It has beautiful scenery, a rich history and, above all, music. David Orkin finds that this US state - the birthplace of rock'n'roll and the home of country - plays a bewitching tune

ALWAYS ON MY MIND - BUT IS THERE MORE TO TENNESSEE THAN ELVIS?

The king is dead, but the Presley legend lives on in Tennessee's largest city, Memphis, which is also the birthplace of the blues and a jewel of the Mississippi. In the middle of this magical state, you can see the world's only full-sized replica of theAthens Parthenon in the eccentric surroundings of Nashville - the state capital of Tennessee and the world capital of country music. And on the far side of the state, you find yourself in the wilds of the Smoky Mountains, named for the smoke-like haze that often envelops them. Few other US states can boast such a concentration of riches.

The name "Tennessee" is believed to derive from "Tanasi", used by the Cherokee as a village on what is now the Little Tennessee River. It is frequently called the "Volunteer State" in recognition of the valour displayed by volunteer soldiers during wars in the 18th and 19th centuries.

This landlocked state is bounded on the west by the Mississippi River and on the east by the Appalachian Mountains. It is bordered by eight other states: clockwise from the north these are Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri.

You have to keep checking your watch: the state spreads over two time zones, the eastern portion on Eastern Time, the central and western parts on Central Time. But in this American heartland, for many people time stands still.

MUSIC TO MY EARS

For the Presley story, head for Memphis. He might have been born in Tupelo, Mississippi but Elvis Aaron Presley is most closely associated with Memphis. He moved to the city when he was 13; it was here that he came to fame. While working for the Crown Electric Company, Elvis popped into a recording studio and made some demos. Hearing one of the sessions, studio boss Sam Phillips teamed Presley up with some local musicians and the result was a song called "That's All Right". Presley continued to live in Memphis and died there in August 1977.

For information on all things Elvis, call 001 800 238 2010 or visit www.elvis.com. Take the Platinum tour of Graceland, Presley's 14-acre estate at 652 Adams Avenue. It costs $28 (£16) and takes in the mansion, an Elvis memorabilia exhibition, a tour of his car collection and a walk through his two private jets. Tacky in some ways, moving in others.

Music in Tennessee isn't just about rock'n'roll, though. Nashville is the place that country music calls home, and the Jubilee Singers of Nashville's Fisk University are said to have been foremost in introducing the world to the negro spiritual as a result of their fundraising tours in the late 19th century. Bluegrass and Appalachian music have strong roots in the mountains of the east. Back in Memphis, WC Handy composed "St Louis Blues" and "Memphis Blues" and became known as the "father of the blues" .

CAN I GO WALKING IN MEMPHIS?

The downtown area of Memphis, which has the largest population of any city in the state, is walkable. Various companies offer guided tours of the city, but for something unique check out the themed tours offered by American Dream Safari (001 901 527 8870; www.americandreamsafari.com), which include a walking tour of downtown and, for $50 (£28), a three-hour Greatest Hits Tour of the city in a 1955 Cadillac.

The city also spawned the modern musical forms of blues and soul. As you'd expect, there are a number of music-related attractions to grab the attention. The main one is Sun Studio (001 901 521 0664; www.sunstudio.com), 706 Union Avenue, which opened in 1950 and is arguably the birthplace of rock'n'roll. Presley recorded his famous first demos here in 1953, and others who followed him into the studio included Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. Today, it is an unashamed - and very rewarding - tourist attraction. The site opens 10am-6pm daily, admission $9.50 (£5.30).

If you prefer your travels to have more soul, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music (001 901 942 7685; www.staxmuseum.com), 926 East McLemore Avenue, occupies the site of Stax Records, home of Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes and more. Stax produced some of the world's finest soul music until the company went into bankruptcy. The studios were sold and, unbelievably, demolished, but were rebuilt to the original plans and re-opened as a museum three years ago. The museum opens daily except Sundays, admission $9 (£5).

