A pair of high-profile media projects slated for release this year will, again, train a spotlight on 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee. For the uninitiated, that is where a young Elvis Presley turned up one July afternoon in 1954 with a cheap guitar, big dreams and movie star good looks, to find Sam Phillips eagerly waiting at Sun Records to fashion him into the King of rock ’n’ roll.
Phillips would coax a new sound—not all together blues and not all together hillbilly music, but a heady mashup of both—out or Elvis and bandmates Scotty Moore and Bill Black. Sun would work its famous studio magic on the tracks and the result would be the genesis of rockabilly, the earliest incarnation of rock ’n’ roll that shook the very foundations of popular culture.
Or so one version of the story goes.
The much-hyped Warner Brothers feature film Elvis by Oscar-nominated director Baz Luhrmann, which premieres in wide release June 24, will hopefully paint a more nuanced portrait of Presley and Phillips’ fateful meeting. But I have come to expect some version of the above origin story from the entertainment industry. It is an inaccurate and unimaginative account of events but widely accepted, in no small part, because Sam Phillips spent most of his post-Sun years cultivating something like that narrative.
The other project, due out in November, is the highly anticipated The Birth of Rock ’n Roll: Seventy years of Sun Records by venerable music writers Peter Guralnick and Colin Escott. The pricey volume will be a reexamination of the label’s history through the lens of Phillips’ most iconic recordings. That is a much broader and more penetrating way to evaluate Sun’s lasting legacy, and a pair of documentarians of Guralnick and Escott’s caliber is equal to the task. Both have authored seminal works on Sun and the cast of characters who turned that little yellow label into one of the most recognizable brands in music history.
But as the title implies, the book also subscribes to the popular fiction that rock ’n’ roll was born in Memphis, Tennessee.
A grain of truth lies at the heart of the Memphis birthplace mythos. The genius of Sam Phillips, the quality of his artists, and the groundbreaking impact of Sun Records are rightly recognized as key ingredients in the development of popular music. The birthplace narrative’s fatal flaw is confusing the urban commercialization of the music with its rural origins.
Modern Memphis is a music mecca. Visitors flock to the city to stroll down Beale Street and hear live music in the blues clubs. They tour the Stax Museum to experience the city’s funky Southern soul. They take selfies in the exact spot where Elvis Presley stood when he recorded those Sun classics and ogle at the ostentation of Graceland. What most of the tour guides won’t mention is that a short drive through the surrounding countryside will take you to places that are just as pivotal to the history of Memphis music as the city’s legendary studios and performance venues.
Rural Mississippi produced a staggering number of blues and R&B artists who felt the irresistible gravitational pull of urban Memphis. Since 2006 the Mississippi Blues Trail has acknowledged the debt artists owe to the storied clubs and studios of Memphis, while unambiguously asserting the rural origins of the music performed and recorded there; it’s called Delta and Hill Country blues for a reason. Small towns like Indianola, West Point, Clarksdale, and many others, now boast markers honoring icons such as B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Ike Turner who caught their first commercial breaks in Memphis. Blues festivals and live music venues have proliferated in these areas, recapturing bits and pieces of this heritage and driving tourism spending through the roof. As it turns out, authenticity matters to many cultural tourists.
Tennessee and Arkansas have also dipped their toe in these waters, attempting to recover their own rural roots music stories. Sun artists such as Johnny Cash, Billy Lee Riley and Sunny Burgess hailed from small-town Arkansas as did a host of Black gospel and blues artists who wound up in Memphis. Tennessee has recently made a statewide attempt to call attention to many out-of-the-way places that played a role in the history and development of American music. The Tennessee Music Pathways program marks and interprets significant sites such as the one-room, childhood schoolhouse of Tina Turner and the humble abode of blues legend Sleepy John Estes at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Haywood County, or the site where Carl Perkins made rockabilly recordings at a makeshift studio in McNairy County, long before he ever heard of Sam Phillips and Sun.
Why does it matter? As with natural resources, rural communities have always exported culture at an unhealthy rate. They have the economic and cultural scars to prove it. No one can blame artists who gravitate to the metropolitan media centers in search of broader audiences for their work, but the communities that provided the fertile seedbeds from which music grows shouldn’t be forgotten. If individual musicians have too often been exploited for the commercial gain of others, their hometowns have, if possible, fared worse. Many communities are just now coming to terms with this disparity and beginning to embrace their rightful place in American music history. The economic piece is crucial, but the pride of place that follows from elevating authentic music tradition creates a much needed sense of identity for many small towns.
From the look of the glitzy trailer, Elvis, will be a rollicking good time, and I expect the background Guralnick and Escott will provide on the artists who graced us with all those legendary Sun singles will give some indication of the complex cultural milieu that contributed to the Sun sound. I just hope, for once, someone acknowledges that what happened in Memphis, happened first in the juke joints and honky tonks of the rural South. Or as I sometimes say, if a guitar is picked on a back porch in woods but no one is there to cash in, does it really make a sound?
Shawn Pitts is a community arts advocate who lives in Selmer, Tennessee. He has written for Southern Cultures, The Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, The Bitter Southerner, and 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.