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The 12 best music towns in the nation
Discovering lesser-known music-centric destinations across the country
The Nashvilles and Austins of the world have already been stamped with the music city letter, but there are far more towns out there that are rocking under the radar. Rhythm and beats, and tunes and melodies, are common threads that run through communities, showing where a town has come from and where it’s headed.
What’s buzzing out there? Where can you hear something new or listen to something familiar? We scoured the nation to uncover a range of places that have one belief in common: music is life. Besides that, these towns and cities are unique in every aspect of their musical fibers. Some of these cities have a signature sound that dates back years, while others are the anti-sound, refusing to conform to a certain genre. From classical and folk to punk and indie, these cities are turning up the volume on local stages. Check out our list of some of the best music scenes and get ready to face the music:
The sounds: In the early 1980s, a wave of hardcore punk rocked the Lawrence scene, but today you’ll hear all ranges of music in town, from indie to classical. Join the resident cats at Love Garden Sounds, where you’ll get lost browsing the local record shop’s eclectic vinyl treasures, and then listen out for local talent at the Lied Center’s annual Midwest Fall Fest.
The stages: The Bottleneck has long been a staple for music, dating back to 1985 when the venue first opened and began hosting Monday open mic nights that are still appreciated today. The Granada, which was previously a silent theater, is another popular venue that has welcomed big names in the industry, including the likes of John Mayer and the Flaming Lips.
The sounds: The feminist punk movement, riot grrrl, has its roots in Olympia, where female-fronted bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile shook the scene in the 1990s. Edgy, grungy sounds that are anything but conventional still gain steam in this city, where house shows give off-the-cuff punk, electronic, and metal bands a perfectly tailored crowd. To get yourself up to speed with the latest and greatest, tune into the local Olympia Pop Rocks podcast.
The stages: House shows run supreme in this town, but music venues like Rhythm & Rye showcase raw talent, too, with jazz Mondays, open mic night Wednesdays, and even funk Thursdays. The local record shop Rainy Day Records hosts shows at Olympia Elks Lodge, while the live music and offbeat vibes at Obsidian reveal the true essence of Olympia.
The sounds: Slow and steady, Athens has long reigned as a music-centric city, grooming top acts from R.E.M to the B-52’s. In part, due to its college town status, the music scene is often dictated by what the students are talking about. Chase Park Transduction Studios is regarded as the it-place to lay some tracks, while WUOG 90.5 FM is where you’ll hear local vibes over the airwaves.
The stages: Now a household name in Athens, 40 Watt Club has been a breeding ground for rising stars as far back as the late 1970s. Then there’s the Georgia Theatre, a historic concert hall with a rooftop restaurant, which is a prime place to get into the groove of things.
The sounds: Good luck pinning just one genre on this eccentric town, where spontaneous drum circles are a common occurrence and the twang of Appalachia tunes are a reminder of the state’s mountain roots. As one of the oldest organizations of its kinds in the country, the Asheville Chamber Music Series has serenaded crowds for 65 years, while the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival has been clogging and banjo picking since 1928.
The stages: Of all the things to do in Asheville, listening to music is a must. Thanks to the more than 80 music venues around town, there’s a good chance you can catch live tunes at any given time of the day. Grey Eagle has earned the distinction of the city’s longest running all-ages venue, and New Mountain AVL features enough stages to fill an entire acre.
The sounds: University of North Texas in Denton prides itself on its music department, as the school recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of offering its first college jazz degree. While the school is certainly a star student on the performing arts scale, there’s more to the Denton music scene. Lend your ear to DentonRadio.com to catch some homegrown grooves, and heed the talent at 35 Denton or the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival.
The stages: Harvest House in Denton Square is music to your ears if you’re in the mood for backyard vibes, complete with live performances, twinkly lights, and fire pits. For something a little more intimate, and dare we say divier, belly up to the stage at Dan’s Silver Leaf; some swear they have the best sound system in town.
The sounds: In Ann Arbor, rising stars cut their teeth at the renowned University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, & Dance, where a degree could easily lead to seeing your name in lights. You just may see former students work their magic if you purchase theatre tickets while in town. Beyond the walls of professional training, the local record shop Underground Sounds curates a vinyl selection that consciously avoids the hits you’ve heard on the Top 40, and the annual Water Hill Music Fest invites you to listen to the local sounds that make up the city’s heartbeat.