On some Sundays, at the Full Gospel Tabernacle, 787 Hale Road, the resident pastor, Reverend Al Green, preaches and sings. Services start at around 11am and last until 2pm.

Perhaps, though, the best place for a Memphis music overview is The Memphis Rock'n'Soul Museum (001 901 205 2533; www.memphisrocknsoul.org), 191 Beale Street, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution. It opens 10am-7pm daily, admission $9 (£5).

CAN I MEET A GIN-SOAKED BAR-ROOM QUEEN IN MEMPHIS?

Quite possibly, on Beale Street. Good choices of bar-rooms with live music include BB King's (001 901 524 5464; memphis.bbkingclubs.com) at 143 Beale Street and the Blues City Café (001 901 526 3637; www.bluescitycafe.com), which also does good food, at 138. Elsewhere, Wild Bill's, 1580 Vollentine (001 901 726 5473), is jumping, particularly on Saturday nights. The less-than-snappily named Center for Southern Folklore, on 119 Main Street (001 901 525 3655; www.southernfolklore.com), is part-museum, part-music venue, part-coffee shop, part-bar.

ANY DISHARMONIES?

Despite all the celebrations of music, the city's most moving must-visit is far more sombre. The National Civil Rights Museum (001 901 521 9699; www.civilrightsmuseum.org), 450 Mulberry Street, is housed in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr Martin Luther King Jnr was assassinated in 1968. Across the street, another part of the museum is situated in the boarding house from which his assassin fired. Closed Tuesdays, hours vary; admission $12 (6.70), but free on Mondays after 3pm.

CAN I STAY AT HEARTBREAK HOTEL?

Ideally located for Graceland (but not for much else in Memphis), you can indeed stay at - to give it its official title - Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel (001 901 332 1000; www.elvis.com/epheartbreakhotel) is not down at the end of Lonely Street, but at 3677 Elvis Presley Boulevard. It opened in 1999 in what was formerly the Wilson World Hotel. Prices start at $115 (£67) for a regular guest room; as with almost all US hotels, rates do not include breakfast. However, the city's "best-known hotel not inspired by a song" is the elegant Peabody Memphis (001 901 529 4000; www.peabodymemphis.com) at 149 Union Avenue, celebrated for its lobby - and its ducks. For 70 years ducks have lived in the hotel's fountain. They have been trained to march in at 11am and out at 5pm. Rooms cost from $226 (£133). Luckily for the birds, the city's renowned culinary specialities don't include fowl.

WHAT CAN I EAT?

The Garth Brooks song might talk about Dixie chicken and Tennessee lamb, but the state is renowned for barbecued (BBQ) meat. Unlike in, say, Texas, where "meat" can also include turkey and beef, here it's almost always pork. Memphis residents proudly call their city the "pork BBQ capital of the world". A good time for BBQ fans to visit is during the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, which will be held 18-20 May 2006. Other good locations include Leonard's Pit Barbecue, 5465 Fox Plaza (001 901 360 1963; www.leonardsbarbecue.com), Payne's Bar-B-Q, 1762 Lamar Avenue (001 901 272 1523), or the central located Charles Vergo's Rendezvous, 52 South Second * * Street (001 901 523 2746; www.hogsfly.com). For something more sophisticated, Cielo, 679 Adams Street (001 901 524 1886), Lulu Grille (001 901 763 3677; www.lulugrille.com) in the Erinway Center, 565 Erin Drive, or the chic, new downtown bistro Stella (001 901 526 4950; www.stellamemphis.com), 39 South Main Street, should do the trick.

AND DRINK?

Tennessee's top tipple, Jack Daniel's (001 877 774 7487; www.jackdaniels.com), is distilled in Lynchburg, an hour's drive from Nashville. The whiskey is mentioned in numerous songs, including Fats Domino's "Whiskey Heaven". Free distillery tours lasting 75 minutes are offered 9am-4.30pm daily.

