By Shawn Pitts
This week Arts in McNairy will induct the ninth class into the McNairy County Music Hall of Fame. For almost a decade now, we’ve endeavored to recognize those who have played a significant role in shaping our musical heritage. The annual induction ceremony and tribute concert has become one of my favorite evenings on the year. The Hall of Fame proceedings, from overseeing the nomination process, to writing the induction speeches, to producing the annual ceremony, are among the most gratifying projects ever entrusted to me as a community arts volunteer.
I use the word “entrusted” because that’s what it feels like: a solemn trust. The many fine musicians of this region—and as often as not their children or grandchildren—have trusted me to tell their stories with accuracy and dignity. That is a sobering proposition, and I have ever approached the role with reverence and the most profound appreciation for the confidence these families have placed in me. It is a deeply personal experience to have a grown man approach with a lump in his throat after the ceremony to say how much he and his family appreciate the remembrance of their relative’s musical contributions. Sometimes people confess that they thought others had either forgotten their loved one’s music or else regarded it as a frivolous pursuit. For the record, let me assure you, there is nothing frivolous about uniting people in the joy of music making.
Seeing a mention of Hall of Fame membership in an obituary, as we did this last week with the passing of the extraordinary Peck Boggs, is among the more poignant reminders of how important it is to do these things while people are around to know how much they are appreciated. It was my great privilege to read Peck’s biography and induct him into the Hall of Fame in 2017. I was struck by his family’s gratitude on that occasion and moved by their inclusion of his membership in the long list of musical accomplishment highlighted in his obituary. If ever there was a doubt about the meaningfulness of music in our lives, a family’s desire to have such details published in remarks that will forever frame their loved one’s legacy should be the final word on that subject.
All this is to say the music people make and share with appreciative audiences is a serious business. If you’ve ever caught yourself involuntarily tapping your toe, or been transported by the beauty of a vocal or instrumental performance, you will know exactly what I mean. Music touches something deep within us and draws us together in our common humanity, and this is what the McNairy County Music Hall of Fame is all about. The people who spend countless hours honing their skills and collaborating with fellow musicians to bring the light of music alive in our community deserve our gratitude and sometimes a smattering of applause just won’t cut it. It’s a small thing to acknowledge our appreciation with an award and a brief induction speech, but I am constantly reminded how meaningful it is to the individuals we honor. That’s more than enough to keep me motivated.
If you’ve never done so, I encourage you to logon to the Hall of Fame/Trail of Legends website and peruse the past induction speeches. If you are up for more active pursuits, get out this summer and walk the Trail of Music Legends in downtown Selmer. It’s a mile loop between the Latta trailhead and Dixie Park. If you hold off until Friday, you will be able to see the latest Tennessee Music Pathways installation at Rockabilly Park. It offers a broad overview of the area’s music history while the Trail of Music Legends markers fill in the details for more curious walkers. I’ll wager that you’ll learn a thing or two, and you might even be amazed by the depths and diversity of our music heritage. More importantly, you will help us fulfill the primary mission of the McNairy County Music Hall of Fame: giving honor where honor is due.
By Shawn Pitts
I don’t speak German, but the familiar images were all I needed to determine the subject of the blogpost.
Before the paint was dry on Brian Tull’s now iconic Rockabilly Highway Mural in downtown Selmer, it was popular with locals and visitors alike. The first mural was completed in 2009 in the early days of the selfie and people were snapping candid shots on South 2nd Street almost immediately. Pretty soon the idea caught on with professional photographers who began using the mural as a backdrop for senior photos, antique car shoots and even engagement and wedding photos. It’s commonplace to see cars with out of state plates circling the block to get a better look and out of town musicians making promo photos in front of the mural. Now, of course, there are two chances for photo op with the addition of a second Rockabilly Highway Mural at Rockabilly Park in 2012.
Local business owners—especially restauranteurs—have shared many stories about travelers stopping by after taking in the murals and other public art in the downtown district. One couple from Amsterdam let it be known that they were on a self-guided musical heritage tour of Tennessee. They had flown into Memphis to see Graceland, the Beale Street blues clubs, Stax and Sun Studios, then rented a car and mapped out a route to Nashville where they intended to visit The Country Music Hall of Fame, Music Row, the honky-tonks on Lower Broadway and The Ryman Auditorium. Rather than speed by on Interstate 40 they planned a leisurely drive through the countryside with two scheduled stops along the way: Selmer and Lynchburg. I probably don’t need to tell you why Lynchburg was on the itinerary, but Selmer might come as a surprise to some. They were, as you will have guessed by now, in town to see the two Rockabilly Highway Murals and sample slug burgers.
State tourism professional know a good thing when they see it. Brian Tull’s Selmer murals appear regularly in the Tennessee’s promotional literature and online travel guides. In a couple of weeks Tennessee Department of Tourism Development will dedicate their newest Music Pathways installation in downtown Selmer highlighting our region's music heritage and touting the key role the Rockabilly Highway Murals played in reviving interest it. So, while the music themed public art installations were a point of local pride, the iconography was also adopted almost immediately as a popular representation of Tennessee’s unparalleled music heritage.
In my last guest column I wrote about the concept of placemaking, and how Arts in McNairy first set out to understand and spotlight locally treasured cultural traditions. By now, our region’s music heritage is well known, but before AiM contracted Brian Tull to complete the murals in conjunction with TDOT designating Highway 45 South, Rockabilly Highway, midcentury music making wasn’t on many local radar screens as an effective community development tool or cultural tourism resource. That’s all changed now, of course, thanks in no small part to Tull’s towering talent and the international renown of our community’s first class public art installations.
All the exposure the Rockabilly Highway Murals receive through the flood of social media posts and more formal tourism development channels got me wondering about the reach and the connections people make when they see them for the first time. The writeup and photos I mentioned from the German travel blog offered a partial answer. When I plugged the text into Google translator, it was a glowing review of McNairy County hospitality along with a strong recommendation for cultural tourists in search of authentic, small town America to add Selmer and the Rockabilly Highway Murals to their list of travel destinations. The last line said, “Don’t miss it. These hicks really know how to showcase their outstanding music heritage,” or something to that effect. I don’t recall the exact wording, but the word “hicks” was definitely in there somewhere.
I don’t mind if they call us hicks, hillbillies or hayseeds as long as they know where to find us when they’re booking their travel plans.