Music has the power to change an event from a one-note bore to a smash hit.
Music museums and rentable studios are great venue choices for small and mid-sized events, allowing attendees to engage with music history and curated activities between meetings. Music-centered activities like songwriting exercises, karaoke, and lip sync battles can be great icebreaking exercises. The opportunity to attend live concerts, check out music festivals, or cut a rug at dancehalls can give attendees common ground and memorable shared experiences. As North Carolina young adult novelist Sarah Dessen wrote in her 2006 book Just Listen, “Music is the great uniter. An incredible force. Something that people who differ on everything and anything else can
have in common.”
The South is home to musical genres as varied as Nashville’s country music, Austin’s folk and indie, New Orleans’ jazz and blues, and Atlanta’s R&B and hip hop—there really is something for everyone. But while these major cities might be the first to come to mind when thinking of Southern music, the region is rich with opportunities to engage with live music and cultural history off the beaten path. ConventionSouth polled our readers on their favorite ‘Small Towns With Big Sound.’ The eight cities and towns provide multiple opportunities for event attendees to take in the richness and diversity of all that Southern music has to offer.
Bartlesville, the county seat of Washington County, Okla., was the original headquarters of Phillips Petroleum before its merger with Conoco Inc. Perhaps its most notable landmark is Price Tower, the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed skyscraper ever realized, which Wright called “the tree that escaped the crowded forest.” Bartlesville’s other major landmark is Bartlesville Community Center, designed by Wright’s student William Wesley Peters and original home of Oklahoma’s premier music festival, OKM Music. Founded in 1983 as OK Mozart International, the festival was originally a classical music festival, drawing major names in the genre over the years like Itzhak Perlman, Leontyne Price, and Sarah Chang. In 2017, the festival rebranded, welcoming artists in other genres including bluegrass, gospel, and pop. While the festival is held in June, OKM Music also hosts a regular concert series throughout the year at their current venue, Ambler Hall. Additional music venues in Bartlesville include Frank & Lola’s and Crossing 2nd.
Like many towns in the Mississippi Delta, Cleveland has a long history of blues, roots, and gospel music. Local musical heroes include The CUZ Band, Craig Adams and the Long Goodbye, Chris Dixon & JoyFull Noise, The Gran Boiz, Betzenzo, Variety, Delta String Band, Jeff McCreary, and Tricia Walker, while major music venues in Cleveland include the Deep Roots project at the Ellis Theatre, the Bologna Performing Arts Center, the Sanders Soundstage, Hey Joe’s, Bar Fontaine, and Airport Grocery.
Cleveland’s rich music history is evident in its sightseeing opportunities, such as the Delta Music Institute, the Mississippi Blues Trail, the Mississippi Country Music Trail, and Keep Cleveland Boring, an organization of music and entertainment enthusiasts who coordinate the yearly Otherfest and Anotherfest music festivals. But the two biggest draws are likely Grammy Museum Mississippi, the only Grammy museum in the United States outside of Los Angeles, which boasts 28,000 square feet of music and recording history, and nearby Dockery Farms, often considered the birthplace of blues, which, as a preserved museum of a post-Civil War working plantation,
explores the complex relationships of
race and culture with the development of Delta blues.
Denton is the home of the University of North Texas, which, in 1947, became the first university in the world to offer a degree program in jazz. Since then, the university’s College of Music has been one of the largest music institutions of higher learning in the county, and its music library, also one of the nation’s largest, has more than 300,000 volumes of scores, periodicals, and books and around 900,000 musical recordings. The One O’Clock Lab Band, the College’s jazz ensemble, has been nominated for seven Grammy awards.
Denton’s other musical acts include Midlake, Brave Combo, Eli Young Band, Pat Boone, Slobberbone, Centro-Matic, Baptist Generals, and Sarah Jaffe, while its notable venues include Dan’s Silverleaf, Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios, Andy’s, Harvest House, and others throughout the downtown district near Courthouse-on-the-Square. Every spring, Denton hosts a weekly concert series on the Courthouse lawn, and every Saturday from April to November, the Denton Community Market, a producer-only art and farmer’s market, features live music and local vendors. Denton’s music festivals include Arts & Jazz, Blues Fest, Arts & Auto, Pistons & Paint, and Day of the Dead, while recording studios like The Panhandle House, Redwood Studio, Reeltime Audio, and Mockingbird Sound Recording Studio offer touring opportunities.
