In Memphis they're sitting in shadowy bars listening to the soulful plucking of a six string guitar. Symphonic harmonies vibrate out of grand concert halls in San Francisco. In Chicago, the earsplitting sensory punch of heavy metal mixes with the reverent vocals of gospel choirs. And down in San Antonio, the music strums to a Latin beat.
In each of these places unique genres of music have grown and prospered. These are America's Musical Cities — the best places to find live performances in genres ranging from rock to rap and gospel to jazz.
To compile this list, we talked to the experts: journalists, producers, academics and, of course, the music makers themselves. We asked each person to identify the best U.S. cities for 10 different genres of music, and to explain what makes each city so musically appealing.
So what cities came out on top?
Donald Gay, a recording artist and the surviving brother of the members of the pioneering gospel group The Gay Sisters, unequivocally selects Chicago, Ill., as the birthplace of gospel music. It started, he says, following the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South, at the beginning of the 20th century. "First gospel choir was started right here in Chicago at Pilgrim Baptist Church," he says. "Seven nights a week there's gospel singing going on here, someplace, somewhere."
While choirs hail to the heavens, a very different kind of sound can also be heard around the Windy City: Chicago was also selected as the best place to experience the audio pyrotechnics of heavy metal. "The Chicago metal music scene is not defined by a particular sound, per se, since no two bands are alike," says Bruce Lamont, singer and saxophone player for the metal band Yakuza. "But it is an identification of a community working together with a strong do-it-yourself ethic and independently minded spirit, perhaps attributed to the city's working class roots."
The city of Detroit, Mich., came out on top for lovers of hip-hop, beating out Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York as the unexpected crux of this popular genre. "I have a lot of love for the people of Detroit," says Chuck "Jigsaw" Creekmur, founder of allhiphop.com. "I've been to bars out there, and while they may seem meaningless to the outsider, these are the places where hip-hop lives and breathes. These are the places where they still battle lyrically for the respect of being the best. It is also where larger cities take their cues."
Another genre enriched by its regional diversity is Latin music, a term many experts find to be too vague to effectively describe its numerous subgenres — for instance, the Mexican-American folk music known as norteño, tejano and conjunto music. According to our experts, San Antonio is the best place for this rural style — which far outsells more widely known subgenres like salsa and meringue. San Antonio is the site of both the Tejano Music Awards as well as the Tejano-Conjunto Festival, the largest live music showcase of tejano and conjunto music in the country.
Nashville, Tenn., was collectively selected as the most important city for country music. But its ascension to the top of the country scene was no accident. "Nashville fought tooth and nail to be the center of country music," says Diane Pecknold, author of The Selling Sound: Country Music, Commercialism, and the Politics of Popular Culture.
Another Southern standout, New Orleans, La., beat out numerous other cities for the jazz crown. While New York, Chicago and Los Angeles were all cited as great cities to experience their respective flavors of jazz, the Big Easy (arguably the birthplace of the genre) came out on top.
"New Orleans is an incredible musical city," says Graeme Boone, professor of music at The Ohio State University. Our experts cited a strong neighborhood culture of front porch musicians, in combination with the theatricality of celebrations like Mardi Gras, as helping cultivate a vibrant jazz community.
What about rock music? John Covach, professor of music theory at the University of Rochester, took a practical stance: "From a business point of view I think there's really no substitute for L.A.," he says.
Elsewhere in California, San Francisco ranks as the best city for classical music. While many cities boast world-class symphonies, San Francisco has an active scene of classical junkies looking to spread the music they love. The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra performs frequent free shows for packed houses, functioning entirely off grants, in an attempt to change the connotations of classical music as being solely for the wealthy.
Finally, the bluesiest city in the nation is Memphis, Tenn., home to the Blues Foundation, the Blues Music Awards and legend B.B. King's local restaurant and music venue. Blues guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Tinsley Ellis still feels the power of the music in this Tennessee town.
"Go to Beale Street any night of the week in Memphis, and you feel the presence of the local and traveling bluesman," he says.
So get to traveling: The music is waiting.