In Depth

America's musical journey: the very best of New Orleans, Lafayette and Asheville

Where to stay, what to eat and where to go out in the birthplaces of jazz, the blues, bluegrass and rock’n’roll

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Echoes of Hank Williams float through my mind as I immerse myself in mouth-watering gumbo, ‘Jambalaya, crawfish pie and fillet gumbo’. Intense in colour and complex in aromas, this spicy stew satisfies my senses. Rich, smoky, hot sausage and hunks of game. This bad boy dish is full of robust and hearty promises, just like The Big Easy.

The creation of this particular visceral experience comes courtesy of Emeril’s. My first meal has set the bar high. I am on a pilgrimage in a cultural cynosure to eat, live and breathe America’s spirit in New Orleans, Lafayette and Asheville.

Does a city have a soundtrack? New Orleans and jazz is a pairing carved in my collective subconscious. Past inhabitants of the city have intertwined musical customs, establishing a hotchpotch explosion of powerful, live music that amazes and beguiles visitors. 2018 marks New Orleans’ 300th anniversary, and today, the city continues to absorb and celebrate ethnic diversity, which in turn sustains the buzz and joie de vivre of its French roots.

It’s an enthralling place to visit. It overwhelms the senses and you will wonder quite where to start. I walk off the gumbo with the gregarious Karen, my guide from Two Chicks Walking Tours. Two hours fly by as we wandered the eminently photogenic French Quarter. There’s always something new to take in, offering compelling reasons to stop: gas lamps burning above doorways, tarot-card readers, voodoo products, colourful flower displays, garish art, percussionists, trumpeters, clarinettists and saxophonists.

Jazz coming from cafes, bars, behind shutters and on wrought-iron balconies up high, played by buskers on street corners and professionals entertaining restaurant guests while they dine. Their music floats through the air, enticing you to go in and pull up a chair. I meet and chat to songwriters, poets, performers and artists in shops, restaurants, galleries and on street corners. It is a kaleidoscope of life lived through music.

Golden oldies and buzzy new joints of hotels, (Cambria, Pontchartrain, Double Tree by Hilton and Windsor Court) and well-travelled chefs heading up the 1,500-plus restaurants mean there are many to choose from. None quite as classic as Arnaud’s, a fourth-generation fine dining establishment serving one hell of a French 75.

Polished waiters in white jackets serve innovative oyster platters, fillets of land and sea and scrumptious hot soufflé potatoes. Save room for a Café Brulot flamed with brandy – it’s the traditional spectacle and nightcap. The Gumbo Trio magic up a splendid dinner accompaniment of Dixieland jazz. Do make sure you have a request ready as they ask each table for a song.

As I single-handedly work my way through a plate of what is my fourth fluffy breakfast beignet at Cafe Du Monde  the next morning (well past the point of caring that I am covered in the colossal serving of powdered sugar), I’m serenaded by 19-year-old street performer Bud (named after cornetist Buddy Bolden).

“I’ve been playing double bass and trumpet since I was eight. I absorb everything this city represents through my music and put my flavour on it. My family were natives of the Ivory Coast.”

Later, a tour of the New Orleans Jazz Museum is a thoroughly pleasant haven away from the humidity and allows your senses quiet relief. I lose all sense of time perusing the interactive exhibits of The Louis Armstrong Collages and Women of Note. With over 365 concerts and 15 festivals a year, and home to the largest Jazz collection in the world, the museum bursts with manuscripts, paintings, photographs, sheet music, instruments and recordings. Notably, a 1917 disc of the first ever jazz recording ever made.

Take lunch in the sunny courtyard of Napoleon House, a 200-year-old landmark. The walls are covered in quotes and photography of famous faces that have visited or performed. Sip a Ponchatoula Pimm’s Cup then feast on signature dishes of spicy alligator sausage Po’Boy and warm Muffuletta – a hearty sandwich of cured meats and cheese piled onto a crusty Italian loaf, slathered with the vital ingredient (olive salad relish), which seeps into the bread, sealing the deliciousness.

“If you’re below sea level calories don’t count. Every good meal in New Orleans starts and ends with butter. Locals tend to discuss their next meal during the course of their current one,” Napoleon’s Executive Chef Chris Montero, says. This ethos is seconded by further dining experiences at Peche and Toups’ Meatery. The former, armed with accolades serves simple, sustainable and rustic dishes of local seafood. The latter is where steak is king. Their pork crackling is particularly, well, cracking.

The city overflows with an overwhelming array of performances every night of the week, but how do you pick? Tune into 90.7 FM and listen to where you should head. Boisterous Frenchmen Street is a hotspot of music encouraging you to swim in and out of many a bar. Locals flock to The Spotted Cat for swing bands, d.b.a for Jazz vocalist John Boutte, Hi-Ho Lounge for open mic comedy and a Jazz trio at Three Muses.

You can’t go wrong with live music at Maple Leaf on Oak Street where the vibes roll till sunrise. Hailed by the New York Times as “a New Orleans Institution”, Grammy-winning Rebirth Brass Band has a long-standing, legendary Tuesday night gig. From starting out playing at school, onto street corners of the French Quarter, to selling out global concerts, their mix of hip-hop and funk have created a signature sound, maintaining a strong connection to the people.

