We take a road trip in the Mazda3 Sedan, touring the influential musical heartlands of America—Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans
Story Gavin Conway / Photography Mark Skovorodko
It’s about finding empathy and understanding when you’re suffering a broken heart. Or hearing an inspiring story of life on the great American road, with its trailers for rent, rambling men and county linemen desperately searching for love. It’s a complement to feelings of happiness and sorrow and at its most powerful, it is elevating and joyously liberating. That is American music at its very best. Feelings, emotions—good and bad—and the very essence of what it is to be alive.
It’s country, rhythm and blues, funk, soul, hip hop, rap, folk, jazz and more. And American music owes much of its influence to the South—you can’t have a conversation about how this unique music came to be without talking about Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans.
And so we begin our musical trek in a Mazda3 in the northernmost of these three epoch-making cities, Nashville. It’s 5am and we’ve come to Music Row, a major center for music recording and production. It’s also home to performing venues, where passersby can stop in to listen to live country, jazz, blues, rock, bluegrass and more.
At this early hour, we have the street to ourselves—it’s a candy store of neon lights in every shade imaginable, strobing, flashing, dancing, anything to get and hold your attention. The list of outstanding performers who have recorded in Nashville includes Michael Bublé, Bon Jovi, the Black Eyed Peas, Kid Rock, Robert Plant and many more. But why Nashville?
“IT’S REAL HARD, THOUGH, TO GET A REGULAR GIG SO YOUR SOURCE OF INCOME IS JUST YOU CONSTANTLY LOOKING FOR A NEW PLACE TO PLAY. BUT YOU KNOW, I LOVE IT”
The city actually traces its musical heritage as far back as the early 1700s, when fiddle players began to recognize Nashville as a place to go if you had musical aspirations. But things really took off in the 1800s when Nashville became known as a national center for music publishing. And when musicians came here from all over the country, they brought their local culture and traditions, giving the city unrivalled diversity in music genres. The contribution of African American culture to Nashville’s identity is simply incalculable.
Back on Music Row we wander past venues, their large windows open to the street as performers belt out their numbers—it’s difficult for street buskers here as their music is overwhelmed by the blasting, thumping beats from established venues.
We decide to check out Honky Tonk Central. Kara Fay Crabtree is on deck, a petite presence with a voice so powerful that I can’t square it with her diminutive size. Her pitch and delivery are flawless, and she has the look of a star in waiting. But this is Nashville and 21-year-old Kara will be one of many thousands of equally talented strivers—this is not an easy road. “I live about an hour away in Clarkesville, but I’ll play anywhere I can get a gig,” says Kara. “It’s real hard, though, to get a regular gig so your source of income is just you constantly looking for a new place to play. But you know, I love it.” It is a hard slog, and like most of her colleagues, Kara has a plan B—she’s studying accounting.
1871: The first around-the-world tour was by the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Nashville’s Fisk University. This established Nashville as a global music center.
1892: The most famous music venue in Nashville, the Ryman Auditorium, is nicknamed the “Carnegie Hall of the South” and attracts musicians and fans from all over the world.
1925: Radio station WSM launched the Grand Ole Opry broadcast, cementing Nashville’s reputation and its nickname of Music City. The Opry, still staged live every week, is America’s longest-running radio show.
1986: Country superstar Dolly Parton opens Dollywood amusement park, which is the biggest ticketed attraction in Tennessee.
2013: Johnny Cash died and was buried near Nashville in 2003. In 2013, the Johnny Cash Museum opened to the public in Nashville.
We leave Kara and head southwest toward Memphis, some three hours down the road. It’s our first major freeway leg of the journey and I’m thankful for the 186hp and 186lb ft of torque—these figures make merging onto the highway a totally stress-free event. Once rolling, the Blind Spot Monitoring and Lane-Keep Assist functions give me even more peace of mind. In terms of comfort and safety, I can’t think of anything I’d want that the Mazda3 doesn’t have.
Memphis, the birthplace of rock and roll, has arguably had more impact on music worldwide than any other single location. For a taste of the city’s evolution, we talked to John Doyle of the Smithsonian Memphis Rock & Soul Museum.
“Prior to the turn of the century, it was mostly early gospel music—both white and black—in churches, this being the Bible Belt. And also you had what we called field hollers, which was slave music. This was the music that they sang in the fields, and even post-slavery that continued,” explains Doyle. “Christian gospel of the black churches was part of all that. And since they worked together, white farmers would own black slaves or after slavery they might have sharecroppers, which would be both black and white. But they then became comrades in farming and they would gather on porches and they would sing together.
