We take a road trip in the Mazda3 Sedan, touring the influential musical heartlands of America—Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans

Story Gavin Conway / Photography Mark Skovorodko

It’s about finding empathy and understanding when you’re suffering a broken heart. Or hearing an inspiring story of life on the great American road, with its trailers for rent, rambling men and county linemen desperately searching for love. It’s a complement to feelings of happiness and sorrow and at its most powerful, it is elevating and joyously liberating. That is American music at its best. Feelings, emotions—good and bad—and the very essence of what it is to be alive.

It’s country, rhythm and blues, funk, soul, hip-hop, rap, folk, rock and roll, jazz and more. And American music owes much of its influence to the South—you can’t have a conversation about how this unique music came to be without talking about Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans.

And so we begin our musical trek in a Mazda3 in the northernmost of these three epoch-making cities, Nashville. It’s 5:00am and we’ve come to Music Row, a major centre for music recording and production. It’s also home to performing venues, where passersby can stop in to listen to live country, jazz, blues, rock, bluegrass and more.

At this early hour, we have the street to ourselves—it’s a candy store of neon lights in every shade imaginable, strobing, flashing, dancing, anything to get and hold your attention. The list of outstanding performers who have recorded in Nashville includes Michael Bublé, the Black Eyed Peas, Kid Rock, Shania Twain, and k.d. lang, to name a few. But why Nashville?

The city actually traces its musical heritage as far back as the early 1700s, when fiddle players began to recognize Nashville as a place to go if you had musical aspirations. But things really took off in the 1800s when Nashville became known as a national center for music publishing. And when musicians came here from all over the country, they brought their local culture and traditions, giving the city unrivalled diversity in music genres. The contribution of African-American culture to Nashville’s identity is simply incalculable.

Back on Music Row, we wander past large windows open to the street as performers belt out their numbers—it’s difficult for street buskers here, as their music is overwhelmed by the blasting, thumping beats from these established venues.
 

 

“IT’S REAL HARD, THOUGH, TO GET A REGULAR GIG SO YOUR SOURCE OF INCOME IS JUST YOU CONSTANTLY LOOKING FOR A NEW PLACE TO PLAY. BUT YOU KNOW, I LOVE IT”

 
Kara Fay Crabtree

We decide to check out Honky Tonk Central. Kara Fay Crabtree is on deck, a petite presence with a voice so powerful that I can’t square it with her diminutive size. Her pitch and delivery are flawless, and she has the look of a star in waiting. But this is Nashville and 21-year-old Kara will be one of many thousands of equally talented strivers—this is not an easy road. 

“I live about an hour away in Clarksville, but I’ll play anywhere I can get a gig,” says Kara. “It’s real hard, though, to get a regular gig so your source of income is just you constantly looking for a new place to play. But you know, I love it.” It is a hard slog, and like most of her colleagues, Kara has a plan B—she’s studying accounting.

We leave Kara and head southwest towards Memphis, some three hours down the road. It’s our first major freeway leg of the journey and I’m thankful for the 186hp and 186lb-ft of torque—these figures make merging onto the highway a totally stress-free event. Once rolling, the Blind Spot Monitoring and Lane-Keep Assist functions give me even more peace of mind. In terms of comfort and safety, I can’t think of anything I’d want that the Mazda3 doesn’t have.

NASHVILLE TIMELINE

1871: The first around-the-world tour was by the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Nashville’s Fisk University. This established Nashville as a global music centre.
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1892: The most famous music venue in Nashville, the Ryman Auditorium, is nicknamed the “Carnegie Hall of the South” and attracts musicians and fans from all over the world.
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1925: Radio station WSM launched the Grand Ole Opry broadcast, cementing Nashville’s reputation and its nickname of Music City. The Opry, still staged live every week, is America’s longest-running radio show.
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1986: Country superstar Dolly Parton opens Dollywood amusement park, which is the biggest ticketed attraction in Tennessee.
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2013: Johnny Cash 
died and was buried near Nashville in 2003. In 2013, the Johnny Cash Museum opened to the public in Nashville.

MEMPHIS TIMELINE

1819: Memphis is founded. It is named after the ancient capital of Egypt on the Nile River. Memphis quickly becomes a major trading centre for cotton.
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1910: Beale Street becomes a commercial district owned and operated by African Americans. It now comprises three blocks of nightclubs, restaurants and shops. Beale Street has been declared Home of the Blues by an act of Congress.
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1952: Sun Studio was started by one of the fathers of rock and roll, Sam Phillips. It produced acts and artists such as B.B. King, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley.
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1957: Stax Records pioneered American and Memphis soul, as well as gospel, funk and the Delta blues. Its most famous act was Otis Redding.
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1982: Graceland opened to the public as a shrine to Elvis Presley. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006 and is the second most-visited house in the U.S. after the White House, with over 650,000 visitors a year.

