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Fords and Fiddles (Part IV)

The hubcap goes largely unnoticed, but occasionally someone asks about it. 

For people who don’t know the history of the Latta building, it probably does seem somewhat incongruous; an old hubcap stuck in the wall of a beautifully appointed community theater and concert venue. It’s positioned high on a brick column near the stage, where it has acted as silent sentinel, watching over hundreds of performances of every variety for more than a decade now.

It was not always so.

Left: The famous hubcap in the Latta Theater is a nod to the space’s former life as Ford auto garage. Right: The large oil and acrylic painting, “Quite the Thing,” by artist Lanessa Miller, was created at the Latta during her six week residency there. Inspired by the property’s history and deep roots in local music culture, the artist depicted a typical weekend jamboree (Circa 1950) at the Latta Ford Motor Company, donating the work to Arts in McNairy at the conclusion of the residency. The painting now hangs in the south theater entrance as another reminder of the creativity of generations past.

Before new life was breathed back into the place, the hubcap was witness to dereliction and decay. Mice and rats scurried across the garage floor when it wasn’t flooded, while birds came in through holes in the roof to nest in the Latta building’s steel girders. The thriving business where local men and women had spent entire careers; the showroom floor where folks had kicked the tires and dreamed of the day they could save money enough for that new Ford, and then bought it; the garage and makeshift concert hall where Elvis Black, and Waldo Davis, and Carl Perkins, and the Latta Ramblers had electrified grateful audiences with their music; that historic space sat empty and falling in on itself, a shell of its former glory, a bothersome eyesore in the shadow of the County courthouse.

It took almost five years to recover and restore the former Latta Ford building. The process included consensus building, open public meetings and discussions, committed local leadership, countless hours of planning, and fruitful partnerships between a half dozen government and nonprofit agencies. It was worth every second and every cent. 

Arts in McNairy’s residency at the McNairy County Visitors and Cultural Center has been transformative for this community. It is, at once, an astounding mobilization of contemporary creative resources, and a respectful homage to the the traditional music and culture of generations past. Local creatives are again invited to publicly practice their art for appreciative audiences, while touring acts and exhibits provide quality entertainment and learning opportunities for locals, who would otherwise have to travel many miles for similar offerings. 

There is always something to see at the Latta. Left: The Smithsonian Museums on Main Street touring exhibit, Crossroads: Change in Rural America, visited the Latta in 2020. Middle: Tennessee Governor’s Folklife Heritage Award recipient, Hattie Duncan’s 2018 solo exhibit in the Latta main gallery. Right: Every spring brings a monthlong youth art exhibit to the Latta, filling every nook and cranny of the building with student art from around the county.

At the 2020 McNairy County Music Hall of Fame inductions, Arts in McNairy board member, Christy Sills remarked,  “A whole new generation of McNairy County youth is familiar with the name Latta. When they hear the name, they are most likely to associate it with the property situated at the corner of West Court Avenue and North 4th Street in downtown Selmer. More precisely, they are likely to think of the cultural experiences they enjoyed at what is now affectionately referred to as “The Latta.” Sills went on to recount some of the history of the Latta Ford Motor Company building as a cultural space, noting that the hundreds of children and adults who come through the doors today, are heirs to an incredible legacy of creative community building, renewed in their generation by Arts in McNairy’s dedicated volunteers.      

I could not agree more. When I walk in the Latta to find dozens of proud parents, grandparents and student artists lingering in the gallery at a youth art exhibit, I can’t help thinking of the shiny Fords that once graced those colorful tile floors. When I walk into a theater packed with wide-eyed school children, enthusiastically applauding the young cast of a local community theater production, or watch a bluegrass band take the stage, I can’t help thinking of Earl Latta. I’m convinced he would be deeply moved by the impact Arts in McNairy has made on the community he loved, and grateful that such programs are carried out in the majestic old building that still bears his name. Latta is, quite literally, etched in stone above the door. 

Plays, concerts, author signings, a film festival, Black History and Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations, and cultural gatherings of every description are staples of activity at the Latta. Left: The community theater production of the Broadway musical, Guys and Dolls, at the Latta in 2019. Middle: Nashville country and bluegrass legend, Curtis McPeake, held a CD release party and one of his last live performances at the Latta in 2016. Right: Arts in McNairy hosted the Tennessee Association of Museums’ annual statewide awards banquet at the Latta in 2018.

