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.