By 1937, Earl Latta was a well established businessman in Selmer, Tennessee. He had worked his way up from Ford mechanic to Ford dealer, purchasing the local franchise and rebranding it Latta Ford Motor Company.
With Latta’s natural entrepreneurial skills and the growing popularity of Ford’s affordable products, the dealership rapidly became one of the best small-town franchises in the region. The Court Avenue location in the middle of downtown was a good one—just a block from the county courthouse and a half block from the Gulf Mobile and Ohio Railroad tracks—but space soon became a concern. In 1937 Latta broke ground on a new building with a spacious showroom, business offices, large drive-in garage, separate oil and wash bays, and all the amenities of the day. The building’s handsome brick exterior had art deco lines, medallions, and other decorative details. A colorful broken tile mosaic graced the floor of the showroom and of other public areas. “Latta” was boldly carved in stone above the main entrance. It was easily the nicest building in town, if not the county. Only the courthouse, just across the street, could rival it for small town architectural grandeur.
Just as significant as the structure and business which operated there were the social dimensions the building would assume in years to come. Considering the gregarious nature of the owner, it was perhaps inevitable that the spacious new building, with its proximity to the courthouse and the downtown shopping district, would become something of a gathering place. Two generations of area residents fondly recalled dropping in at the Ford place to catch up on the latest gossip, enjoy an ice cold Coca Cola from the cooler, or just shelter from the weather. Rather than regarding this as a nuisance, Earl Latta welcomed, and even encouraged, such activities as an act of simple hospitality. He enjoyed people and was generous almost to a fault; the community loved him for it. It wasn’t too bad for business either. Latta was an extremely successful Ford dealer for more than forty years, reaping considerable financial rewards but always retaining the easy going manner of a farm boy. That human touch made him a popular and much beloved local figure.
Once his business was established and flourishing at the new location, Earl Latta did the unexpected: he turned the garage area into a popular concert venue. He was undoubtedly influenced by the Henry Ford inspired old-time music trend that dated to the 1920s, but old-time music wasn’t a fad in McNairy County, Tennessee; it was a way of life.
Latta had grown up in a community and family that surrounded him with music from birth. His mother was a dulcimer enthusiast, one brother was a fiddler, and another a banjo player. Earl was, himself, handy with both guitar and mandolin. Throughout his youth, the family actively participated, as both performers and hosts, in home “musicals” or “frolics,” as they were sometimes termed.
In the first half of the twentieth century, frolics and community dances were a stable of entertainment in the South. McNairy County was hardly unique in that regard, but it was incredibly rich in old-time music and dance. Scheduled in one-room schoolhouses and other public spaces around the region—but as often as no, spontaneous gatherings in homes—these musical events followed the same basic format. Rugs were rolled up and furniture was removed to make way for eager musicians, revelers and spectators who played and danced, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning.
The outbreak of World War II and the rise of mass media culture—especially the increasing availability of television—threatened to put an end to this type of live entertainment, but not in Selmer, Tennessee where the frolic took an unexpected turn into the realm of entertainment marketing. The wealth of the area’s musical talent and popularity of their shows and dances were not lost on the savvy Latta. By the mid to late 1940s the shrewd business owner had managed to combine his love of music and automobiles into an expanded version of the frolic at his spacious downtown garage. These regular events became a staple of community life, attracting some of the region’s best pickers and audiences numbering into the hundreds. Larger jams were intentionally scheduled to coincide with Ford’s new model year rollout so concertgoers could kick the tires and get a gander at the alluring chrome and shiny fenders strategically positioned on the Latta showroom floor.
Earl Latta’s garage jams are the stuff of legend. For a decade or more, they offered a community without a formal concert hall a place to gather and socialize while some of the region’s top talented flexed their creative muscle on Latta’s makeshift stage. The house band, who styled themselves The Latta Ramblers, backed some of the best pickers southwest Tennessee had to offer, and were themselves among the region’s most respected musicians.
Perhaps more important than the fleeting entertainment value, Earl Latta’s garage jamborees offered a hothouse environment where old-time pickers rubbed elbows with a new breed of musician. This arrangement preserved the region’s traditional music even as the generational cross-pollination helped transform it into what is now known as bluegrass, rockabilly and country. Indeed, a young Carl Perkins, among other influential West Tennseee figures, was known to frequent Latta’s legendary jams. Or as one attendee told me, “Everybody who’s anybody played for Earl Latta.”
The final installment of Fords and Fiddles with take the reader inside the restoration of a derelict and deteriorating Latta Ford Motor Company building, and it’s transformation into a center for music and art; an outcome that would undoubtedly have made Earl Latta proud.
A longer, more detailed, account of Earl Latta’s garage jamborees can be read in Everybody Who’s Anybody: Making Music for Earl Latta and Stanton Littlejohn, Volume LXXI, Numbers 1 & 2 (double issue) of the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin.
The four part series, Fords & Fiddles, appears as a guest column by Shawn Pitts in the March 2023 issues of The McNairy County News and on Pitts's blog, Broomcorn, with additional links and photos.