Comment: Building on a rockabilly past


“Absolutely nothing!” a student choir responded in response to the simple question, “What do you like about this place?” “

I was asked to take annual leadership courses for youth and adults sponsored by the McNairy County Chamber of Commerce (Tennessee). My participation in this program was based on my background as a cultural planner and community arts advocate. I started speaking at these sessions almost two decades ago, when the local arts agency, Arts in McNairy, first became a major player in the community around 2001. We cover topics such as the arts in the local economy, the creation of a creative community, the mapping of cultural assets, and the development of authentic cultural tourism.

I break the ice on every presentation with the same question. “Absolutely nothing” was not the answer I was hoping to hear, but you have to appreciate the uninhibited honesty of youth.

Negative attitudes towards their home community were constant and almost unanimous during the early years of these youth leadership sessions. I quickly grew up expecting that the brightest young minds we have to offer would find nothing to redeem their own hometown, let alone a reason to stay after graduation. Everything started to change around 2010.

From 2006 to 2008, Arts in McNairy engaged the community in an ambitious cultural assessment effort. At the time, it was unusual for a small rural art group to embark on a long-term project of this nature and there weren’t many models to guide us. We mostly invented it as we went along. The goal was to understand the creative resources of the community, both contemporary and historical, but the end game has always been programming.

The informal assessment team found dozens of artists working in folk and traditional arts, documented the depths of several local craft traditions, and organized these artists on an annual popular studio tour. The long-forgotten cultural roots of a historic property in downtown Selmer, Tennessee have been on display, leading to a million-dollar restoration of the property as a regional center for visitors and a hub for visitors. artistic programs. These, and a number of other projects built on the information gleaned from the two-year study, have had a huge impact, but nothing has inspired residents as much as the region’s rich musical heritage.

A declining musical genre from the mid-20th century was probably not on the list of tools for economic development when we began to delve into the region’s cultural past. The proposition that rockabilly music would become a marker of community identity, spawning pride of place among locals seemed even less likely. But this is quite precisely what happened in McNairy County, Tennessee, when a young, progressive arts agency began to research, persevere and promote the region’s unique role in the development of this style of music. This is a case study of how the arts and humanities can transform the self-concept of a community.

For the uninitiated, rockabilly is a quintessentially southern brand of proto-rock and roll. This is what happens when young post-war musicians grow up loving the music of the Grand Ole Opry and their R&B records in equal proportions. Put it all in one pot, add a dash of fiery gospel, stir in the frantic energy of a bluegrass band, and you’ve got the recipe for a cultural explosion we now know as rock music.

Sun Records, in nearby Memphis, is widely regarded as the zero point of rock’s big bang, but cultural exploration of McNairy County has revealed tidbits of history that significantly alter accepted origin narratives. .

Elvis Presley made an early appearance – and what may have been his first – on the road in Bethel Springs, Tennessee. He just met a young Carl Perkins at this concert. Dewey Phillips, the legendary DJ who first performed Presley, Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and other rockabilly artists on the airwaves, was originally from Adamsville, Tennessee. Prior to signing with Sun, Perkins made unreleased and unreleased recordings at a small home studio in Eastview, Tennessee. These tracks unequivocally demonstrate that rockabilly music was a natural outgrowth of the black and white cultural cross-pollination of West Tennessee long before anyone heard of Sun Records.

What do community partners do with revelations like these? A music festival, international CD and record release, world-class public art initiative, and cultural discovery tours to bring all of this history to the fore was McNairy County’s response. The results have been a 50% increase in annual tourism spending, increased and more nuanced awareness of the region’s cultural heritage, and a stronger creative community.

But one of the most satisfying results has been the change in attitude among the young members of the community. The last time I asked the leadership class what they liked about this place, one student responded enthusiastically, “Rockabilly music, baby! ”

Shawn Pitts is one of the founding directors of Arts in McNairy. As a community arts advocate, Shawn has provided consulting services for rural arts agencies and has widely presented the benefits and challenges of cultural planning. His writings have appeared in Southern Cultures, The Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, and The Bitter Southerner, among other periodicals. Shawn has served on the boards of the Tennessee Folklore Society, Humanities Tennessee, and the Tennessee Arts Commission, as well as numerous economic and community development agencies. He lives in Selmer, Tennessee.


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