, co-owned by Kix Brooks (of Brooks & Dunn), for bluegrass and other live music on weekends from April to November.
2. Southwest Virginia
The Crooked Road in southwest Virginia takes country music lovers to notable historic Appalachian music sites and venues sharing fresh takes on today’s music. Stopping at all 60 venues along the 330-mile heritage trail takes weeks, but you can hit the highlights in a weekend. Find live performances at sites like the Floyd Country Store, known for traditional music and dancing at its Friday Night Jamboree, or join an acoustic show at the Carter Family Fold (re-opening in June 2021).
Straddling the border of Virginia and Tennessee, the city of Bristol is a must-visit stop on your Crooked Road journey. Permanent exhibits at The Birthplace of Country Music Museum share how the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings shaped country music. Interactive experiences allow visitors to rework classics by the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers at mixing stations or sing along to their favorite tunes.
3. Austin, Texas
Austin’s live music scene isn’t exclusively centered around country music, but you’ll still find plenty of it if you know where to look. Dance halls like The Broken Spoke and The White Horse offer two-step lessons along with live music. Or, you can join in for honky tonk and Chicken Shit Bingo — yes, that’s really a thing — at the Little Longhorn Saloon.
While it’s the live music capital of the world year-round, Austin takes it up a notch during its many festivals. Pay tribute to a legend at the Willie Nelson Luck Reunion or support current artists at the iHeartCountry Festival and Rodeo Austin. The infamous SXSW Music Festival also features new country music artists for numerous performances.
4. Cheyenne, Wyoming
Focus on the western influence on country-western music by heading to Cheyenne Frontier Days, held each summer. This 10-day festival in late July hosts big-name performers: this year’s lineup includes Eric Church, Blake Shelton and Maren Morris. If you can’t score tickets to the evening shows, you’ll still find daytime performances from smaller artists around the festival grounds, all included with general admission.
The rest of the year, performers come and go but the western influence is constant. Come see what made Cheyenne a popular subject for country lyrics: you’ll hear it mentioned in favorites like George Strait’s “I Can Still Make Cheyenne” and Garth Brooks’ “The Beaches of Cheyenne.”
5. Branson, Missouri
Branson is one of the few places where you can find a country music performance every night of the week, many of which dazzle with shiny costumes and sets that you won’t find in a bar or smaller venue. If you’re the type of traveler who favors choreographed productions over impromptu gigs, Branson is a better choice for you.
Entertainers here mix in plenty of songs you know and love, which means these shows will have you toe-tapping and singing along. Choose from tributes to classic artists like Patsy Cline or head to a show featuring today’s greatest hits — or don’t choose at all. Branson makes it easy to squeeze a little of everything into a weekend.
6. Owensboro, Kentucky
What this western Kentucky town lacks in fame, it makes up for in music. As the home of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum, it’s the ideal place to dig into country music’s roots. This signature attraction teaches visitors about bluegrass sounds and rhythms, famous musicians, and hosts power performers for on-site concerts. You can tour Owensboro as a day trip from Nashville if time is short, but spending the weekend lets you stay for the Friday After 5 concert series.
Owensboro also hosts the annual ROMP Fest, with workshops on songwriting, instruments, clogging, jamming and more. Performances range from nationally acclaimed artists to more casual jam sessions. Bluegrass fans should schedule their trip accordingly and plan on staying a few days to take it all in.
7. Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
While adults might be happy spending all evening chasing live music, kids don’t have that kind of attention span. That’s what makes Pigeon Forge a great family country music destination: The Country Tonite show mixes in scenes that dazzle with special effects, flashy costumes and lots of musical variety to keep things interesting.
Of course, you can’t go to Pigeon Forge without spending a day at Dollywood. In between jaunts on the roller coasters and bites of Dolly’s world-famous fried chicken, you can pay a visit to a replica of Dolly Parton’s childhood home and pop in and out of live entertainment as you wish.