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The Deep South

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Nashville, Tennessee - home of country music and that famed Southern hospitality. Music Valley Drive is the thoroughfare through the gloriously kitsch Opryland area of Music City USA.

For country music fans, the rhinestone glitz of so-called Nash Vegas is Mecca. Most of the fun is crammed into Broadway, where honky-tonk bars, restaurants and themed gift stores are advertised by garish neon signs.

The theme park quality is undeniable but there is more to it, as the country music scene here is still very much alive. Visitors do not come to gawp and smile ironically. They arrive in cowboy boots and hats to pay homage to their heroes and heroines: Hank Williams, Tammy Wynette and Johnny Cash remain revered figures, and their less famous successors still delight punters every night and as the sun goes down, Broadway grows louder, busier and even more brash.

On Our musical tour of the South we head into the verdant Tennessee landscape, taking a route dotted with supersized American flags, fast food chains and forlorn strip malls.

Our next stop is Memphis, home of the blues and barbecue ribs. If the Mississippi Delta is the birthplace of the blues, Memphis is where it came of age. And in Beale Street the party is still going.

There is a real street party feel to the place, with blues bands crammed into every alcove and courtyard and bass lines thumping from every doorway.

In its 1920s heyday, in the seedier shadow of this carnivalesque atmosphere lurked gambling, voodoo, prostitution and murder. Although far more regulated now, the street has by no means been overly sanitised and more than a hint of disorder happily remains.

The next day we head south on Route 61, the old Blues Highway, in search of some Delta blues. This flat, rural road was hallowed by the likes of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and still thrums with their presence.

After an overnight stop at a La Quinta motel in Jackson, Mississippi - an essential part of the American road trip experience - we move on to New Orleans.

Our route passes over the eerie Louisiana swamp lands, which hint at the other-worldliness one senses in this incredible city. The Big Easy, as it is known, is unlike anywhere else in the US. The senses are assailed here by a dizzying cocktail of sounds, smells, sights and flavours.

The newcomer is first struck by the architecture: from the picturesque wrought iron Spanish balconies of the French Quarter’s Creole townhouses to the ravishing mansions of the Garden District, by way of the one-storey Creole cottages. It is a visual feast. And as with the food and music, its fusion of styles stems from its history as a cultural melting pot. French, Spanish, Cajun, British, Caribbean and African inhabitants have all left their mark, making the city as impossible to define as it is intoxicating to experience.

The French Quarter is its beating heart. During the day we amble through the streets crammed with arts and crafts shops, lingering in a dusty second-hand book store and passing by the voodoo-themed gift shops.

At night the quarter comes alive to the sound of music, with live bands performing in every bar and spilling over into charming Frenchmen Street, where there is less of a frat party atmosphere and more first rate blues and jazz.

In a Bourbon Street bar we discover a lively Cajun band playing to an enraptured audience of Texans. The singer hands me a washboard and spoon and insists I join in. Gumbo and jambalaya are on every restaurant menu, and for the brave there is also alligator - available both as a filling for a traditional submarine sandwich (or po’boy), and as a live tourist attraction on the fantastic swamp tours through the ghostly bayous outside the city.

Whenever you rest your head in these parts, you do so happy in the knowledge that, out there, the band plays on. For the South is a place where the music never stops.


Key facts - Deep South

Best for: Blues, jazz, rock’n’roll and country music, accompanied by delicious soul food.
Time to go: Spring or autumn. Avoid the height of summer as the heat is sweltering and humid.
Don’t miss: New Orleans’s stunning French Quarter.

Need to know: Much of the cuisine involves meat or fish and batter. Healthy vegetarian options can be hard to find.

Don’t forget: Between cities, leave the interstates because smaller roads make more interesting, if slightly longer, journeys.


TRAVEL FACTS:
Travelbag offers five nights at Millennium Maxwell House, Nashville from £739 per person including flights from London or Manchester. Based on travel in October.

To book or to discuss alternative options call 0871 703 4240 or visit our website: www.travelbag.co.uk