So, when some curious soul asks, “What’s with the hubcap?” I can’t wait to tell them the story. You can imagine how that goes; it’s taken me four installments to tell it to you here. But the way I figure it, you shouldn’t ask if you don’t want to know. 

I start by telling them that the hubcap was used to cover the open vent hole, when a wood burning stove was removed many years ago, and how the workmen scratched their heads in confusion when we insisted that it stay as a constant reminder of the building’s history. Sometimes the astute listener will ask me, “But what does a hubcap have to do with the history of a theater?” That’s when I know I’ve hooked them. 

And so I begin, “There was a young man named Earl Latta…” 

The four part series, Fords and Fiddles, appears as a guest column in the March 2023 issues of The McNairy County News.        

Fords and Fiddles (Part III)

By 1937, Earl Latta was a well established businessman in Selmer, Tennessee. He had worked his way up from Ford mechanic to Ford dealer, purchasing the local franchise and rebranding it Latta Ford Motor Company. 

With Latta’s natural entrepreneurial skills and the growing popularity of Ford’s affordable products, the dealership rapidly became one of the best small-town franchises in the region. The Court Avenue location in the middle of downtown was a good one—just a block from the county courthouse and a half block from the Gulf Mobile and Ohio Railroad tracks—but space soon became a concern. In 1937 Latta broke ground on a new building with a spacious showroom, business offices, large drive-in garage, separate oil and wash bays, and all the amenities of the day. The building’s handsome brick exterior had art deco lines, medallions, and other decorative details. A colorful broken tile mosaic graced the floor of the showroom and of other public areas.  “Latta” was boldly carved in stone above the main entrance. It was easily the nicest building in town, if not the county. Only the courthouse, just across the street, could rival it for small town architectural grandeur.

Latta Ford Motor Company as captured by Selmer photographer Coy Gooch in an excellent 1943 photograph. The building directly behind the garage was a Ford tractor and implement dealership, also owned by Earl Latta. The white clapboard peak and roof of the Latta home is seen on the far right.

Just as significant as the structure and business which operated there were the social dimensions the building would assume in years to come. Considering the gregarious nature of the owner, it was perhaps inevitable that the spacious new building, with its proximity to the courthouse and the downtown shopping district, would become something of a gathering place. Two generations of area residents fondly recalled dropping in at the Ford place to catch up on the latest gossip, enjoy an ice cold Coca Cola from the cooler, or just shelter from the weather. Rather than regarding this as a nuisance, Earl Latta welcomed, and even encouraged, such activities as an act of simple hospitality. He enjoyed people and was generous almost to a fault; the community loved him for it. It wasn’t too bad for business either. Latta was an extremely successful Ford dealer for more than forty years, reaping considerable financial rewards, but always retaining the easy going manner of a farm boy. That human touch made him a popular and much beloved local figure.

Once his business was established and flourishing at the new location, Earl Latta did the unexpected: he turned the garage area into a popular concert venue. He was undoubtedly influenced by the Henry Ford inspired old-time music trend that dated to the 1920s, but old-time music wasn’t a fad in McNairy County, Tennessee; it was a way of life. 

Latta had grown up in a community and family that surrounded him with music from birth. His mother was a dulcimer enthusiast, one brother was a fiddler, and another a banjo player. Earl, himself, was handy with both guitar and mandolin. Throughout his youth, the family actively participated, as both performers and hosts, in home “musicals” or “frolics,” as they were sometimes termed.  

Earl Latta outside the Latta Ford Motor Company shortly after the business moved to its final location at 205 West Court Avenute in 1937. The building is now the McNairy County Visitors and Cultural Center.

In the first half of the twentieth century, frolics and community dances were a staple of entertainment in the South. McNairy County was hardly unique in that regard, but it was incredibly rich in old-time music and dance. Scheduled in one-room schoolhouses and other public spaces around the region—but as often as not, spontaneous gatherings in homes—these musical events followed the same basic format. Rugs were rolled up and furniture was removed to make way for eager musicians, revelers and spectators who played and danced, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning.

