July 2, 2018

USA music road trip: Nashville to Memphis to New Orleans

If you love a driving holiday, one of the best road trips I’ve done was our 10-day Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans music roadie.

I wrote this itinerary based on our hugely fun road trip starting in Nashville for a couple of nights, then Memphis for a couple more and finishing in New Orleans (which I’ve now visited 7 times!) so you can follow it if you’d like to with my mum, dad, husband and me.

We called it the Music Tour and spent 10 nights in total with a playlist that included Willie Nelson warbling “on the road again” as we hurtled down the freeways to meet my brother, his wife and daughter from the Cayman Islands (where they live) for a reunion in New Orleans.

Fats Domino serenaded us with “Walking to New Orleans”, John Butte “At the foot of Canal Street”, and we finished with one of my favourite NoLa musicians, Kermit Ruffins, singing “Drop me off in New Orleans!”

I cannot recommend these three cities highly enough!

Map driving Nashville to Memphis to New Orleans
Map from Nashville to Memphis and New Orleans via Vicksburg

The actual driving distance between Nashville and New Orleans is about 665 miles (1070km), so the first day’s drive to Memphis was only about three hours, but from Memphis to New Orleans you need to allow a whole day for driving.

Let’s get on the road!

Day 1 : Nashville

Where to stay in Nashville : Loews Vanderbilt Hotel

(For the best rates at the Loews, visit their listing on Booking.com>>)

Our 8pm departure from LAX to Nashville had us flying through the night (although we were still on Hawaii time so it wasn’t too bad) and arriving at 5.30am local time. Yes in the morning! That was bad.

BUT I had cleverly thought to book a room for the night before so we had at least one to check into when we arrived. As it happened both rooms were ready so we decided to have a short nap and shower then we were off to Honky Tonk Row to check out Nashville’s famous music scene and find something to eat.

I really loved Nashville!

I was so surprised by the amazing music scene with live music everywhere. Yes it’s very “country” but you’ll find other venues doing your favourite genre and girls in sundresses and cowboy boots walking everywhere added the colour and fun to this city. Them, and the hilarious booze trolly bicycle…

Downtown Nashville

Things to do in Nashville

The Johnny Cash Museum had opened the day before we arrived and people had lined up round the block. Fortunately the hype had died down today and we strode right in (buying some souvenirs on the way).

This is a huge collection of Johnny memorabilia. Photos, outfits, hand written lyrics, his collection of framed gold and platinum albums, interactive sound and visual booths. It really is a must for Cash fans.

Johnny Cash Museum
Just a few of his gold albums

The jetlag hadn’t yet kicked in so as my dad is a fan of piano bars, and duelling pianos even more so, we pottered around the many bars with live music and popped in and out of souvenir shops until 6pm when the duelling doors opened.

It was ridiculously early I know, but we were a bit knackered.

The crowd was small at this early hour at The Big Bang but the sound was huge. The entertainers were brilliant: young hot looking guys in T-shirts and jeans bashing out hits on their grand pianos with the lids open!

We were encouraged to write song choices on a piece of paper and give it to them. If they liked it they’d screw it up and toss it to the other piano. I chose Billy Joel’s Piano Man. The guy on the right even nailed the harmonica intro… 

Day 2 : Country Music Hall of Fame, Studio B and Loveless Cafe

I was surprised to find how many great musicians have their roots in country music – and The Country Music Hall of Fame is filled with memorabilia including Elvis Presley’s very cool car that is fitted with a huge TV and old fashioned telephone.

We added a tour to Studio B only because someone at the Johnny Cash Museum said it was great, and so it was. A must-see.

I sat on the piano stool where Elvis recorded about half his catalogue of hits and learned how he was all about lighting and ambience when he recorded and for one song even had his musicians playing in the dark. Then the guide turned the lights red and told us what Elvis had recorded under the sexy red lights and played the actual recording.

Country Music Hall of Fame
This place is huge and about to get 3 stories higher

Where to eat in Nashville

There are lots of trendy, modern restaurants in Nashville, but this was our first time here so we were all about grits and biscuits and fried chicken and barbecue and all mid-west America!