CAN I HITCH A RIDE ON A RIVERBOAT QUEEN?

Decorative paddle wheelers still go rolling, rolling, rolling their way up the Mississippi. Memphis Riverboats (001 901 527 2628; www.memphisqueen.com) offers 90-minute sightseeing trips from February; you can't hitch but you can board for $15 (£10). The company also runs various other themed trips. To learn more about the mighty Mississippi, visit Mud Island River Park from April to October (001 901 576 7241; www.mudisland.com) at 125 North Front Street, dedicated to life on the river; $8 (£4.40) will get you into the museum, a guided river walk and a return monorail ride. On the island, you can rent a canoe, kayak or pedalo.

I WANT TO SEE THE NASHVILLE SKYLINE

By far the most spectacular edifice on the skyline, the BellSouth (affectionately known as Batman) Building, was actually finished in 1994, 25 years after Bob Dylan brought out his classic album Nashville Skyline, recorded with musicians from the city.

Nashville is built on a bend in the Cumberland River. It took over from Knoxville as the state capital in 1843. The city boasts a full-sized replica of the Parthenon (001 615 862 8431; www.nashville.gov/parthenon) in Centennial Park. Inside is "Athena", at 42ft one of the tallest indoor statues in the world; admission $4 (£2.20), Tuesday-Saturday 9am-4.30pm.

The Cheekwood-Tennessee Botanical Gardens and Museum of Art (001 615 356 8000; w ww.cheekwood.org), 1200 Forrest Park Drive, are also worth a visit: $10 (£5.60), Tuesday-Saturday 9.30am-4.30pm, closed until 12 January 2006.

The place to stay in the city is The Hermitage (001 615 244 3121; www.thehermitagehotel.com), 231 Sixth Avenue North, built in 1910 in the classic beaux arts style, with a magnificent marble-columned lobby with gilded plasterwork and stained-glass ceiling. All rooms are spacious suites, and cost from $347 (£204) per night.

Nashville is "Music City USA": spanning an entire city block downtown at 222 Fifth Avenue South is the Country Music Hall of Fame (001 615 416 2001; www.countrymusichalloffame.com); daily 9am-5pm but closed Tuesdays in January and February, $16.95 (£9.40).

The Grand Ole Opry at 2802 Opryland Drive (001 615 871 6779; www.opry.com), is the setting for the US's longest-running live radio show (broadcast since 1925), which moved here in 1976 from the Ryman Auditorium (001 615 889 3060; www.ryman.com), 116 Fifth Avenue North. Tours are offered between 9am and 4pm for $8.50 (£4.70) - add $3.25 (£1.80) to include a backstage visit - or see an evening performance.

My favourite, more modest, music venues include The Basement (001 615 254 8006; www.thebasementnashville.com), 1604 Eighth Avenue South; the Exit/In (001 615 321 3340; www.exitin.com), 2208 Elliston Place; The Bluebird Café (001 615 383 1461; www.bluebirdcafe.com), 4104 Hillsboro Road; and The Belcourt Theatre (001 615 383 9140; www.belcourt.org), 2102 Belcourt Avenue.

Finally, you should try to see the city on the outrageous NashTrash (001 615 226 7300; www.nashtrash.com) musical tours "guided" by the over-made-up Jugg Sisters. Times vary, $29.50 (£16), advance reservations are required.

WHERE NEXT?

Head east and visit Knoxville, which is flanked by huge lakes. The biggest attractions, though, are outside the city. In nearby Norris, the Museum of Appalachia (001 865 494 7680; www.museumofappalachia.com) is a huge village replete with authentic houses and barns; $12.95 (£7.20), daily, hours vary. Not far away, Oak Ridge was a "secret city" created in the 1940s and instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb: it was one of the sites chosen for the Manhattan Project. Learn about it at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge (001 865 576 3200; www.amse.org), 300 South Tulane Avenue, open 9am-5pm daily (Sundays from 1pm), admission $5 (£2.80).