The outbreak of World War II and the rise of mass media culture—especially the increasing availability of television—threatened to put an end to this type of live entertainment, but not in Selmer, Tennessee where the frolic took an unexpected turn into the realm of entertainment marketing. The wealth of the area’s musical talent and popularity of their shows and dances were not lost on the savvy Latta. By the mid to late 1940s the shrewd business owner had managed to combine his love of music and automobiles into an expanded version of the frolic at his spacious downtown garage. These regular events became a beloved and much anticipated feature of community life, attracting some of the region’s best pickers and audiences numbering into the hundreds. Larger jams were intentionally scheduled to coincide with Ford’s model year rollout so concertgoers could kick the tires and get a gander at the alluring chrome and shiny new fenders strategically positioned on the Latta showroom floor.   

1950 Fords on the Latta showroom floor. Note the broken tile, mosaic floors which were thoughtfully preserved in the restoration.

Earl Latta’s garage jams are the stuff of legend. For a decade or more, they offered a community without a formal concert hall a place to gather and socialize while some of the region’s top talent flexed their creative muscle on Latta’s makeshift stage. The house band, who styled themselves The Latta Ramblers, backed some of the best pickers southwest Tennessee had to offer, and were themselves among the region’s most respected musicians. 

Perhaps more significant than the fleeting entertainment value, Earl Latta’s garage jamborees offered a hothouse environment where old-time pickers rubbed elbows with a new breed of musician. This arrangement preserved the region’s traditional music even as the generational cross-pollination helped transform it into what is now known as bluegrass, rockabilly and country. Indeed, a young Carl Perkins–among other influential West Tennesseee music figures–was known to frequent Latta’s legendary garage jams. Or as one attendee told me, “Everybody who’s anybody played for Earl Latta.” 

A typical jamboree in the Latta garage, this one timed to take advantage of the 1950 Ford model year rollout. Of the 21 musicians visible in the image, 15 have been identified, 11 of which have been honored with membership in the McNairy County Music Hall of Fame. Inductee biographies can be read on the Hall of Fame and Trail of Music Legends website. Additionally, Earl Latta’s bio and a short history of his jams are available at the same site; Latta is a 2021 Hall of Fame inductee.

The final installment, Part IV, of Fords and Fiddles will take the reader inside the restoration of a derelict and deteriorating Latta Ford Motor Company building, and it’s transformation into a center for music and art in downtown Selmer, Tennessee; an outcome that would surely have made Earl Latta proud. 

A more detailed account of Earl Latta’s garage jamborees can be read in Everybody Who’s Anybody: Making Music for Earl Latta and Stanton Littlejohn, Volume LXXI, Numbers 1 & 2 (double issue) of the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin. 

The four part series, Fords and Fiddles, appears as a guest column in the March 2023 issues of The McNairy County News.        

Fords and Fiddles (Part II)

Earl Latta was a Ford man, through and through. 

Latta was born in the Gravel Hill community of McNairy County, Tennessee in 1895, just two years after Henry Ford produced his first automobile. The young Latta took a job at 18 years old, servicing Model T Fords at a garage in nearby Selmer. Intelligent, a born salesman, and enamored of the new advances in personal transportation, he quickly absorbed a good working knowledge of the new motorcars and the burgeoning American automobile industry. Henry Ford was a role model for the budding entrepreneur, and Latta followed the auto tycoon’s career with great interest. What he learned, coupled with what he already knew about West Tennessee music, would serve him well in the years to come.  

When Latta shipped out for active duty in France during World War I, he had never been more than a few miles from his boyhood home. After completing a tour of duty he returned to Gravel Hill where a disagreeable turn in farming was enough to convince the young man that agriculture was not in his future. He moved to Selmer and resumed his lifelong love affair with the automobile as an employee at the local Ford dealership. 

By 1926 Latta had saved enough money to purchase his own Model A Ford coupe. He must have been a dashing figure—a young man with money in his pocket motoring about a rural Tennessee town where mules and wagons were far more common. The same year Latta bought his first automobile, an old-time music craze was sweeping the country. Curiously, the car and the craze sprang from the same fertile imagination. 

The January 19, 1926 Nashville Banner covered the Ford sponsored Tennessee old-time fiddle contest finals. Some 25 fiddlers, primarily from Middle Tennessee, competed for the state title. Numbered among them were John L. “Uncle Bunt” Stephens (incorrectly identified here as J.L. Stevenson), Uncle Jimmy Thompson, and Marshall Claiborne (incorrectly identified here as William Clyburn). Stephens and Claiborne would play for Henry Ford later that year in Detroit, with Stephens claiming victory in the national fiddling finals which probably never took place. Thompson, the more seasoned and perhaps most talented musician of the group, was famed announcer, Judge George D. Hay’s, first guest on the Grand Ole Opry.

