Cultural Crossroads of West Tennessee
"I first met Elvis in 1954 in a little town called Bethel Springs, Tennessee..."
Rolling Stone Interview
Sept. 22, 1977
The Rockabilly Highway Revival first began when AiM commissioned Rockabilly Highway Mural I, by Brian Tull. What began as a dedication ceremony for the mural, has become a full-fledged cultural festival with music on multiples stages and the McNairy County Music Hall of Fame inductions and tribute concert on the eve of the festivities. Now, a partnership between AiM and the McNairy Chamber of Commerce, Rockabilly Highway Revival is the biggest music event on the local calendar, attracting thousands to historic downtown Selmer, the second weekend in June.
The Rockabilly Highway Revival is grounded in McNairy County’s musical roots. Situated on Rockabilly Highway (45 South), midway between Memphis and Nashville, Tupelo, Mississippi and Jackson, Tennessee, McNairy County was ground zero for the cultural explosion that gave birth to rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll music. Many of the giants of rockabilly were influenced by local musicians and cut their teeth performing in the county. Iconic figures like Carl Perkins frequented community jams at the Latta Building in downtown Selmer. Perkins made his first recordings at Eastview with the amateur sound engineer, Stanton Littlejohn. Bethel Springs, where Perkins first met Elvis Presley, was the site of the King’s first live performance outside of Memphis. Legendary Hall of Fame Deejay, Daddy-O Dewey Phillips, who made Presley, Perkins, Cash, Lewis, and many others famous hailed from Adamsville. The Broadway Musical Memphis, is based on Phillips’s life and career. Rockabilly music is in our DNA!
Arts in McNairy Founder
By: Shawn Pitts
Nothing much would have been stirring in the sleepy little hamlet of Bethel Springs as Carl Perkins passed through. The bustling McNairy County seat, five miles farther south, was another story. He would have slowed down to observe the posted speed limit signs approaching the courthouse in Selmer. Entering the square, it’s likely he shot a quick glance left to see if anything was happening at the Latta Ford Motor Company. He had been there often. The owner, Earl Latta, staged one of the best music jams for miles around right there in the spacious garage of his Ford dealership. A good picker could just show up on a Saturday night and count on playing with some of the best musicians anywhere, always in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd. The kid had learned a good lick or two from some of those old timers. South of town, the road rose slightly and flattened out, running straight on into Eastview, Tennessee, near the Mississippi state line, the young guitarist’s final destination.1
An affable fiddler by the name of Stanton Littlejohn was a regular at the Latta jams. Littlejohn was an astute and knowledgeable observer of the local music scene who had a little family band that played the occasional dance or picnic. He knew all the players on the local music circuit and everybody loved Stanton. Those connections came in handy when he picked up a secondhand recording console around 1947 and started one-offing acetate discs in the front parlor of his Eastview, Tennessee home. Almost immediately, musicians and vocalists started showing up at his doorstep, most often unannounced. For the few cents it took to buy the blank discs used in the process, artists could walk away with their very own records. Stanton never charged for his services, but rather insisted on keeping the alternate recordings as payment, or sometimes requested a second recording for his collection when he took a liking to a particular artist or song, which he often did.2
This essay is excerpted from the Winter 2017 issue of Southern Cultures (vol. 23, no. 4).
To read the essay in full, access via Project Muse.