The stages: Folk and roots performers find refuge at The Ark, a nonprofit music venue that knows what’s good, oftentimes before anyone else! They also lay claim to the annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival. To hear more of the local sounds that echo the city’s melody, porch hop at the Water Hill Music Fest, a neighborhood concert that takes places in local homes.
The sounds: Put your ear to the ground in Brattleboro, and you’ll hear about a town that thrives on music, encouraging the exploration of treble clefs and bar notes. The Brattleboro Music Center is a mecca for music development, as it leads a number of ensembles and performing groups, including the Windham Orchestra and Brattleboro Concert Choir. The Open Music Collective is another prominent music space that offer classes, community jams, and summer camps for those with a passion for melodies.
The stages: The Brattleboro Music Center puts on a number of performances, including the much-anticipated Northern Roots Traditional Music Festival, which is in its 11th year running. Then there’s the jazz jam sesh and ukulele gatherings at Open Music on certain Sundays. But if you’re looking to simply sit back with some cocktails and enjoy the show, consider an evening at The Lounge.
The sounds: Vocal thrills and string quartets buzz from Greensboro. The classical vibes are strongly rooted in the city’s identity, as local women began celebrating the musical style in Greensboro as early as the 1890s. Bel Canto Company is noted as one of the best chamber vocal ensembles in the southeast, while the University of North Carolina Greensboro School of Music brings students to star performance levels.
The stages: Fancy a night of symphonies or ensembles? Cozy up to The Carolina Theatre, which originally opened its doors in 1927 as a vaudeville theater. To discover what’s hip on the scene, get tickets to a gig at The Blind Tiger or the Cone Denim Entertainment Center, where performers promise to bring down the house. There are plenty of Greensboro attractions that show off the city’s beat.
The sounds: Move over London and NYC—Gainesville has the underground punk scene on lock. Perhaps an unlikely contender, this Florida city has earned its punk rock stripes and studs; The Fest draws thousands of punk rock diehards each year to rave with the best of them. Beyond the punkness, experimental music, folk, soul, country, and more shake up the sounds resonating from Gainesville.
The stages: Hardback Café, a split-level bar and venue, is the it-spot for gaining a sense of the music and art culture that’s breathing life through the city. Boca Fiesta, which lives in Hardback Café’s old stomping grounds, is another poppin’ place, where local and touring bands take the stage at The Back Yard area.
The sounds: The bellowing cellos and serenading violins of the Cleveland Orchestra are perhaps the signature sound of this city. The local orchestra is celebrated as one of the best in the world, but it doesn’t stop there—classical music runs through Cleveland’s veins with ensembles like the Quire Cleveland and Cleveland Chamber Symphony, and The Cleveland Institute of Music incubates the musicians of the future.
The stages: When it comes to things to do in Cleveland, don your finest garb and a pair of opera glasses, and settle into a balcony seat at the Cleveland Opera Theater, or jam out at a Wilbert’s blues show. Whatever your musical poison, you’ll find a venue for it in town, between the dazzling Severance Hall and the class acts at Beachland Ballroom & Tavern.
The sounds: Banjo picking, twangy guitar strumming, and raspy singing are practically the anthem at Lowell Folk Festival, the nation’s largest free concert of its kind. That’s not the only festival that locals mark their calendars for though; the annual Lowell Summer Music Series serenades its way through the city each year. To hear what’s happening over the soundwaves in the underground music scene, give WUML a listen. The student-run college radio station has been turning up the noise since 1952.
The stages: Music and art blossoms at UnchARTed, a space in Lowell that’s celebrated for its creative innovation and musical genius—it’s here where you’ll uncover Lowell’s local sound. Then crank up the volume at Dudley’s, where it might get loud. With open mic nights, DJ sets, and live bands, this bar and grill knows how to put on a show.
The sounds: If you hear the sound of music coming from Champaign-Urbana, there’s a good chance it’s echoing from a nearby festival. This area knows how to put on a party, as it plays hosts to a plethora of music festivals throughout the year: PYGMALION, StreetFest, AudioFeed, and Folk & Roots Festival—need we say more? As for more classical energy, the Sinfonia da Camera, Urbana Pops, and Champaign-Urbana Symphony have you covered.
The stages: Sweet sounds fly off the sheet music at The Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, which is home to four venues and an outdoor amphitheater. You’ll also find classically trained acts taking the stage at the School of Music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Everyone flocks to The Canopy Club and Iron Post to discover local and regional talent, but for a stadium-sized show, the State Farm Center is the go-to.
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