In the mid 1920s, Henry Ford began systematically promoting old time dance and music events—especially fiddle contests—through his rapidly expanding network of automobile dealers. With the Roaring Twenties well underway, Ford felt the excesses of the Jazz Age were eroding the simpler times and wholesome entertainments of his youth. He mobilized local Ford dealers who sometimes partnered with booster clubs, civic groups, or fraternal organizations to host old-time fiddle contests as qualifying events, inviting the winners to compete for state and regional titles. 

The Volunteer State naturally produced a respectable crop of fiddlers including John “Uncle Bunt” Stephens, “Uncle” Jimmy Thompson, and the one-armed fiddling sensation Marshall Claiborne who took top honors at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The three Tennesseans then competed in Louisville, Kentucky for the “Champion of Dixie” title with Stephens and Claiborne supposedly advancing to Detroit for the finals. After that, things get a little more fuzzy.

Several fiddlers—Stephens among them—apparently did play for Henry Ford at a Detroit gathering of Ford executives and dealers, but there is no record of a fiddle contest taking place, let alone the crowning of a national champion. Stephens, whose yarn spinning rivaled his fiddling, told Nashville reporters that he attempted to bow out of the contest with the excuse that he’d only split enough wood to last his family three more days. He claimed Henry Ford dispatched one of his agents to Lynchburg to provision the Stephenses with wood and other necessities, set him up in a private room at the Ford estate, and bestowed on him the title of national old-time fiddle champion. What really happened in Detroit is unclear, but a good Southern tale relies more on the quality of the story than the facts, so Stephens’s humorous version of events persists in Tennessee music lore.    

Brothers Con (left) and Elvin (right) Crotts of Michie, Tennessee. Con was considered one of the best McNairy County fiddlers of his generation, winning multiple contests around the region. While no winner was published for a 1926 old-time fiddle contest held at Selmer, Tennessee, Crotts would definitely have been considered a front runner for the local title.

McNairy County was not left out of the fun. An “Old Fiddler’s Contest,” sponsored by the Selmer Parent Teacher Association, took place on April 15, 1926. Though advertising for the event never mentioned the local Ford dealer, the contest undoubtedly grew out of the national enthusiasm for old-time music touched off by Henry Ford’s thinly veiled social agenda. A deep regional music tradition in Southwest Tennessee, and an incredibly strong crop of local fiddlers, certainly wouldn’t have hindered matters. The winners of the Selmer contest were apparently never published, but you can bet fiddlers such as Con Crotts, Elvis Black and Waldo Davis were in the running. 

It is impossible to know if Earl Latta was present for the McNairy County fiddle contest, but his longstanding affiliation with Ford, coupled with his personal affinity for old-time music, make it hard to imagine him sitting it out. The old-time music and dance craze left an indelible imprint on American culture, but the mix of merchandizing and music making that characterized the Ford inspired, fiddle mania influenced the young Earl Latta in unmistakable ways. Like Henry Ford, Latta would use the platform and resources afforded by successful business ventures to shape the music and culture of Southwest Tennessee in ways that are apparent even now.

Part III of this series will detail the legacy of Earl Latta’s famous garage jams at Latta Ford Motors in downtown Selmer, Tennessee. A fuller discussion of Latta’s role in West Tennessee music history was published in my essay, Everybody Who’s Anybody: Making Music for Earl Latta and Stanton Littlejohn, Volume LXXI, Numbers 1 & 2 (double issue) of the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin.

The four part series, Fords and Fiddles, appears as a guest column in the March 2023 issues of The McNairy County News.        

Fords and Fiddles (Part I)

In April 1931, a shiny, new Model A Ford rolled off the assembly line and into history. The stylish black Town Sedan was the twenty millionth automobile produced by Ford Motor Company, and they did not let the milestone pass without ceremony. Henry Ford, himself, stamped the serial number on the engine block and drove the car out of the plant as it embarked on a nationwide tour with Ford’s familiar blue oval logo and the words “The Twenty Millionth” emblazoned in large block letters down the sides and across the top. 