I continue my music trail two hours west to Lafayette. It’s a tranquil region of lakes, plantation houses, wetlands and ‘gators – and where music and language unite. I’m at the heart of the Cajun and Creole County and home to the accordion and the sweet, rich sound that Cajun and Zydeco is known for. I stop at internationally known Martin Accordions to view their beautiful custom built boxes. These works of art take around 150 hours to build from start to finish.

“Music of the region is progressive and very energetic; performers are like acrobats with their instruments,” says Pennye Huval, daughter of legendary accordion builder and master craftsman Clarence Junior Martin.

I’m intrigued as to how the accordion has become more mainstream. “The local university started a traditional music programme so people never exposed before are now taking classes, recognising its legacy. Family bands are common here. Everything is played by ear and what they feel; jazz is experimental. It didn’t used to be cool to play Cajun music. Grammy winner Steve Riley influenced younger people and added a rock influence and suddenly there was a resurgence that impacted on the original style.”

Evidently, there has been a change in attitude to the music and culture in the state. “Now there is a push for even more French immersions. So, we’re bringing French speaking teachers and programmes in. People are embracing and immersing themselves in the culture.”

A partnership between music and dance is intrinsic to Lafayette. Raised in the dance halls of South Louisiana, Harold Bernard of Glide Studios offers fun, private classes and events. Harold toured with Cajun and Creole accordionists Eddie LeJeune and Bois Sec Ardoin. I spend an hour stepping on Harold’s toes attempting to learn a basic foxtrot.

I eat and dance the night away at Randol’s Restaurant, ‘where good friends and good food feed the soul’. Trucks deliver fresh produce and seafood from the Gulf of Mexico daily, and as soon as the fiddler starts playing, dancers kick up their heels and hit the floor.

There is no dickie-bow waiter service here. Think red and white check table cloths, beaten wooden furniture and simple, finger lickin’ good baskets of corn and crab bisque, crawfish Étouffée and BBQ shrimp. I end the night at the brilliantly named Blue Moon Saloon, a vibrant and lively haunt for global roots music, artists, dancers, families and travellers. After indulging in a few local beers, Harold pops up ready to whiz me around the floor as promised.

The final stop of my trip is Ashville and the serene loveliness of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Exhilarating fresh air and serious biking; paddle boarding and hiking trails are in abundance.

Bluegrass rings through the air and modern fuses old and new persuasions. Buskers charm and the LaZoom Band and Beer Bus Tour cart tourists around to different brewpubs while a live band plays on board. Shingdin on the Green is a favourite festival with locals who enjoy a picnic under the stars on balmy summer Saturday nights.

My Djembe drumming class at Skinny Beats Sound Shop is a fun warm up for the Friday night Pritchard Park Drum Circle where anyone can participate in drumming, dancing or watching the show. “We’ve all got a beat; you’ve just got to let it out”, owner Billy Zankski says.

For a serene experience sample a sound healing session. Meditative powers are thought to be at their most harmonious in this region. “Sound healing moves us from a place of imbalance to a place of balance.” Gongs, quartz crystals bowls, harps and rain sticks are the African instruments used to create an atmospheric soundscape. “Trying to describe the experience in one word loses it. You have to take the time to allow a process to happen. It’s powerful. It takes you somewhere.”

I dine at Buxton Hall BBQ and demolish an epic rack of ribs, my fuel for the evening as I later bop away to renowned instrumental quartet, Toubab Krewe, and close the night at The Crow and Quill, a fabulous 1930s speakeasy. Local band Drayton and the Dreamboats are performing vintage moonlight pop.

Away from the music, take a walk to the Omni Grove Park Inn which boasts a Donald Ross-designed golf course and a world-class spa. Its breathtaking vista has no doubt formed the backdrop for many a marriage proposal.

Also nestled in the mountains, relax in Biltmore Village. A tasty breakfast of omelette and strawberry waffles at Corner Kitchen confirms why the Obamas previously dined here. With six James Beard-nominated chefs, fourteen farmers markets, over 1,000 family farms, Forage, BimBeriBon, Foothill’s Butcher Bar & Kitchen and Capella on 9 atop the new AC Hotel – Asheville’s food and drink scene is exploding – as would I, if I stayed much longer.

The elegant 8,000 acre Biltmore Estate built for George Vanderbilt offers a 90-minute audio guide tour and is the best I have ever experienced. Possibly influenced by the wine tasting session of more than 20 of Biltmore’s celebrated vinos at the estates vineyard.

If music be the food of love, “pick guitar, fill fruit jar, and be gay-o. Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou” could indeed be the soundtrack to this region. Play on, my friends. I’ll be back.

For more information on New Orleans, visit neworleans.com

For more on Lafayette, go to louisianatravel.com or lafayettetravel.com

And for more on Asheville, head to exploreasheville.com 

Or to plan your ultimate US trip, visittheusa.co.uk

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