Alright America, it’s your birthday—so let’s talk about some of your best music cities.
This week in Liner Notes, I am going to be discussing the nations’ top five obvious choices when it comes to America’s Greatest Music Cities. These are the cities that I would assume most people think about when discussing the top places in the U.S. to hear music. Next week’s copy of Liner Notes is going to examine five ‘not-so-expected’ places, but cities that should be considered nonetheless.
It is not because I live here, BreakThru Radio is housed here, or every band out there wants to play here that I am beginning with New York City. The argument is more than obvious. Perhaps it is the fusion of cultures that has existed for centuries in this north eastern small town, or maybe it was a direct result of the great migration north that took place after the Civil War. Whatever caused it; New York City is one of the best metropolitans in the world for music, let alone the United States.
Each day, New York music journalists are debating which neighborhoods within the five boroughs are the best for live music, thus part of me thinks it’s a crime to include Brooklyn under the same subcategory as Spanish Harlem. That’s what makes New York so great for music fans. The variety is endless. I mean really endless! One night I watched a Williamsburg German folk band play in the Bowery before heading up to Morningside Heights to take in a Nigerian ensemble headed by Abdoulaye Alhassane.
New York’s greatness in music doesn’t stop at the “live venue” discussion; it is the history behind the locations and the never-ending recording studios, that make this city such a feast for music-gluttons. “Tin-Pan Alley” is now home to Def Jam Records. In the North you’ve got the legendary jazz club Minton’s Playhouse, and in the South you’ve got the iconic punk watering hole Bowery Ballroom. The list can go on-and-on. I need not oversell the obvious. New York City is a place for all music, American or otherwise.
Nashville is Nashville because of its American-ness. Arguably the town that, if not gave birth to, fostered American music, Nashville, Tennessee has been sought after by musicians and fans from all corners of the country and beyond the Atlantic shoreline. From the Grand Ole Opry’s opening in 1925 to the current music-scene that is witnessing a revival of Honky Tonk, Rockabilly, and Pure Country, one cannot begin a discussion about music in America without placing “Music City USA” at the top of the list.
Due to its geographical location at the heart of the South, as America developed its complex interstate system, all roads led to Nashville. This meant that young singers who wanted a shot at recording themselves were able to easily drive or hitch to one of the two Tennessee greats: Memphis or Nashville. The investment Nashville made into Country Music separated itself from Memphis, which was starting to get more into the uprising Rock and Roll style (such as producer Sam Phillips’ Sun Records). Today, Nashville hasn’t lost a step. It is still home to some of the best venues to take in a live show, whether it be the nostalgic Nashville country sound, or something a little more 2010, like hip-hop funk players The V C Strut Band.
Jazz, zydeco, funk, whatever; you name it—New Orleans has got it. But they have it with style, and that’s what makes the city of N’Awlins Louisiana so damn impressive. Should we be thanking la liberté de la Couture Français? Any way you slice it, New Orleans just has flavor, not only in music but in all facets of their society. It is no wonder the city continues to perpetually perform and produce some of the country’s top musicians. Maybe not in the “pop” sense of the term, but definitely in the “talent” sense.
The thing about New Orleans is that you can’t go but one block without taking in some sort of live, underground, “I have no desire to be famous, I’m just doing my thang,” music. The ‘birth place of jazz’ continues to push the envelope and lead the rest of the nation in new forms of traditional music. Sticking with instruments and root-themes, New Orleans continues to impress. This is such a great musical city because it keeps its ego constantly in check and never takes itself so seriously. It is the holy ground for purists who care about the sound over the image or the income.
Will it ever lose its tree-hugging, peace-loving, “I’m gonna save the world with flowers,” image? Does it even have to? Much to the chagrin of a close San Franciscan friend of mine, I stick to the argument that, yes, San Francisco, California is one of the great American music cities; but yes, it is stuck in some sort of time trap. However, that is what makes it such a great place for music. Its history is not to be ignored.
San Francisco’s sixties Haight-Ashbury scene and monumental Gay Pride vanguardism have assisted in developing it as one of the West Coast’s epicenter for great music. From jam band legends The Grateful Dead to nineties misfits Faith No More, San Francisco does have a vast range in style and sound. This is not even to mention its ability to throw an outdoor concert. Music festivals were made for places like the Bay Area. With its inspiring landscape of mountains, ocean, and countryside, San Francisco is probably the country’s number one place to take in a live show.
Home of the blues; but so much more. Chicago, Illinois has a musical past steeped in the tradition of telling it like it is, and using music as a catalyst to make it all seem better. Like New York, Chicago’s thriving music scene during the first two to three decades of last century is a benefit of the great migration north. Mostly Jewish men seeking income in the recording industry and living in the slums of Chicago’s south side, related to the African Americans who too, were delegated to the Chicago slums. While the living was hard, the marriage between the two was a gift to American music. Chess, Alligator, and Cobra were all record labels that began cashing in and promoting the amplified sounds of the Delta-born musicians. Today, ‘Chi-town’ continues its legendary output. More than just blues, Chicago features some of the countries top jazz musicians, top hip hop artists, and top venues to take in a live show.
This is just a top five list. I know it is impossible to choose, and I am very aware of the cities that have been left out of this list. However, before you jump all over me for what I have missed, come back to Liner Notes next week to read about the top five not-so-expected cities that house some of America’s best music.
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– Kory French