The Model A was joined by other vehicles in the Ford fleet as the promotional caravan rolled across the country, making scheduled stops at national monuments, scenic parks, statehouses, and countless small town Ford dealerships. The car was the star attraction at every stop; movie stars, politicians and other dignitaries clamored to pose with the vehicle or take it for a test drive at the invitation of tour organizers. Eleanor Roosevelt and Douglas Fairbanks among dozens of other celebrities were photographed behind the wheel at various ports of call.

Though labeled 1932, this photo was almost certainly made in 1931 at the Ford Motor Company dealership in downtown Selmer, Tennessee. At the center of the image is the Twenty Millionth Ford, pictured with county dignitaries while stopped in Selmer on a nationwide promotional tour.

Police motorcades escorted the celebrity Model A into towns where brass bands heralded its arrival, and locals turned out by the thousands to see the spectacle. States issued one of a kind license plates numbered 20,000,000 to mark the occasion, presenting them to Ford representatives with great pomp and pride. The car even made a few laps and took the checkered flag at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and became the first private vehicle to descend to the bottom of Hoover Dam for a photo op. It was a welcome season of levity; a brief respite for a nation in the throes of the Great Depression. With automobile sales slumping and Americans in desperate need of a morale boost, Ford could hardly have planned a better public relations campaign. 

Back in Detroit, the car remained a novelty item for a short time, but the world soon moved on. For many years, the original twenty millionth Model A was presumed to have been destroyed in a fire, along with the registry book logging the tour stops, commemorative state plates, and other souvenirs picked up along the way. But in the 1990s the car was almost miraculously rediscovered in storage, still owned by the family who purchased it from Ford in 1940. The deteriorating sedan underwent a total restoration in the early 2000s to bring it back to pristine, original condition in honor of Ford’s 2003 centennial celebration. The company then leased it for ten years to be displayed at their world headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. 

An advertisement in the Chattanooga Daily Times promoted the highly anticipated arrival of Ford’s Twenty Millionth automobile near the end of its 1931 tour. Other Tennessee stops included Nashville, Lebanon and Selmer. Rare video of the car on the Lebanon town square can be viewed here.

Though the log book and commemorative plates from the national tour have never been found, hundreds of photos documenting the famous Model A’s triumphant, cross-country journey have resurfaced to document that moment in time. Imagine my surprise when one such photograph turned up while I was researching the history of Latta Ford in Selmer. 

The photo shows a group of McNairy County dignitaries gathered around the Twenty Millionth Ford outside the local dealership. It was taken shortly before Earl Latta purchased the business and broke ground on a new location, 205 West Court Avenue, at what is now the McNairy County Visitor’s and Cultural Center. When the photo was taken, the local dealership, Bolton Ford, was in the 100 block of West Court Avenue, where present day China King is located. 

The fully restored Twenty Millionth Ford on display in the Henry Ford Museum. Millions of Americans, including West Tennesseans, saw the 1931 Town Sedan on its whirlwind tour of the country.

This image came to light more than a decade ago, thanks to Nancy Kennedy at the McNairy County Archives. As a young woman, Nancy worked for Earl Latta, so she was always keen to preserve anything related to the history of his successful business ventures. The photo appears to be copied from newsprint with a 1932 date, supplied by an unknown archivist. In all likelihood, that date is one year off, given that the tour concluded in December 1931, and can be documented in Middle and East Tennessee, as early as June of the same year.

Inaccurate date or not, it’s a wonderfully evocative photo tying local people to a an historic event of national significance. Part two of this essay will detail how Henry Ford may have inspired a young Earl Latta to indulge his interest in old-time music while refining his sales pitch for Ford motorcars.   

The four part series, Fords and Fiddles, appears as a guest column in the March 2023 issues of The McNairy County News.        

Choir-practing in the South

I don’t often write about my day job. There are a couple of good reasons for that. 

First, nobody really wants to read about herniated discs, let’s say, until they have one, and then they are only interested in discovering quick and painless solutions, which are always in short supply. If you’d shown a little interest when I tried to talk about good body mechanics and managing risk factors, you probably wouldn’t have a herniated disc right now. You know who you are. 

And then there is the issue of HIPAA violations. When considering what makes for a readable story or blogpost, details are everything. So, if I offer easily identifiable medical history details, such as what happens to a pair of lumbar spines when a pastor dances down the center aisle of his holiness church, trips over his own Sunday loafers in the vestibule, and falls backwards into the lady’s room, colliding with a horrified sister Bulla…Oops! See what I mean? Instant HIPPA infraction. 

