A city’s music scene is an essential part of its culture and helps to define its overall identity. These 12 US cities have played important roles in shaping various musical genres over the decades and continue to stand at the forefront of the country’s music scene. Whether you prefer a cozy jazz club or an action-packed outdoor concert, these 12 cities are must-visits.
The Dandy Warhols, She & Him, the Decemberists, and Blitzen Trapper among the acts to emerge from the hipster haven of Portland. It’s home to a staggering number of record stores of all sizes, as well as cool music festivals like summer’s PDX Pop Now!, a free event focused on local bands. The Doug Fir Lounge is one of the top spots in the city to check out indie bands, offering state-of-the-art sound equipment and an intimate atmosphere.
More than Elvis Presley’s stomping grounds, Memphis is the home of rock & roll. The city has produced musicians like John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and, more recently, Justin Timberlake. Beale Street is rightfully the city’s most iconic music street, packed with some of its best live music venues. B.B. King’s Restaurant & Blues Club is among the most famous, but places like Young Avenue Deli and Blues City Cafe are also worth a stop.
It’s not just actors that go to Los Angeles in the hopes of getting their big break. The City of Angels draws musical performers of all genres, from rappers and country musicians to classical musicians and DJs. It has spawned an equally diverse group of big-name acts, including Guns N’ Roses and Tupac Shakur. Often heralded as the center of the West Coast music scene, Los Angeles is home to A&M Records and Capitol Records, as well as enough music landmarks to fill an entire visit.
Most people still associate Seattle’s music scene with the 1990s grunge movement, but before Pearl Jam and Nirvana, Seattle was the home of Jimi Hendrix. Today, it continues to churn out acts like Macklemore, Death Cab for Cutie, and The Shins. Catch bands at the many bars and clubs found in Capitol Hill and Belltown, or check out the popular Bumbershoot Festival in September, which draws a mix of big-name acts as well as local up-and-comers.
From street musicians to funeral bands, music is at the heart of everyday life in New Orleans. The city is the birthplace of jazz, which was cultivated here in the early 20th century before spreading across the country and inspiring the creation of numerous other musical genres. Check out the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in the spring, explore the big music clubs located on Bourbon Street, or head to venues like Siberia and Tipitina’s to enjoy other genres of live music.
Chicago became an epicenter of the country’s jazz and blues scenes when African-American Southerners moved north in search of jobs after World War II. The ‘Chicago Blues’ style was pioneered by names like Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters, and the city’s jazz and blues roots are evident today at the Chicago Blues Festival and at venues like The Green Mill. Chicago has produced big-name acts from other diverse musical genres, including The Smashing Pumpkins and Kanye West. Plus, the annual Lollapalooza music festival is nothing short of spectacular.
Prince may be the most famous musician to emerge from Minneapolis, but the city is also home to a thriving rap scene, largely thanks to rap label Rhymesayers. It also produces some top-notch indie rock and hip hop acts, while the Minnesota Orchestra heads up a respectable classical music scene. Large venues like the Target Center, as well as smaller ones like Cabooze, are great places to catch live acts year-round, or you can check out one of the city’s annual festivals like Basilica Block Party.
Nicknamed the ‘Live Music Capital of the World,’ Austin has produced acts like Janis Joplin, Jamestown Revival, Explosions in the Sky, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Most people know Austin as the host of South-By-South-West, as well as other big music festivals like Fun Fun Fun Fest and Austin City Limits. The city is home to large venues like the beautiful early 20th-century Paramount Theater, but you’ll also find intimate, offbeat venues all over the city, particularly around the University of Texas and East Austin areas.
Athens is quite a bit smaller than most of the other cities featured on this list, which is perhaps why this town’s thriving music scene is often overlooked. Regularly ranked among the best college towns in the US, Athens has produced the B-52s and R.E.M, in addition to a number of experimental indie acts. The town’s historic Morton Theater once hosted names like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
Washington is home to a flourishing underground music scene, producing artists ranging from Fugazi to Chuck Brown. It’s also home to fantastic live music venues, including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Bohemian Caverns, and 9:30 Club, to name just a few. Lastly, its National Museum of American History features a number of fascinating music history exhibitions, including sound recordings dating back to the early 20th century.
The birthplace of genres like punk, hip-hop, and disco, as well as talents ranging from Sonic Youth and Jay-Z to Burt Bacharach and Wu-Tang Clan, few cities can compete with New York’s impressive musical heritage. One of the most compelling aspects of New York’s music scene is its variety. You can see indie rock newcomers at the Mercury Lounge, jazz at the JALC, classical performances at Carnegie Hall, or big-name acts at the Radio City Music Hall. With hole-in-the-wall bars and clubs scattered all over the city, you’ll never find yourself lacking in live music options.
The US’s hub for country and western music, there’s a reason Nashville earned the nicknamed ‘Music City USA.’ Among the city’s most prominent musical claims to fame is the Grand Ole Opry, a country music and variety radio show that is still recorded live at the historic Ryman Auditorium. At the same time, there’s more to Nashville than country music; in addition to spawning acts like the Black Keys and Jack White, the city is home to a strong rock-and-roll scene, and nearby East Nashville is an epicenter for indie acts.