“In the early 1900s when sharecroppers both black and white were losing their homes or jobs, they came into the city,” says Doyle. “And they brought that music with them.” That migration is partly why Beale Street became one of the most famous blues streets in the world. And rock and roll? “Yes, it is definitely safe to say rock and roll was born in Memphis.”
Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, reckoned he’d have huge success if he could start recording black music sung by a white kid. And he struck gold with Elvis Presley and his first major hit That’s Alright Mama, original lyrics by Blind Lemon Jefferson. Just to make sure that the audience knew Elvis was white, in radio interviews the interviewer would ask Elvis where he went to school. When he said Humes High, that gave it away—it was a whites-only school.
But the earliest rock and roll standard was Ike Turner’s Rocket 88. Released in 1951, it went to number one on the Billboard R&B chart, although the song was actually credited to Turner’s saxophonist Jackie Brenston.
We head out across town to another iconic Memphis location, Royal Studios. One of the oldest continuously operating recording studios in the world, it’s on Willie Mitchell Boulevard, named for the man who oversaw its greatest era from the late ’60s on. A massively creative innovator, Willie Mitchell worked with a quite incredible list of talent, including Al Green, Chuck Berry, Solomon Burke, Ike and Tina Turner, Rod Stewart, Keith Richards and more.
And now his son, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, has taken over the reins and is continuing the Royal’s astonishing run of success. Boo says his proudest moment was the day Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars came calling. “Mark Ronson [seven Grammy Awards, Amy Winehouse’s producer among many others] wasn’t even looking for a studio, he was looking for singers,” explains Boo.
“I cracked open the bourbon and headed back and Bruno mars happened to be the first dude with his cup ready and he was like ‘Yeah Boo Mitchell, fill my cup, put some liquor in it.’ And by 4:30am that line was in the song!”
“So they came in and just freaked out about the history of the Royal—the studio hadn’t changed since ’69 and Al Green’s mike is still in the corner, Charles Hodge’s Hammond is there, Ann Peebles’ I Can’t Stand The Rain drum device, all there. So after that Mark was like, ‘Man, I want to make my album here!’ And they came back two weeks later to record.
“At one point, Mark casually says to me ‘Hey man, I got this record I want Bruno to come here and make.’ And I’m like ‘Ok, he’s talking about Bruno Mars!’ and I’m trying not to fan-boy out.” Bruno Mars, as in one of the biggest selling artists of all time, 200 million singles and 26 million albums sold.
“A couple of months later he comes back with Bruno, his writing buddy Philip Lawrence, Mystikal the rapper, and David Bowie’s guitar player Carlos Alomar.
“Bruno is there for three days and it comes to be the last night and he’s got an 8am flight. So they start writing the lyrics to Uptown Funk around midnight and it gets to be about four in the morning and they run out of booze. So I go into my dad’s office, which I hadn’t really touched since he’d passed. There’s a special edition Four Roses bourbon signed by the distiller. So I just look at it and think, ‘Sorry pop, got to take one for the team!’”
“I cracked it open and headed back and Bruno happened to be the first dude with his cup ready and he was like ‘Yeah Boo Mitchell, fill my cup, put some liquor in it.’ And by 4:30am that line was in the song!”
Uptown Funk went on to be a huge hit, earning Boo Mitchell a Grammy for Record of the Year. And it seems likely that Boo’s son Uriah will keep the flame, albeit more as a performer. “My music is my life and I try to make every song on the album about something I went through,” explains 22-year-old Uriah. “I feel like now I’m at a point where I’ve seen the producer side, engineering side, but the thing I enjoy the most is performing and actually being in front of people and giving them myself, my music.” Uriah’s most recent, and highly emotive album is Might B.
Boo’s final word on Memphis’ contribution: “Without the music from this region there would have been no British invasion. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who, everybody was listening to Memphis blues and soul. Anytime you turn on your radio, whatever you hear is the stepchild of what was made in Memphis.”
1819: Memphis is founded. It is named after the ancient capital of Egypt on the Nile River. Memphis quickly becomes a major trading center for cotton.
1910: Beale Street becomes a commercial district owned and operated by African Americans. It now comprises three blocks of nightclubs, restaurants and shops. Beale Street has been declared Home of the Blues by an act of Congress.
