Music for the Southern Soul

Music for the Southern Soul

7 museums that will make your heart sing

Words by Rebecca Deurlein
Photos by The Museums Hall of Fame & Museum, Grammy Museum, The Big House Museum Archives, West TN Delta Heritage Center/Tina Turner Museum


Music is a marker—of an era, of a memory, of a culture. The South is a haven for music history and is the birthplace of soul, of country, and even of some rock and roll. 

Visiting these music studios and museums provides an educational vacation unlike any other, placing you at the feet of the legends. Imagine standing where Etta James found her voice, where Tina Turner studied in a one-room schoolhouse, and where the Allman Brothers all lived in “The Big House,” turning a bedroom into a late-night recording studio. 

Travel to these preservers of history to feel the inspiration, the creativity, and the tenacity of small-town Southerners who loved to make music, and you’ll go home inspired by their stories.

The Allman Brothers Band Museum at The Big House, Macon, Georgia

In 1969, a band emerged that has since been credited with the introduction of Southern rock. Singer-songwriter Gregg Allman, brother Duane Allman (slide guitar and lead guitar), Butch Trucks (drums), Berry Oakley (bass guitar), Jaimoe (drums), and Dickey Betts (lead guitar, vocals, and songwriting), formed the original Allman Brothers, a motley crew of long-haired, mustachioed young rockers. They wove jazz, blues, and country into music that spoke to a generation of hippies.

For ten years, the band made their home in what became known as The Big House, a stately tudor-style manse with impressive curb appeal. It’s not the home you would envision for a group of rockers and their rotating door of groupies, girlfriends, and wives. And it’s the first of many surprises you will find in the now converted museum.

Meandering from room to room of The Big House is more than taking in musical history—it gives Peeping Tom vibes as you get a sneak peak of the intimacies of the band’s life. You’ll see the children’s rooms, the large walk-in shower where many a tryst took place, and the sunroom-turned-music studio, light pouring in, pillows scattered about, as if the band could return any minute. 

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Sheffield, Alabama, and Fame Studios, Muscle Shoals, Alabama

These two studios, only two miles apart, will give you chills—not for the buildings themselves (blink and you’ll miss them) but for the larger-than-life personalities that filled the small rooms. 

Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aretha Franklin, Cher, Bob Seger, The Rolling Stones, Linda Ronstadt, Mavis Staples. It’s a laundry list of the greats, all singing, strumming, and drumming their way to the top. David Hood was an original Swamper and the legendary studio band bassist who got his start at Fame Studios, then co-founded Muscle Shoals Sound. There, he produced records with all the musical icons. His wife, Judy, still leads tours of the studio.

Both Muscle Shoals and Fame Studios still produce music, but it’s the stories behind the legends who rocked there that will have you enthralled. 

Tina Turner Museum/West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, Brownsville, Tennessee

About an hour northeast of Memphis, just off Interstate 40, a whitewashed, clapboard, one-room schoolhouse beckons visitors inside. A small sign announces its importance—Flagg Grove School: Childhood School of Tina Turner. Open the door, and you enter the world of both the Queen of Rock and of her childhood iteration, Anna-Mae Bullock.

What a study in contrasts! Over here is the small wooden desk where Anna-Mae sat for years, learning her ABCs. There, glittery gowns that showed off the strong, womanly legs of the grown-up Tina hang in all their splendor, a testament to the bright star the quiet little girl became. 

The schoolhouse was moved from Nutbush, Tennessee, where Turner lived as a child, and the interior preserved, including some personal belongings such as her high school yearbook. Gold records cover the walls and costumes fill showcases. 

The Tina Turner Museum shares property with the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, which features other famous musicians from the area, such as Sleepy John Estes.

Buddy Holly Center, Lubbock, Texas

“That’ll Be the Day” is considered Buddy Holly’s most famous song. But his full body of work in the traditional rock and roll arena of the 50s placed him at number 13 on Rolling Stone Magazine's list of the 100 Greatest Artists. That was all before he died tragically in a plane crash. He was only 22.

Yet he is said to have profoundly influenced the music world—The Beatles, Elton John, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones. Lubbock, his hometown, has memorialized his contributions, turning the house where he recorded into a museum. It sits in the Buddy Holly Plaza, which features giant-sized, black-rimmed glasses (Holly’s most famous distinguishing feature) that make for the perfect Instagram photo, along with a statue of Holly pickin’ and grinnin’. 

The Buddy Holly Gallery is decidedly grander, covering his meteoric rise and his upbeat music. One somber item in the collection: his cracked iconic glasses recovered from the plane crash. It’s a symbol of a bright light extinguished long before its apex. 

GRAMMY Museum, Cleveland, Mississippi

Honoring Grammy winners since the inception of the awards in 1958, this museum is a love letter to stand-out artists. Learn the history of the Grammys, immerse yourself in surround-sound performances, stroll the fashion that glittered on the red carpet, and see the instruments of the likes of Bruno Mars up close.

But it’s not all standing back and looking, at this museum. Hands-on exhibits will have you dancing, jamming, and producing a song that is stored in the museum’s archives—just in case fame finds you in the future.

Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum, Nashville, Tennessee

No musical tour is complete without the inclusion of Nashville, aka Music City. This interactive museum is not only chock full of memorabilia, but it’s also in tune with a more contemporary crowd. Visitors can work their way through every step of the recording process, playing each instrument, mixing the sounds, and creating a masterpiece. It’s perfect for budding musicians or anyone who wants to summon their inner drummer. 

Exhibits here represent sounds, eras, and musical genres from Los Angeles, Motown, and Memphis—something for everyone who loves music.