Memphis, the birthplace of rock and roll, has arguably had more impact on music worldwide than any other single location. For a taste of the city’s evolution, we talked to John Doyle of the Smithsonian Memphis Rock n Soul Museum.

“Prior to the turn of the century, it was mostly early gospel music—both white and black—in churches, this being the Bible Belt,” explains Doyle. “You also had what we called ‘field hollers’—the music that slaves sang in the fields. Even post-slavery, into the sharecropper era, that continued. Gospel music in the black churches was part of all it too. Sharecroppers, black and white, would gather on porches and sing.

“In the early 1900s when sharecroppers both black and white were losing their homes or jobs, they came into the city,” says Doyle. “And they brought that music with them.” That migration is partly why Beale Street became one of the most famous blues streets in the world. And rock and roll? “Yes, it is definitely safe to say rock and roll was born in Memphis.” 

Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, reckoned he’d have huge success if he could start recording black music sung by a white kid. And he struck gold with Elvis Presley and his first major hit “That’s Alright Mama,” original lyrics by Blind Lemon Jefferson. Just to make sure that the audience knew Elvis was white, in radio interviews the interviewer would ask Elvis where he went to school. When he said Humes High, that gave it away—it was a whites-only school.

But the earliest rock and roll standard was Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88.” Released in 1951, it went to number one on the Billboard R&B chart, although the song was actually credited to Turner’s saxophonist Jackie Brenston.

We head out across town to another iconic Memphis location, Royal Studios. One of the oldest continuously operating recording studios in the world, it’s on Willie Mitchell Boulevard, named for the man who oversaw its greatest era from the late ’60s on. A massively creative innovator, Willie Mitchell worked with a quite incredible list of talent, including Al Green, Chuck Berry, Solomon Burke, Ike and Tina Turner, Rod Stewart, Keith Richards and more.

And now his son, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, has taken over the reins and is continuing the Royal’s astonishing run of success. Boo says his proudest moment was the day Mark Ronson—winner of seven Grammy Awards and producer of Amy Winehouse, among many others—and Bruno Mars came calling. “Mark wasn’t even looking for a studio; he was looking for singers,” explains Boo.

“So they came in and just freaked out about the history of the Royal—the studio hadn’t changed since ’69 and Al Green’s mike is still in the corner, Charles Hodges’ Hammond is there, Ann Peebles’ ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ drum device, all there. So after that Mark was like, ‘Man, I want to make my album here!’ And they came back two weeks later to record.
 

“I CRACKED OPEN THE BOURBON AND HEADED BACK AND BRUNO MARS HAPPENED TO BE THE FIRST DUDE WITH HIS CUP READY AND HE WAS LIKE ‘YEAH BOO MITCHELL, FILL MY CUP, PUT SOME LIQUOR IN IT.’ AND BY 4:30AM THAT LINE WAS IN THE SONG!”

 
Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell

“At one point, Mark casually says to me, ‘Hey man, I got this record I want Bruno to come here and make.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, he’s talking about Bruno Mars!’ and I’m trying not to fanboy out.” Bruno Mars, as in one of the biggest selling artists of all time, 200 million singles and 26 million albums sold.

“A couple of months later he comes back with Bruno, his writing buddy Philip Lawrence, Mystikal the rapper, and David Bowie’s guitar player Carlos Alomar. 

“Bruno is there for three days. It comes to be the last night and he’s got an 8:00am flight. They start writing the lyrics to ‘Uptown Funk’ around midnight. It gets to be about four in the morning and they run out of booze. So, I go into my dad’s office, which I hadn’t really touched since he’d passed, and there’s a special-edition Four Roses bourbon signed by the distiller. I just look at it and think, ‘Sorry, Pop, got to take one for the team!’

“I cracked it open and headed back and Bruno happened to be the first dude with his cup ready and he was like, ‘Yeah Boo Mitchell, fill my cup, put some liquor in it.’ And by 4:30am that line was in the song!”

“Uptown Funk” went on to be a huge hit, earning Boo Mitchell a Grammy for Record of the Year. And it seems likely that Boo’s son Uriah will keep the flame alive, albeit more as a performer. “My music is my life and I try to make every song on the album about something I went through,” explains 22-year-old Uriah. “I feel like now I’m at a point where I’ve seen the producer side, engineering side, but the thing I enjoy the most is performing and actually being in front of people and giving them myself, my music.” Uriah’s most recent album is the highly emotive Might B.