1952: Sun Studio was started by one of the fathers of rock ‘n’ roll, Sam Phillips. It was the producer of acts and artists such as B.B. King, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley.
1957: Stax Records pioneered American and Memphis soul, as well as gospel, funk and the Delta blues. Its most famous act was Otis Redding.
1982: Graceland opened to the public as a shrine to Elvis Presley. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006 and is the second most-visited house in the U.S. after the White House, with over 650,000 visitors a year.
Back in the Mazda3, we head to New Orleans, a six-hour trek due south through Mississippi and into Louisiana. The Mazda is a superbly refined way to travel—quiet, brilliant ride quality and an excellent sound system—and we arrive in New Orleans still feeling fresh.
New Orleans isn’t a Disney-esque recreation of a storied history, it’s the real thing. And its heart is the French Quarter, founded as a walled military outpost in 1718, rich with French, Spanish and African culture. The city has been called the birthplace of jazz, which first gained a foothold in the early 1900s, emerging out of African American communities. The other most well-known feature of the New Orleans music scene is marching brass bands. Energetic and infectiously joyous, marching bands perform at virtually every conceivable social event in the city—funerals, picnics, weddings, carnivals and parades.
The Quarter is human-scaled, a great walking experience with architecture that could be 18th century France, Spain or Italy. You can lose yourself in that reverie, but you’ll soon be brought back to 2019 by the glass and steel towers of modern New Orleans that loom over the Quarter.
“Most of my songs are about what I’m feeling and what I have experienced; The disappointments, happiness and all that gets rolled into my feelings in the moment”
You won’t find a warmer and more generous smile in all of New Orleans than the one that Walter Wolfman Washington gives up. Born and raised in New Orleans, Wolfman (he isn’t in the least wolf-ish) has been on the scene for nearly 50 years. His first major gig was with Lee Dorsey, a famous pop and R&B performer, at the Apollo Theatre in New York, a very big deal for a 19-year-old Walter.
Wolfman started off with the blues, then tried jazz, but he’s most comfortable with blues and funk. “Most of the time my songs are about what I’m feeling and what I’ve experienced,” says Wolfman. “The disappointments, happiness and all that gets rolled into my feelings in the moment.”
Wolfman is very proud of how well received his last album My Future is my Past was in 2018. So what makes New Orleans music special? “New Orleans’ music style is more soulful—there’s a lot of musicians that came from the church and went into music so they have a mostly soulful understanding of things.”
We get back to the French Quarter in time to see a wedding couple leading a brass band through the streets. The energy, the emotion, the bounce-on-the-balls of your feet excitement of the whole wedding party is spreading to strangers on the sidewalk, who start jigging along.
Of course, without the band and their wildly optimistic music, the wedding party would just be a bunch of people shuffling down the street on a rainy Friday night. But this is a proper, raucous celebration of life, made possible by American music.
1817: The mayor of New Orleans issues a city ordinance restricting gathering of enslaved Africans to just one location: Congo Square. Here, slaves congregated to play music and dance on Sundays, their one official day off.
1899: Half of New Orleans is at, or below, sea level. Albert Baldwin Wood is hired to try to improve the flood-prone city’s drainage. Wood invented “flapgates” and other hydraulic devices, most notably high-volume pumps.
1961: New Orleans’ Preservation Hall is established to honor traditional NOLA Jazz. Operating as a music venue, a touring band, and a non-profit organization, it continues its mission today.
1977: Tipitina’s is opened by local music enthusiasts and becomes one of the most respected clubs in New Orleans. Prior to becoming Tipitina’s, it served as a gambling house, gymnasium, and brothel.
THE 2020 MAZDA3
One of the things you notice when first driving the Mazda3 is that it feels like a much bigger car, in all the right ways. It’s much more spacious inside than its relatively compact dimensions would suggest and the quality feel to the cabin materials makes it feel like a more premium luxury car.
And for the kind of driving we were doing, mainly long interstate highway runs, the Mazda’s radar cruise control meant we could set the speed and distance to the car in front and not have to be constantly resetting the cruise. In cities, the Smart Brake Support gave peace of mind that if we didn’t spot a slow or stopped vehicle until the last minute, the Mazda would help out with the braking. With a smooth-shifting, six-speed automatic and 186hp on tap, progress was smooth and refined, but when we needed to accelerate quickly, response was instant, especially in Sport mode. And, of course, the Mazda3 is really good fun to drive.