Anyone who’s taken the time to listen to some high quality country music understands that there’s more to this art form than the cliche of a man crying on a bar stool about the death of his dog. Sure, there’s plenty of that, but there’s also an incredible amount of variety to this home grown music style that reflects decades of innovation. Just as much as rock and roll, blues, or hip-hop, country music is a true American art. A love of country music has spread to every corner of the United States. You could be right down the road from some genuine country twang and not even know it. If you’re looking for the heart of honky tonk in America, here are the best places to look.
1. Nashville, Tennessee
This one is an obvious choice, but it’s obvious for a reason. Nashville is the world capital of country music. Home to the Grand Ole Opry and a huge contingent of modern country superstars and recording studios, Nashville is the undisputed mecca of country music. It’s even home to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Whether you want some Conway Twitty or some Miranda Lambert, Nashville can deliver.
2. Branson, Missouri
Branson has long been considered one of the South’s most enduring tourist locations, and country music is a big part of that draw. From icons with long term stage shows to visiting celebrities, Branson always has a good show for the flocks of tourists who seek it out year after year.
3. Gruene Hall
Built more than a hundred years ago, New Braunfels, Texas’ Gruene Hall has always been a pitstop for country music fans and stars alike. The dance hall is still just as popular today as it was in the 1800s. Even better, pretty much everything is still the same, which means that a visit to Gruene Hall is a visit to country music history.
4. Bakersfield, California
You might not think to look on the West Coast for good country music, but Bakersfield, California has put a lot of work into developing their own brand of country music, the Bakersfield sound. Some of the world’s most famous honky tonks, like Trout’s and the Blackboard Stages, are located in Bakersfield, a proud addition to America’s country music lexicon.
5. Memphis, Tennessee
Memphis may be known as the home of the blues and Elvis Presley, but the city has always made room for great country music, too. You can visit Graceland (Presley was a country music superstar, too), take a tour of world famous Sun Studio, or you can take a trip to Beale Street at night, when country and blues fill the air in equal measure.
6. Route 66
The most famous highway in the United States, Route 66, is also tied into the heart of country music. After all, nothing says country music like wandering freely down a long and lonesome road. Not only is the scenery gorgeous, but Route 66 has also been inspiring country music artists for half a century.
Located in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Dollywood is part amusement park and part living shrine to one of country music’s most prominent luminaries, Dolly Parton. Though retired, the celebrated singer still takes some time to perform at Dollywood on special occasions.
8. Bandera, Texas
Take a night to stay in Bandera and tie one on at the 11th Street Cowboy Bar, also known as the Biggest Little Bar in Texas. Make sure that you leave your inhibitions at the door when you hit 11th Street. The bras hanging from the ceiling should give you an idea of what to expect once you knock a few back.
9. Oakwood Cemetery Annex
Understanding the true beauty of good country music means appreciating the great artists who’ve contributed to the art form over the course of decades. Anyone with the urge to pay tribute to those musicians should start their trip in Montgomery, Alabama at the Oakwood Cemetery Annex, the resting place of Hank Williams, the godfather of country music.
10. Cheyenne Frontier Days
If you ever have the opportunity to visit Cheyenne, Wyoming for its annual Frontier Days celebration, you’re in for a once-in-a-lifetime celebration of Southern culture including the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and some truly great country music. Cheyenne Frontier Days is country culture immersion at its finest.
11. Bristol, Tennessee
Ever wondered where country music was born? That’d be the town of Bristol, Tennessee, the location where country music innovator Jimmie Rodgers and the iconic Carter family recorded some of the world’s first country music. Today, the town commemorates the invention of country music with a museum, several sites, and some truly wonderful music experiences.
12. Hurricane Mills, Tennessee
When you’re done visiting Dollywood, take a ride to Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, the location of the Loretta Lynn Ranch, a museum dedicated to one of country music’s most talented performers. From a re-creation of the log cabin in which she was born to a tour of her tour bus, the Ranch is a living testament to Lynn’s contribution to music.
13. Acre 121
The nation’s capital is also home to one of the country’s most influential country music bars: Acre 121. When you’ve finished visiting the National Mall and you’ve gotten your fill of the Smithsonian, head to Acre 121 to spend the night dancing to some of the industry’s best country music.