Loveless Cafe is about 25 minutes drive (17 miles) from downtown Nashville through beautiful countryside and huge houses with rolling front lawns. They’ve been open since 1951 and have a huge reputation for their smoked hams and bacon (made on site) their hot biscuits (like a savoury scone to us non-Americans) and serve a mean weekend brunch – including grits.

We’d been recommended by nearly everyone we met to come out here, so as we had a car and were always up for a good nosey at how other people live, we set off. Couldn’t get my dad to try the grits though! But the fried chicken and mac and cheese and juicy smoked meats were winners.

Loveless Cafe Nashville
Loveless Cafe. Known for their hot biscuits and smoked meats! (Pic Facebook/LovelessCafe)

Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant is another institution. They serve traditional Southern food like Loveless Cafe, but are located in the heart of town so easy to get to. They also sell their jars as glasses (yes I managed to squeeze one home) and other kitchen wares.

You might also like my LA to San Francisco road trip in 5 days >>

Day 3 : Drive Nashville to Memphis

It’s about three hours drive from Nashville to Memphis – (driving distance 212 miles).

We found drivers to be so courteous on American multi-lane roads too, they pull over a lane when you’re entering the highway on the on ramp (so we did likewise) and all the huge container-carrying trucks keep right (in the slow lane). Unlike in New Zealand where people drive like it’s a race and cut you off!

Driving to Memphis is pretty much all we did today after taking our time leaving Nashville. Dad had researched a Golf Shop en route so that was our stop along the way, then we hit the road arriving in Memphis with plenty of time to check out iconic Beale Street.

Where to stay in Memphis : The Peabody Hotel

(For the best rates at the Peabody, visit their listing on Booking.com>>)

Peabody ducks marching though hotel
The famous Peabody ducks live in a “duck palace” on the roof and each morning they get in the elevator and come down to the lobby to walk the red carpet and play in the fountain all day!

Day 4 : Memphis – Visit Graceland and Beale Street

The Peabody Hotel is only two blocks from famous Beale Street, and was ideally located for strolling down and back again without needing a car.

It is the iconic hotel in the city and is famous for its ducks living on the roof who come down in the elevator every day and walk on a red carpet to swim in the fountain in the lobby before being returned with pomp and ceremony at 5pm under the flashes of a dozen cameras!

It has a beautiful, luxurious lobby with intricately decorated high ceilings, a bar at one end, grand piano at the other (which can magically play itself when the pianist is away!) and sumptuous couches to sink into or tables and chairs for coffee or cocktails.

Beale Street
Beale Street coming alive at night

But we were excited to stroll down Beale Street to find some more live music and great food. To be honest I was a bit disappointed (and even more so after comparing it to New Orleans’ Bourbon and Frenchman Streets).

Beale Street was grubby and the cool bars with live music were few and far between. But a highlight was the BB King Cafe where we stayed for dinner and tapped our toes heartily to the band on stage. My husband was here many years ago when BB himself walked in and began jamming with the band. He thought it was normal and only learned later that this happened once or twice a year!

Graceland was cool though and you should allow a good three-plus hours here.

Expect to see Elvis lookalikes roaming around the souvenirs and if you have about $3000 you can buy a replica Elvis onesie. On one side of the street are shops and museums all dedicated to the King – and is where you buy your tickets to tour his house.

(We didn’t pre-book and got on the next tour). Then you’ll get on a bus to drive you across the road and up the driveway. About 50 metres. But you know what they’re like in America – someone would sue if they got hit crossing the road!

Bus driving into Graceland
On the Elvis bus driving through the gates of Graceland

Click here for my photo blog inside Graceland.

The upstairs rooms at Graceland are locked and alarmed and no one is allowed up there except family.
Jungle room Graceland
Walking past the Jungle Room!
Elvis Presley's grave
Elvis Presley’s grave at Graceland alongside his parents and twin brother Jesse, who didn’t survive at birth

Day 5 : Memphis – Central BBQ and Martin Luther King’s memorial

I’d really wanted to try Memphis BBQ so Googled the best places in Memphis and found Central BBQ. Good choice!

This store is so popular they now have three of them. I had emailed them from New Zealand and had a plan to go in Monday morning to meet the manager and learn how to make pork sliders – which you can read by clicking that link).

