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American River Cruises for Music Lovers

Jason Frye
Assistant SEO Editor
Marilyn Borth

Aug 17, 2023

Read time
7 min read

There's something about American rivers that inspires musicians. Maybe it's the melting pot of river cities, where travelers brought musical influences and instruments from city to city. Maybe it's the music of ships' bells and horns inspiring songwriters to pen lyrics. Whatever it is, there's music along these waterways, all of which can be heard and enjoyed on an American river cruise.

If you're a music lover in search of a river, a river lover seeking a soundtrack or if you want to get a feel for the culture and history of a place through song, there are plenty of American river cruises just for you.

Here are some of America's most-traveled rivers and what you can expect to hear while you ply their waters.

Lower Mississippi River Cruise: Best for Jazz, Blues, Rock and Roll, Soul

New Orleans (Photo:f11photo/Shutterstock)

Why Choose a Lower Mississippi River Cruise: With cities like New Orleans and Memphis on the banks of the Lower Mississippi River, do we need to say more?

Of course we do. These two cities have such a storied musical past that hundreds of books have been written documenting their part in the roots of jazz along with rock and roll. The musical legacies of artists like Louis Armstrong, Elvis, "Fats" Domino, Booker T & the MG's and B.B. King will never be fully measured.

Those five names -- giants in their respective genres -- are just some of the people that mark these cities as music epicenters. Now for the notable destinations: Graceland, Beale Street and Stax Records in Memphis, and the French Quarter and Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

Cruising the Lower Mississippi puts you in the place where music history is still being made in New Orleans by the likes of Dr. John (influenced by Professor Longhair and Little Richard), Allen Toussaint, The Meters/The Funky Meters/The Meters Experience and the famous Marsalis family.

But walk the streets of this town and you're likely to run into a roving band playing New Orleans' endemic brand of funk, blending jazz, rock, calypso and African rhythms; or a group of bucket drummers (don't laugh because they're seriously talented); or some blues guitarist who has plugged into something special. At venues like Preservation Hall and Tipitina's, you'll be tapping your toes to some of the best music the city has to offer.

In Memphis there's Graceland, Elvis' home, a pilgrimage site for music lovers of many stripes, and the place where he cut his first record: Sun Studio. At Sun Studio, stand where the likes of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash all jammed and recorded.

Stax Museum of American Soul explores the influence of one of the most popular soul record labels (and the most successful Memphis-based record label at that) and the artists that recorded on the label such as Isaac Hayes, Booker T & the MGs, Wilson Pickett, Moms Mabley, Otis Redding, even Richard Pryor.

At the Blues Hall of Fame and Memphis Music Hall of Fame, you'll find there's too much to see and hear as they pay homage to legends like Bobby "Blue" Bland, ZZ Top, John Lee Hooker and Al Green (you can visit the Full Gospel Tabernacle where Reverend Al Green still preaches, sings and exhorts on the good word).

No trip to Memphis would be complete without a stroll along Beale Street, home of the legendary music festival of the same name and the site of many a bar, restaurant and nightclub where you can hear some of the best musicians around.

Be sure to time your cruise right and you'll be in town for either New Orleans' famous Jazz Festival (late April/early May) or Memphis' Beale Street Music Festival (early May).

Cumberland River Cruise: Best for Country, Americana, Rock and Roll

Why Choose a Cumberland River Cruise: One word: Nashville. This river city is awash in music day and night, and if the tunes in the air along Broadway Avenue aren't enough to entice you into one of the many honky-tonks and bars there, the throwback neon signage will surely do the trick.

There's Nudie's Honky Tonk, a bar named for legendary western wear designer Nudie Cohn aka The Rhinestone Tailor, where everyone is fully clothed but there is a giant Cadillac hanging on the wall over the main floor stage.

Across the street is Robert's Western World, where the music is nonstop from open to close (including a Sunday morning Gospel show) and you can get refreshing beer and a pork chop sandwich to refuel you. Three doors down is Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, a honky-tonk that shares a back alley with the legendary Ryman Auditorium.

To say the Ryman Auditorium is legendary is not an exaggeration. This is the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry, a weekly radio show started in 1925, featuring a mix of country, folk, gospel, Americana and bluegrass artists of the famous and soon-to-be-famous variety. The Grand Ole Opry splits its recording season between the Ryman and the Grand Ole Opry House, a few miles from downtown, and no matter which venue hosts the show when you're in town, it's a show not to miss.

And if you're seeking some of Nashville's musical legacy, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum covers the surprising history of the genre, and the Music City Walk of Fame is a small park dedicated to influential musicians of all musical stripes.

At the Johnny Cash Museum, you'll come to know The Man In Black, his influences, music and legacy, and upstairs you can do the same for one of country's most beloved ladies at the Patsy Cline Museum. If that's not enough, just keep an eye open while you walk around; you may spy someone on the charts today.

Upper Mississippi River Cruise: Best for Jazz, Ragtime Jazz and the Blues

St. Louis (Photo:f11photo/Shutterstock)

Why Choose an Upper Mississippi River Cruise: Sailing the Upper Mississippi River, from Memphis to Minneapolis, you're going through the country where the blues and jazz took new shapes and where artists helped take them to new places. Several cruises that sail the Upper Mississippi take the Illinois River toward Chicago, where the city's love for blues, jazz and rock keeps clubs hopping.

On the Upper Mississippi, you'll pass St. Louis, where jazz musicians used riverboats as floating concert halls and arenas where they could practice and perfect their art. Artists like Scott Joplin, Frank Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke cut their teeth here and pushed each other to develop the ragtime jazz style. At venues like the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center and BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups, you can find jazz just about anywhere, any time.

St. Louis is also home to the distinct blues style called the St. Louis Blues. Musicians like Chuck Berry and Ike Turner came out of this piano-rich style. There are too many exceptional blues venues to develop a comprehensive list, but if you're in town, 2720 Cherokee, Bottleneck Blues Bar and Hammerstone's should be on your list. The early-April St. Louis Blues Festival should also be on your radar.

Further up the river, in Davenport, Iowa, notable ragtime jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke's legacy is celebrated with the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival every August, and at the festival there are dozens of official shows and even more unofficial shows going on across the city.

Ohio River Cruise: Best for Bluegrass and Doo-Wop

Why Choose an Ohio River Cruise: Along the Ohio River, you'll be in literal bluegrass country as you pass by Kentucky's rolling hills and plains. In Owensboro, Kentucky, the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum celebrates the genre born in the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia (far from any navigable river). Bluegrass is prominent in West Virginia (as is Americana, contemporary and roots country) and in towns along the river in Ohio.

As you travel further up the Ohio River and near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, you're entering doo-wop territory. Doo-wop was born here, but well before the genre's heyday. Music historians see the "Camptown Races," a song written in Pittsburgh in 1850, as the first of the genre, though its signature "doo-dah! doo-dah!" chorus morphed into the doo-wop made popular a century later.

Pittsburgh holds dear to this nostalgic genre, and they honor their hometown groups and DJs (whom were among the first to air doo-wop songs) with a number of doo-wop and vocal groups performing across the city throughout the year.

Updated August 17, 2023
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