By Shawn Pitts
The late Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard is credited with saying, “The South is the last place with a sense of place.” If you think about it, you know exactly what he meant. Widespread commercialization and the homogenizing effects of corporate media have washed almost all of the local flavor out of many places. But as Grizzard saw it, much of the American South retained enough of its regional character to remain a distinctive and recognizable subculture. To put it another way, the place we call home is tethered to a particular awareness of its own history and traditions.
That may not be as rosy as it sounds. The South has had more than its fair share of vexing social struggles, but what Grizzard had in mind was undoubtedly more upbeat. Since he made those remarks the language of recognizable places has been formalized in a branch of community development called “placemaking.” I’ve never been crazy about that term since it seems to suggest places can be designed and made to order, but it serves as shorthand for a handful of useful concepts like community asset mapping and place-based cultural assessment. Many communities now use these sorts of tools to intentionally cultivate that illusive sense of local identity that everyone seems to desires these days.
Five years into a successful effort to improve cultural programming Arts in McNairy set about to honor a simple statement in the organization’s founding documents. The AiM bylaws laid out a bold vision that included a goal to “preserve and promote the cultural strengths of McNairy County.” We didn’t know it at the time, but that phrase rather prophetically summed up the aspirations of many in the emergent field of placemaking. AiM leadership had the good sense and honesty to realize that the organization had spent its first few years successfully establishing programs that created opportunities for locals to engage with diverse new art forms but neglected large swaths of our traditional culture. That insight would forever change the way the organization did business.
For two years, a volunteer committee appointed to determine what the “cultural strengths” of McNairy County actually were met with people around the county asking probing questions about our most cherished traditions. The committee was tasked not only with providing an accurate picture of the traditional cultural landscape—both historical and contemporary—but also with understanding why certain features of our heritage were so treasured, and what efforts could be made to preserve and call attention to them. The end game, of course, was programing but it’s one thing to know what you have, and quite another to know what to do with it.
If you take a good look around these days, the evidence of Arts in McNairy’s groundbreaking placemaking efforts is everywhere. Maybe just as significantly, if you made inquiry in wider placemaking circles you would find that the county has become quite well known outside its own borders for AiM’s heritage preservation efforts, but we weren’t exactly starting from zero. Before the organized arts community ever got behind him, Jack Martin was already a legend in the realm of folk craft preservation. In 2015 the committee nominated Martin for and he was awarded the Governor’s Folklife Heritage Award, the state’s highest honor in the arts. Thanks largely to Martin, McNairy County is known far and wide for our broom making heritage.
The committee’s work on music heritage also yielded impressive results. The rediscovery and preservation of Stanton Littlejohn’s home audio recordings significantly altered the broader understanding of American music history, especially the early development of rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll music. Those recordings are now in the collections of The Library of Congress and have been the subject of numerous magazine and news articles as well as an international record and CD release.
The unlikely fame of our area’s favorite lunch treat, the slug burger, the local textile traditions, the old-time and bluegrass music heritage, and a number of other cultural expressions add even more depth and dimension to the local sense of place.
Why is all of this important? Why should we care about handmade brooms, a fading music heritage and slug burgers? I could offer many reasons and I hope to dig a little deeper into the subject in future essays, but I will give you my two best answers now.
First and foremost is the unique identity these facets of our culture provide our community. The things people create, the music they make together, the food they serve each other and the traditions they seek to hang on to say a lot about who those people are. We could do worse than being known for changing the course of music history and preserving local food and folkways. Virtually every town in America has fast food franchises and chain retailers, but you can’t show up in most places and buy locally made brooms or eat at a lunch counter that serves distinctively local fare. While national media feeds us a monotonous diet of musical sameness our community has embraced a deeper awareness and pride in its own musical heritage. Maybe none of that is your cup of tea, but it would be a mistake to think everyone is similarly disinterested.
Thousands of people visit our county each year to enjoy the things we take for granted. They drop money in local cash registers while they are here, go home with an improved opinion about our community, and tell their friends about the good times and good food they enjoyed in McNairy County. Whether you appreciate handmade brooms, music traditions and slug burgers or not, you are, in one way or another, the beneficiary of the unique local flavor they lend our community.
I sometimes wish more locals appreciated the depths of our culture the way visitors do. Imagine what a place this would be if we all pulled in the same direction.
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