Okay, so I made all that up, but you get the point. 

One area where my vocation safely overlaps with my avocational fascination with folklore subjects is the distinctive, regional language people use to communicate healthcare concepts. To put a finer point on that, the Southern vernacular of pain and suffering is exquisitely expressive. 

When I first began private practice over thirty years ago, the older generations of Southerners came into my office equipped to describe their symptoms in a much more colorful way than I typically encounter nowadays. In Chiropractic school we were required to take medical terminology, which primarily consisted of Latin and a little Greek. The deeper you go into the healthcare sciences, the more sense that makes, but a course in hinterland medical-speak would have been much more helpful to me in navigating day to day interactions with patients.    

For example, even though I grew up in rural West Tennessee I never heard the word touchous until I donned a lab coat and started poking and prodding people’s angry joints. I shed the white coat in a matter of weeks and never looked back, but touchous was a little harder to shake. What is touchous? Well, imagine a mule kicked you in the back, producing a purple bruise the size of a dinner plate, along with painful muscle spasms and buckets of swelling. Then imagine a snot-nosed new Chiropractor, who might have looked more trustworthy in a lab coat, sticking a bony thumb right in the middle of the most sensitive area. What would say? You would say, “Be careful back there, it’s touchous as hell!” and you would mean every word of it.     

While we are on the subject of painful swelling, long before muscle-heads pumped iron at the gym until the were sufficiently swole, the blue collar workforce of rural Tennessee knew that a job mishap was how one got truly and thoroughly swole. Far from being a desirable state of fitness, swole is what happens when an unattended injury gets out of hand “Doc, I think I blowed out my knee at work,” the patients says. “Wrap it with an Ace bandage, get some ice on it, and prop it up,” I advise. “Too late, Pitts,” comes the reply, “It done swole up on me.”    

Now, if either of these injuries had a significant neurologic component that resulted in abnormal sensation—paresthesia we call it in the trade—it might “burn like a coal o’ far.” If you described symptoms in that way, naturally you would mean it felt like I had extracted a glowing ember from the fireplace and secretly substituted it for my bony thumb. 

If symptoms persist long enough, you might wind up “sore as a risin” (boil) or possibly become “stove up” (stiff to the point of incapacity). Equating another condition with the agony of an acute boil makes sense, but where “stove up” came from is anybody’s guess. I went as far as trying to look that one up once, but the etymologies offered by the internet geniuses I consulted seemed dubious. My best guess is that “stove” is some variation—perhaps a past tense—of stiff, which comes through oral tradition by way of the glorious torture chamber of language that is the Southern tongue. Early on I asked one older gentleman to clarify what he meant by stove up. He glared at my like I might have just admitted I was a native New Yorker and said, “stiff as a poker, of course.” 

Wick and Maude Hockaday, representative of an older generation of rural Southerners who employed colorful regional language to describe everyday experiences. Photo courtesy of Eddy Jack Martin.

One phrase I never hear anymore is “sufferin’ the pain o’ death.” That was always a rare bird, but when it landed, it was never less than serious business, as in, “Doc, you gotta do summpin. Myrtle is sufferin’ the pain o’ death.” Odds are, I had just required Myrtle to fill out a ream of unnecessary paperwork required by Medicare, which included, among other useless documents, a visual analog pain scale. Maybe you are familiar with the numeric grading system in which the provider asks someone like Myrtle, who is writhing on the floor of their clinic in blinding pain, to calmly reflect on her experience and assign it a number from 1 to 10 on the misery scale. “Sufferin’ the pain o’ death” clocks in at about a 40, and Myrtle is in no shape to be playing the numbers game, which is why her loving husband has just informed me that I’d better get on with it. 

This is slightly off the subject, but I can’t let the opportunity pass to briefly delve into how the word “chiropractic” or “chiropractor” gets slaughtered in the Southern English meat grinder. To begin with, it’s admittedly a difficult word, and whoever came up with it should be horse-whipped. It literally means “practiced by hand,” which is descriptive enough, but the unwieldy construction guarantees the word rolls off the tongue like a cocklebur coated in superglue. 