Heading for the mountains on the other side of Knoxville, Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood (001 865 428 9488; www.dollywood.com), created by Tennessee's country music legend Dolly Parton. This huge theme park has rides, museums, shows, shops and much more. It will re-open in late March (to the end of December), but opening dates, times and admission costs vary considerably.

ANY NATURAL ATTRACTIONS?

Pigeon Forge, along with Sevierville and Townsend, is a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (001 865 436 1200; www.nps.gov/grsm). The park extends across an area of the Appalachian Mountains the size of Berkshire, and with luck you will experience the swirling bluish mist that led to the range's name. The park is home to fauna including bears, white-tailed deer and wild turkeys - as well as more than 1,500 species of flowering plants. It is beautiful in all seasons, but perhaps the best time to visit is in October when the mountains are alive with autumn colours. There are more than 900 miles of hiking trails. Tennessee shares the park - and the vast Cherokee National Forest (001 423 476 9700; www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/cherokee), also offering great hiking, camping and swimming - with North Carolina.

There are more than 50 state parks in Tennessee ( www.state.tn.us/environment/), including Fall Creek Falls (001 423 881 5298) in east-central Tennessee, noted for its eponymous 256ft-high waterfall, Meeman-Shelby Forest (001 901 876 5215), located on wooded bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, and Montgomery Bell (001 615 797 9052), west of Nashville in red-cedar country, with clear streams and two lakes.

Roan Mountain (001 423 772 0190), about 20 miles from Elizabethton, has a garden on its summit of 6,285 ft; a Rhododendron Festival ( www.roanmountain.com/festival.htm) is held here on 17-18 June.

Those who yearn for the subterranean will be delighted to learn that Tennessee has close to 9,000 caves. See the Appalachian Caverns (001 423 323 2337; www.appalachiancaverns.com) in Blountville, which opened as a show cave in 2004; or Chattanooga's Raccoon Mountain Caverns (001 800 823 2267; www.raccoonmountain.com).

Also worth seeing is the Lost Sea in Sweetwater (001 423 337 6616, www.thelostsea.com), which is - claimed to be the largest underground lake in the US.

If you enjoy getting wet, the Ocoee River served as the site of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics whitewater events. It features five miles of Class III and IV rapids, as well as remarkable views of the rock bluffs around the Ocoee River Gorge. A dam controls the river, so paddlers can be certain of water release days.

Commercial firms offer guided trips between March and October; for a list, contact the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association (001 423 263 7232; www.tennesseeoverhill.com/outdoor.asp).

Once a trail used by buffalo and Native Americans, the Natchez Trace Parkway (001 800 305 7417; www.nps.gov/natr) connects Natchez in south-west Mississippi, a corner of north-west Alabama and Nashville. The whole scenic route runs for well over 400 miles, but there's plenty to see on the Tennessee stretch.

NO MORE HEROES?

Plenty. How about Davy Crockett? The King of the Wild Frontier - a hunter, businessman and celebrated backwoods politician - was born on 17 August 1786, not on a mountaintop but on the banks of the Nolichucky River, near Greeneville. Aged 49, Crockett left Tennessee for Texas and, less than a year later, died in the Battle of the Alamo. A replica of the Crocketts' log cabin can be visited at the Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park (001 423 257 2167; www.state.tn.us/environment/parks/parks/DavyCrockettSHP).

WHEN SHOULD I GO?

With hot summers and mild winters, Tennessee is a good destination, though July and August can get uncomfortable. In western and central areas, most precipitation falls during winter and early spring in the form of rain.

Snowfall is light in the centre and west, but often heavy in the eastern mountains; the state's major ski area is above Gatlinburg (001 865 436 5423; www.obergatlin burg.com).

Thunderstorms occur frequently during spring and summer. Summer nights tend to be warm and muggy in central and western parts, but temperatures are lower in the east.