Boo’s final word on Memphis’ contribution: “Without the music from this region there would have been no British invasion. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who, everybody was listening to Memphis blues and soul. Anytime you turn on your radio, whatever you hear is the stepchild of what was made in Memphis.”

THE 2020 MAZDA3

One of the things you notice when first driving the Mazda3 is that it feels like a much bigger car, in all the right ways. It’s much more spacious inside than its relatively compact dimensions would suggest and the quality feel to the cabin materials makes it seem like a more premium luxury car.

And for the kind of driving we were doing, mainly long interstate highway runs, the Mazda’s radar cruise control meant we could set the speed and distance to the car in front and not have to be constantly resetting the cruise.

In cities, the Smart Brake Support gave peace of mind that if we didn’t spot a slow or stopped vehicle until the last minute, the Mazda would help out with the braking. With a smooth-shifting, six-speed automatic and 186hp on tap, progress was easy and refined, but when we needed to accelerate quickly, response was instant, especially in Sport mode. And, of course, the Mazda3 is really tremendous fun to drive.

Back in the Mazda3, we head to New Orleans, a six-hour trek due south through Mississippi and into Louisiana. The Mazda is a superbly refined way to travel—quiet, brilliant ride quality and an excellent sound system—and we arrive in New Orleans still feeling fresh.

New Orleans isn’t a Disney-esque re-creation of a storied history, it’s the real thing. And its heart is the French Quarter, founded as a walled military outpost in 1718, rich with French, Spanish and African culture. The city has been called the birthplace of jazz, which first gained a foothold in the early 1900s, emerging out of African-American communities. The other best-known feature of the New Orleans music scene is marching brass bands. Energetic and infectiously joyous, marching bands perform at virtually every conceivable social event in the city—funerals, picnics, weddings, carnivals and parades.

The Quarter is human-scaled, a great walking experience with architecture that could have originated 18th-century France, Spain or Italy. You can lose yourself in that reverie, but you’ll soon be brought back to today by the glass-and-steel towers of modern New Orleans that loom over the Quarter.

You won’t find a warmer and more generous smile in all of New Orleans than the one that Walter Wolfman Washington gives. Born and raised in the city, Wolfman (he isn’t in the least wolfish) has been on the scene for nearly 50 years. His first major gig was with Lee Dorsey, a famous pop and R&B performer, at New York’s Apollo Theater, a very big deal for a 19-year-old.

Wolfman started off with the blues, then tried jazz, but he’s most comfortable with blues and funk. “Most of the time my songs are about what I’m feeling and what I’ve experienced,” says Wolfman. “The disappointments, happiness and all that gets rolled into my feelings in the moment.”
 

“MOST OF MY SONGS ARE ABOUT WHAT I’M FEELING AND WHAT I HAVE EXPERIENCED; THE DISAPPOINTMENTS, HAPPINESS AND ALL THAT GETS ROLLED INTO MY FEELINGS IN THE MOMENT”

 
Walter Wolfman Washington

Wolfman is very proud of how well his last album, My Future is my Past, was received in 2018. So what makes New Orleans music special? “New Orleans’ music style is more soulful—there’s a lot of musicians that came from the church and went into music so they have a mostly soulful understanding of things.”

We get back to the French Quarter in time to see a wedding couple leading a brass band through the streets. The energy, the emotion, the bounce-on-the-balls of your feet excitement of the whole wedding party is spreading to strangers on the sidewalk, who start jigging along.

Of course, without the band and their wildly optimistic music, the wedding party would just be a bunch of people shuffling down the street on a rainy Friday night. But this is a proper, raucous celebration of life, made possible by American music.

NEW ORLEANS
TIMELINE

1817: The mayor of New Orleans issues a city ordinance restricting gathering of enslaved Africans to just one location: Congo Square. Here, slaves congregated to play music and dance on Sundays, their one official day off.
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1899: Half of New Orleans is at, or below, sea level. Albert Baldwin Wood is hired to try to improve the flood-prone city’s drainage. Wood invented “flapgates” and other hydraulic devices, most notably high-volume pumps.
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1961: New Orleans’ Preservation Hall is established to honour traditional NOLA Jazz. Operating as a music venue, a touring band and a non-profit organization, it continues its mission today.
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1977: Tipitina’s is opened by local music enthusiasts and becomes one of the most respected clubs in New Orleans. Prior to becoming Tipitina’s, it served as a gambling house, gymnasium and brothel.

