Liner Notes: America’s Top Music Cities, Part II

Last week, in celebration of the July 4th holiday, I looked at the nation’s top five cities for music. The list, in no particular order, included New York, Nashville, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Chicago.

This week I have laid out a list of another top five, just as wonderful as the cities we would all expect to see, but the ones that usually fall through the cracks. It is not about how obvious they may or may not be; it’s just about how good the music is.


Everyone knows South by Southwest is awesome, but Austin is awesome the whole year-round. I have never been able to put my finger on what makes this central Texas city so damn cool. No offense to the rest of the state, but what is it about Austin that has all us liberal-minded democrats in the North thinking, “how that hell is that city in Texas?”

Austin’s music scene began to really form a national image about twenty years ago, although its soul is much older than that. Of course Austin, being in the heart of Texas, began its climb to legendary music status in the country scene back in the thirties. Then, somewhere in the eighties, Austin began to earn its reputation as so much more than a country music town.

Nowadays, music fans can enjoy everything from electronic techno venues to hardcore new punk stages. Austin is anything but one-dimensional. 6th Street has come to be recognized as one of the country’s greatest music miles. Austin’s own Channel 8 News has dubbed Austin the “live music capital of the world.” It may sound a bit pompous, but the moniker is not that far off. It just would have sounded better if it came from a music magazine somewhere beyond of the city limits.


Eugene, Oregon’s music theme really began to blossom in the early nineties. You may say it rode on the coattails of Seattle’s grunge revolution, but there is an argument to be made that the reality is that it may have been the other way around.

The thing that makes Eugene so cool is its ‘under the radar’ status. Beyond the late nineties swing-revivalists The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, no band from Eugene has become mainstream famous. Close in proximity to the larger Portland, Eugene is able to feed off the creative flow from the metropolitan area and university campus, yet ditch the pretentious self-righteousness that is often married to young urban bands trying to make it.

Eugene’s music scene is like that party you went to where a bunch of musicians spontaneously started playing together, and the music was as magical and mystical as the night. No one trying to up anybody else, no one trying to impress anyone else, no one with a fabricated ego or style to be taken too seriously. If you are a music fan who thrives on the non-famous, and just loves that night of music that you wish would never end, spend a weekend in Eugene—you’ll be hooked.

Kansas City:

KC is a funny one, because you don’t need to tell anyone from Kansas City or anyone who is versed in the history of American music that Kansas City, Missouri should be on the list. They know that. I know that. But a lot of the country does not know that.

Kansas City has contributed two of the nation’s most famous and revered jazz musicians (Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins) as well as numerous blues players. KC is all about the jazz and blues; it’s like New Orleans, Chicago, and New York all rolled into one. Sitting almost smack-dab in the middle of continental America, Kansas City takes from all four corners of the country and mixes the music up to spit out a pure American sound.

The city continues to attract musicians from all over the Midwest, adding a home-cooking, apple-pie flavor to the music scene. If it’s more than just music you are seeking, and you are after something down-home American, you can find it in Kansas City. Blues, jazz, funk, Motown, hip-hop, it’s all there, but there is something that makes Kansas City feel more red, white, and blue than any other music-city in the country. I am sure it has a lot to do with the fact that it is geographically landlocked—it acts like a magnet for the different musical styles it surrounds.

The city with its own dance, Charleston, South Carolina has always been one of those Deep Southern towns that people often forget about when thinking of America’s great music cities.

Charleston is smothered in that old Southern charm. The music scene in this picaresque town is of an all feel-good nature. When you’re chilling in Charleston, you aren’t there to interpret lyrics, start a revolution, or witness groundbreaking musical form; you are just there to have a good time.

Charleston continues to produce that unique combination of quality music and a timeless dancehall environment that is soaked in ageless elegance. Unlike the rest of the country, it seems like Charleston never got over the hedonism of Fitzgerald’s jazz age. The state-recognized ‘IOP,” a distinctive stretch of land jetting along the coast into the Atlantic Ocean, houses some of the best venues on the eastern shoreline. If you find your summer plans involve a long drive between New York and Florida, make sure to plan for a few nights spend in Charleston. Walk the main drag of the ‘Isle of Palms’ and check out bands at the top-rated Windjammer, Pour House, or Music Farm, and get your Charleston on.

Minneapolis/St. Paul:

Last, but certainly not least, are the twin cities in the land of a thousand lakes: Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. For some reason, the state of Minnesota is historic for pumping out a few of America’s most creative and recognized musicians (Bob Dylan and Prince among the top recognized).

Maybe it is because it lies so close in proximity to Canada, and is naturally influenced by that laid back and liberal state of mind. Or maybe it is just that it is so damn cold up there most of the time, there is nothing else to do but sit by a basement fireplace and master an instrument. Whatever the cause, Minneapolis and St. Paul are creative epicenters.

More recently, Minneapolis has revolved its style around the fresh indie rock scene, with Tapes n’ Tapes being one of the more successful acts to get their name known beyond state borders. Surrounded by thousands of miles of bucolic deciduous forest and lakes, and rooted heavily in early American folk music, Minnesota maintains the values of the pure American struggle song, but also finding new sounds to share its message. If you like having the option of hearing that acoustic campfire sing-along sound as well as American blues and rock, then Minneapolis is the place to visit.

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– Kory French


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