Stillwater, home of Oklahoma State University, is considered the home of Red Dirt music, so named for the color of Oklahoma’s soil. A cousin of outlaw country and the Texas sound, red dirt melds rock, Americana, country, folk, blues, and bluegrass. Artists like Bob Childers, Red Dirt Rangers, The Great Divide, Turnpike Troubadours, Tom Skinner, Jason Boland & the Stragglers, Stoney LaRue, Randy Crouch, Monica Taylor, and Mike McClure have all gotten their start playing in Stillwater’s music venues. The largest venue is the Tumbleweed Dancehall, the largest non-arena live music venue in the state. It boasts the largest wooden dance floor in the state and is the home of the Tumbleweed Calf Fry Festival and Outside City Limits. Other venues include Iron Monk Brewing Company, Eskimo Joe’s, and venues along “The Strip,” the heart of Stillwater’s nightlife scene and home of The Salty Bronc Saloon and Willie’s Saloon, where entertainment attorney Rod Phelps discovered Garth Brooks. Stillwater is also the home of Bob Childers’ Gypsy Café, a yearly singer-songwriter festival, and OSU’s McKnight Center for the Performing Arts.
With a rich history of Southern rock, gospel, soul, and country, Macon is the hometown, or at least crucial to the origin stories, of music icons like Little Richard, Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers Band, Jason Aldean, and many others. It is also the home of the legendary Capricorn Sound Studios and Museum, which, as the home of Capricorn Records, produced nine platinum albums, 17 gold albums, and five gold singles between 1969 and 1979. Capricorn now hosts a 1,200-square-foot museum, two state-of-the-art commercial recording studios, 12 rehearsal rooms, and rentable offices, co-working spaces, and meeting rooms.
Other major sites to see include the Otis Redding Foundation & Museum and the Allman Brothers Band Museum at the Big House, which can be rented for private events. Popular music venues include Hargray Capitol Theatre, Macon City Auditorium, Macon Coliseum, Grand Opera House, Grant’s Lounge, Hummingbird Stage & Taproom, and Douglass Theatre. The highlight of the yearly music calendar is Bragg Jam, which occurs the last weekend of every July but also coordinates regular Second Sunday Concerts and Concert Crawls.
The Shoals, Alabama
The Florence-Muscle Shoals Metropolitan Area, popularly known as The Shoals, is not just the location of the University of North Alabama,, but also the birthplace of W.C. Handy, widely called the ‘Father of the Blues’, and the site of two of the most thriving recording studios in the American music industry’s history. FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals produced singles and albums from The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Bobbie Gentry, the Osmonds, and, more recently, Tim McGraw, The Chicks, and Demi Lovato.
Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield has produced albums and singles from Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Cher, and more. Both studios offer tours and host museums to their recording legacy and the region’s music history. Additional historical sites include the W.C. Handy Birthplace, Museum & Library, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, and the Roots of American Music Trail. Popular music venues in The Shoals region include Swampers Bar & Grille, FloBama, and the Rattlesnake Saloon, while festivals include ShoalsFest and Shoals Southern Music Festival.
Near the Atchafalaya Basin, the largest swamp in the United States, Lafayette, known as the “Heart of Acadiana,” is the central hub of Louisiana Cajun culture and music. Notable genres include swamp pop (blending R&B and rock and roll with traditional Cajun influences) and zydeco (a blend of R&B, soul, and traditional Cajun influences, with bandleaders playing the accordion and the frottoir washboard). The region is also famous for its culture of dancehalls, which combine the functions of community centers, bars, and performance halls, allowing people of all ages to gather for Cajun food, drink, music, and dance.
Lafayette and the Acadiana region boast Grammy winners like Clifton Chenier and Lauren Daigle as hometown heroes, while venues like Blue Moon Saloon, Hideaway on Lee, Feed & Seed, Rock’n’Bowl, Grouse Room, and Warehouse 535 grant an opportunity to check out new artists and those on the rise. Lafayette hosts dozens of festivals every year, many of which highlight the local music, like Festival International de Louisiane, Zydeco Extravaganza, Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival, Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, Latin Music Festival, and South Louisiana Songwriters Festival and Workshop.
Statesville, North Carolina
The county seat of Iredell County in North Carolina’s Piedmont region and home of Mitchell Community College, Statesville is the birthplace of musical artists as varied as country singer Rockie Lynne and opera singer Julianne Baird. Music venues include the Old Jail, Wine Maestro, and the Upper Room, a recently opened Christian café. Statesville’s live music events include the Friday After Five Summer Concert Series held May through September in downtown Statesville, the Fall Art Crawl in September, and the Statesville Pumpkin Fest in November.
Christopher Jennings is a freelance writer based in New Orleans, La. His most frequent topics are arts, culture, and nightlife. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Loyola University New Orleans and a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University.