CANADA’S MUSIC SCENE

Canada’s musical landscape is so diversified that finding your particular vibe is easy. Indeed, you’ll find some of the best country, jazz, blues, rock and roll and traditional folk music in the world. Canada has also contributed superstars to the global stage—Neil Young, who is proudly Canadian, performed with Crosby, Stills and Nash before going on to have a profoundly successful solo career. Likewise, Canadian singer Avril Lavigne has achieved global fame, selling over 40 million albums and 30 million singles worldwide.

Little wonder, then, that the story of popular Canadian musicians and singers goes far beyond the country’s borders—while local performers remain hugely in demand, it is the Canadian superstars that draw much of the world’s attention. It became a fact of life that Canadian artists in the 20th century who became very popular would eventually be forced to head south to the enormous American market if they wanted to expand their audience. Some of the more famous names include, of course, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.

But Canadian presence on the music scene would become explosive. When government regulations invoked decades ago came into full effect, Canadian radio stations were required to play 35 percent Canadian content. That meant that Canadian artists would flood the airwaves.

Even bigger things followed in the 2010s. Some critics called this phase the “Canadian Invasion,” evoking memories of the “British Invasion,” when the Rolling Stones and the Beatles rocked the American music scene. Canadian artists, in the form of Drake, Justin Bieber and The Weeknd, stormed the American charts. From 2015 to 2017, these three generated an incredible 20 billion streams. A Forbes magazine article title at the time said it all: “Why Drake, The Weeknd And Justin Bieber Rule The Streaming World.”

But many of the most revered Canadian performers opted to stay in Canada. Country music balladeer Stompin’ Tom Connors wrote songs that could only ever have originated in Canada. One of his more famous ballads was “Bud the Spud,” about a truck driver hauling potatoes from Prince Edward Island.

The band Crash Test Dummies also established themselves as a commercial success in Canada. They started off in Winnipeg, Manitoba, before coming to global attention. The band experimented with a range of genres, but tended towards rock. And perhaps without being aware of it, we’ve probably all heard a Crash Test track at some stage: the group provided part of the soundtrack for the 1994 Jim Carrey movie Dumb and Dumber. In addition, the group have been credited with a couple of dozen television soundtracks.

Another rock group that established themselves with huge success in Canada is Barenaked Ladies, formed in Scarborough, Ontario. The band’s first album, Gordon, was released in 1992 and was certified platinum that year. Another huge break came when the Barenaked Ladies created and performed the theme song for the mega-hit American television sitcom The Big Bang Theory.

And there are some incredibly talented homegrown artists making a real splash in Canada. Ndidi O (Onukwulu), a native of British Columbia, developed her signature sound in the blues and folk scene of Toronto. With a voice that tracks between upbeat power blues and soul and softer country soul ballads, Ndidi O’s music is unique and goes straight to the heart.

Another BC resident making serious waves on Canada’s music scene is Jesse Roper. Critics have described his captivating music as energetic, mesmerizing, explosive and charismatic. Roper combines modern blues and rock with a respectful nod to blues greats like Stevie Ray Vaughan. And he has an infectious sense of fun, too. And inspiring and uniquely Canadian band Port Cities was formed a few years ago by three young Nova Scotians. Dylan Guthro, Breagh MacKinnon and Carleton Stone. They first became good friends before deciding to use their songwriting, producing and instrument skills to form their band. In a 2015 interview, Carleton said: “We just thought, there’s such a great chemistry between us, why not try to join forces and do something that’s bigger that any of us could do on our own?” Their style has been likened by one critic to ”Nashville meets East Coast.”

Just as Nashville and Memphis have their iconic music venues, so too are there revered venues across Canada. In Nova Scotia, for example, you can listen to some of the best blues and jazz you’ll hear anywhere north of New Orleans in the Seahorse Tavern in Halifax. Head west to Toronto and you’ll come upon one of the biggest music scenes in North America, with clubs and taverns that have attracted the very best performers from around the world. The Horseshoe Tavern, for example, has played host to the likes of the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, the Ramones and The Police. Another famous venue is The Phoenix, host at various times to Bob Dylan, Green Day and The Tragically Hip.

On the west coast in Vancouver, the renowned Commodore Ballroom has art-deco charm along with a rare sprung dance floor, and can accommodate up to 1,000 people. Billboard.com included the Commodore in its list of the ten most influential clubs in North America. The Commodore Ballroom has hosted a range of genres and performers that are up-and-coming, but also superstars such as Kiss, Snoop Dogg and Nirvana.

So the Canadian music scene really does have all of the diversity you’ll find south of the border, both in performers and venues. Worth a look or a listen? You bet.

Canada has some of the most famous music venues in the world, where international stars shine and local talent flourishes