“Absolutely nothing!” a chorus of students replied in response to the simple question: “What is one thing you love about this place?”

I was tapped to do annual youth and adult leadership classes sponsored by the McNairy County (Tennessee) Chamber of Commerce. My participation in that program was based on my track record as a cultural planner and community arts advocate. I began speaking at those sessions almost two decades ago when the local arts agency, Arts in McNairy, first became a significant player in the community around 2001. We cover such topics as arts in the local economy, creative community building, cultural asset mapping, and authentic cultural tourism development.

I break the ice on each presentation with the same question.“Absolutely nothing” was not the answer I was hoping to hear, but you have to appreciate the uninhibited honesty of youth.  

The negative attitudes about their native community were consistent and almost unanimous in the early years of those youth leadership sessions. I quickly grew to expect the brightest young minds we had to offer would find nothing to redeem their own hometown, much less a reason to stick around past graduation. That all began to change around 2010.

From 2006 until 2008, Arts in McNairy engaged the community in an ambitious cultural assessment effort. At the time it was unusual for a small, rural arts group to take on a long-term project of that nature and there weren’t many models to guide us. We mostly made it up as we went along. The goal was to understand the community’s creative resources, both contemporary and historic, but the end game was always programming.

The informal assessment team turned up dozens of artists working in folk and traditional arts, documented the depths of several local handcraft traditions, and organized those artists in a popular annual studio tour. The long-forgotten cultural roots of a historic property in Selmer, Tennessee, downtown district were exposed, leading to a million-dollar restoration of the property as a regional visitor’s center and hub for arts programs. These, and a number of other projects built on the information gleaned from the two-year study, were enormously impactful, but nothing inspired residents quite like the area’s rich musical heritage.

A fading mid-twentieth-century musical genre probably wasn’t on anyone’s shortlist of economic development tools when we first began digging into the region’s cultural past. The proposition that rockabilly music would become a community identity marker, engendering pride of place among locals seemed even less likely. But that is rather precisely what happened to McNairy County, Tennessee, when a progressive young arts agency began to research, persevere and promote the area’s unique role in the development of that style of music. It’s a case study in how the arts and humanities can transform a community’s self-concept.   

For the uninitiated, rockabilly is a distinctively Southern brand of proto-rock and roll. It’s what happens when young, postwar musicians grow up loving the music of the Grand Ole Opry and their R&B records in equal proportions. Put all that in one pot, add a dash of spirited gospel, stir in the frenetic energy of a bluegrass band, and you have the recipe for a cultural explosion we now know as rock music. 

Sun Records, in nearby Memphis, is widely considered ground zero for rock’s big bang, but McNairy County’s cultural exploration turned up tidbits of history that alter the accepted origin narratives in significant ways.

Elvis Presley made an early—and what may have been his first—road appearance in Bethel Springs, Tennessee. He just happened to meet a young Carl Perkins at that gig. Dewey Phillips, the legendary deejay who first played Presley, Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other rockabilly artists over the airwaves, hailed from Adamsville, Tennessee. Prior to signing with Sun, Perkins made previously unheard and unreleased recordings at a small, home studio in Eastview, Tennessee. Those tracks unequivocally demonstrate that rockabilly music was a natural outgrowth of rural West Tennessee’s Black and white cultural cross-pollination long before anyone had heard of Sun Records.   

What do community partners do with revelations like these? A music festival, an international CD and record release, a world-class public art initiative and cultural discovery tours to foreground all this history was McNairy County’s answer. The results have been a 50% increase in annual tourism spending, heightened and more nuanced awareness of the area’s cultural heritage, and a more robust creative community. 

But one of the most satisfying outcomes has been changing attitudes among young community members. The last time I asked the leadership class what they loved about this place, one student enthusiastically responded, “Rockabilly music, baby!”           

Shawn Pitts is a founding director of Arts in McNairy. As a community arts advocate, Shawn has provided consulting services for rural arts agencies and presented widely on the rewards and challenges of cultural planning. His writing has appeared in Southern Cultures, The Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, and The Bitter Southerner among other periodicals. Shawn has served on the boards of The Tennessee Folklore Society, Humanities Tennessee, and The Tennessee Arts Commission, as well as numerous economic and community development agencies. He lives in Selmer, Tennessee.