By now I had my American family who’d dashed out from Delaware for a couple of nights to meet us in Memphis so suddenly we were six who all rocked up and got to sample the most delicious fall-apart pulled pork I’ve ever had!

Then we went back for dinner and tried the rest of the food 😀

Central BBQ pork rub
Rub the dry marinade in liberally

Right across the road from Central BBQ is the infamous Lorraine Motel -now part of the Civil Rights Museum where Martin Luther King Jnr was shot and killed.

It’s now a memorial and the motel room has not been touched since the day he was shot down by a guy with a gun in the bathroom of the hostel opposite.

Eerily the bathroom – and building – is now part of the Civil Rights Museum where you can track the time line (and sight-line) of both protagonists until the moment of that fatal shot.

Martin Luther King room at Lorraine Motel
Martin Luther King Jnr’s motel room the way he left it

“A shot rings out in the Memphis sky”: You can read that post here if you like >>

Lorraine Motel and Civil Rights Museum
The shooter fired to where I am standing taking this pic from that bathroom window

Other cool things to do in Memphis

Visit Al Green’s gospel church. It is about 10 miles out of town but we got Ubers. Sadly, even though the crooning preacher was on the order of service to preach that morning (service starts at 11am), he didn’t show up. We still enjoyed the gospel choir though!

Al Green's gospel church Memphis
Hardly anyone here at Al Green’s gospel church. The choir are on the stage. No robes though 🙁

Go to a Memphis Grizzlies game! I brought a small group of friends to Memphis in 2019 and we had planned it especially around an OKC Thunder v Memphis Grizzlies game – which is played at FedEx Forum, just a short walk from the Peabody and Beale Street.

OKC Thunder v Memphis Grizzlies at FedEx Forum
New Zealand player Steven Adams gets ready to pass at the OKC Thunder v Memphis Grizzlies at FedEx Forum

Day 6 : Drive Memphis to New Orleans

Where to stay in New Orleans : French Quarter boutique hotels

It’s a good six hours to drive from Memphis to New Orleans (395 miles).

We set off straight after brekky and took a little detour to Vicksburg for lunch because I’d visited a cool gallery (Attic Gallery) here a few years ago. Alas this time they had no art I particularly wanted and it just made a long day longer.

My advice for staying in New Orleans is to stay IN the French Quarter which means you can walk everywhere and pop back when you need some peace or to rest your weary feet.

I’ve been to New Orleans seven times now and have written a bunch of posts on where to find the best live music in New Orleans and where to stay too.

I love this city for its food from poboys and gumbo to classic traditional dishes through to a new fusion food scene. The music in New Orleans is unquestionably the highlight whether they’re professional bands in bars and clubs or buskers on the streets, you’ll love the vibe here. Keep a few dollar notes with you to drop into guitar boxes and buckets around town.

Read my post on 6 great hotels to stay in the French Quarter >>

Days 7-10 : New Orleans – Jazz and play time!

There are so many great bars serving live jazz in New Orleans and you’ll find all the tourists along Bourbon Street. But for the places where locals go read this post on my top 3 places for live music in NOLA.

Hint: if you are here on a Monday you need to check out Kermit Ruffins Mother in Law Lounge out in Treme for live music and BBQ. I’ve written all about it in the link above.

Kermit Ruffins on stage at Mother in Law Lounge
Kermit Ruffins on stage at Mother in Law Lounge, Treme (an Uber ride from the French Quarter)
New Orleans
The French Quarter is home to an eclectic mix of entertainment

Other things to do in New Orleans include a Cemetery Tour, learn to cook gumbo, eat sugary beignets at Cafe du Monde, buy paintings from artists around Jackson Square and try and find these awesome buskers singing A Closer Walk with Thee on the trombone… (cue goosebumps).

I have also stayed at a beautiful plantation, Houmas House, about an hour’s drive from New Orleans and this would make a fantastic addition to this road trip. > (opens in a new tab)”>You can read my post about that here >>

Houmas House pond
Beautiful Houmas House and the pond

If you love a USA road trip as much as we, jump over this great list of the 55 best small town road trips in America >>

About Megan Singleton

Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!

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