CAN I TAKE THE CHOO-CHOO?

Yes and no. Chattanooga station - at which the Choo Choo of Harry Warren and Mack Gordon's song stopped - closed in August 1970. It reopened as a hotel in 1973; it's now the Chattanooga Choo Choo Holiday Inn (001 423 266 5000; www.holiday-inn.com). But the city is home to the world's steepest passenger railway, the Incline, which propels its passengers up to the top of Lookout Mountain (001 800 825 8366; www.lookoutmountain.com) on a breathtaking 73-degree gradient. On a clear day, there are views of seven states between monstrous rock formations from Rock City at the top.

Down below the mountain, you can visit the 145ft underground waterfall, Ruby Falls. Combined entry to all these costs $35 (£19). This city is also notable for the Tennessee Aquarium (001 423 265 0698; www.tnaqua.org), One Broad Street, which houses one of the world's largest collections of freshwater marine life. Open daily, 10am-6pm; entry is $17.95 (£10).

Sadly, you've missed the last train to Clarksville: Tennessee's Clarksville (one of 20 towns of that name in the US) did have a station, which was on the Louisville & Nashville line, but not only was it not the place Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart (who penned The Monkees' 1966 hit) were writing about, but the station closed years ago. Another song title would be more appropriate - Jean Ritchie's "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore".

LONG-DISTANCE OPERATOR, GET ME TO MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE

There are no direct flights between the UK and Tennessee, though several carriers offer competitive fares necessitating just one change of plane - either in Amsterdam or a US gateway city.

The following companies are among those that specialise in Tennessee: Premier Holidays (0870 889 0850; www.premierholidays.co.uk), Virgin Holidays (0870 220 2707; www.virgin.com/holidays) and Bon Voyage (0800 316 3008; www.bon-voyage.co.uk), which offers a Tennessee and the Deep South tour: 12 nights' fly-drive from £889. Virgin Holidays also offers short breaks in Nashville or Memphis.

CUE FOR A SONG

Most American States have state flags, state birds, state flowers and the like: some have state songs. Tennessee is unique in that it has not one but five official songs: "My Homeland, Tennessee"; "When It's Iris Time in Tennessee"; "My Tennessee"; "Tennessee Waltz"; "Rocky Top". In fact Tennessee, Nashville, and, in particular, Memphis crop up all too frequently in song titles.

Some more obvious examples in song titles are "Tennessee Moon" and "Tennessee Stud"; "Nashville", "Nashville Cats", "Nashville Skyline Rag". And then we have "All the way from Memphis"; "Memphis in the Meantime"; "Memphis, Tennessee"; "Never been to Memphis"; "Walking in Memphis"; "The Wrong Side of Memphis"; "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again".

And of course, it's not just the titles: delve into lyrics and you'll find that Little Feat had seen the bright lights of Memphis (pictured) ("Dixie Chicken") and missed a loved one when they saw the Nashville sunrise ("Missin' You"). The Allman Brothers' "Ramblin' Man" left Nashville, Paul Simon went to Graceland, in Ike and Tina Turner's song Nutbush was a little old town in Tennessee, Davy Crockett's ballad tells us (wrongly) that he was born on a mountain top in the state, Virgil Caine and his wife ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") lived in Tennessee, the "City of New Orleans" train changed cars in Memphis, the protagonist in "Trouble in Mind" goes back to Jackson.

The subject of Kris Kristofferson's "To Beat the Devil" is in a bar on Nashville's Music City Row in winter. In Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves", a hitchhiker is given a ride to Memphis. A ride of a different kind is in the mind of a gin-soaked bar-room queen in The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman".

Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan found the trail of a woman called "Big River" in Memphis. Alannah Myles's "Black Velvet" tells that the city's music is like a heatwave. Creedence wanted to get to the city on a midnight ride in "Travelin' Band", and had cleaned a lot of plates there in "Proud Mary".

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