Be that as it may, I’ve always gotten a kick out of the humorous variations, of which the most common is, “Quar-practor,” or the slightly more refined, “Choir-practor.” To get the correct pronunciation, imagine you have volunteered to sing with other members of your church, so you arrive at the Wednesday fellowship meal with a melody in you heart, and a hymnal in hand. After you finish off a plate, groaning under the weight of seventeen different casseroles, you make your way down to the sanctuary with the music minister, discussing which was better, the green bean or the chicken and rice. When you arrive, you are treated to a sampling of church gossip from your fellow members, you all do your vocal warmups together, and so begins…you guessed it, choir practice. Now, just drop the -ice, and add -or, and you’ll know how to pronounce my job title. 

Choir-practor can be taken a step further with the addition of a verb form I sometimes hear. As late as last week someone asked me if I was still “Choir-practing.” I would never dream of correcting such a magnificent reshaping of the language to suit a local purpose. What was I supposed to say, “Oh no, my friend. I’m daily engaged in private chiropractic practice.” Choir-practing sounds like a dramatic linguistic improvement when you put it that way.                                  

I want to be clear in saying that I am not making fun of the local dialect, and certainly not the way people endeavor to describe legitimate pain and suffering. It is quite possible to enjoy the quirky humor in an odd turn of phrase, while assigning the underlying human experience the weight it deserves. After all, the visceral specificity Myrtle uses to describe her pain makes my numeric grading system look like verbal child’s play. 

For more than thirty years, I have appreciated this perk of my job, along with getting to know the people who command a dialect so rich in its powers of observation and description. I only regret that such evocative language seems to be fading under the homogenizing effects of mass media encroachment. Patients are now more likely to start out telling me they have moderate pain, ranging between four and six, that rises to about an eight with certain activities. That’s how we’ve conditioned people to think and respond in the healthcare setting, but the bland, obedient recitation of the numbers sometimes leaves me feeling “lower than gully dirt.”

Thankful for Native American Heritage Month

It’s hard to say why I’ve always been drawn to Native American culture. I have no First Nations ancestry that can be documented, but I never remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated with those traditions. 

Among my first memories is lying flat on my back in my grandmother’s floor peering into the colorful roof of my “teepee” (tipi). Somewhere in his early life my grandfather had acquired a woolen blanket with a Native American motif that I claimed as my own as soon as I got my hands on it. The teepee in question was constructed by stretching that blanket across the backs of dining room chairs. This I imagined to be my lodge and trusty hideout, should there be any land-grabbing settlers or warring tribes in the neighborhood. My indulgent grandmother even let me sleep in the teepee on occasion. That beloved blanket now hangs on the wall of my study.

When the family vacation carried us to the mountains of East Tennessee and North Carolina, I could reliably be counted on to bring home some trinket purporting to honor the Cherokee and other indigenous cultures of southern Appalachia. Anyone well traveled in that region will know that the tourist traps are chock full of assorted, plastic tomahawks, bow and arrow sets and the like—all undoubtedly of Chinese origin—strategically positioned to extract cash from the pockets of souvenir-hungry children and their parents. One such child even sported a ridiculously hideous replica of a Native American war bonnet, from sunup to sundown, until every feather was worn to a spindly nub—never mind that the Cherokee would not have been familiar with a Lakota or Cheyenne headdress. Remarking on a family photo which documents the practice, my brother asked, “What kind of kid puts on a war bonnet straight out of bed?” Well, this kid, of course. 

Barry Pitts (Left) ready for school, and Shawn Pitts (right) ready for action, about 1968.

As time went by, I insisted on Indian costumes at Halloween; played with Native American action figures; scoured the fields, woods and riverbanks of southwest Tennessee for native artifacts; earned my first Boy Scout merit badge in Indian lore; and devoured a short volume on the “tribes of North America,” and another on Plains Indian Sign Language until the dogeared pages were falling out. Superficial as all these pursuits may seem, they were the resources available to a curious boy from West Tennessee. It would be a few more years before I delved into serious study of our nation’s shameful history with native cultures, coming to grips with themes of cultural appropriation, trivialization, displacement and rank genocide.

Grappling with difficult questions has only deepened my appreciation for indigenous people. Far from a footnote in American history, these are living nations who preserve incredible cultural richness, proudly bringing tradition forward into contemporary life. I was deeply moved to learn recently that a Choctaw language team will take part in Tennessee Folklife’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. Sharon Owen, a native Choctaw speaker from Halls, Tennessee, will be teaching her daughter, Kennedy Owen, the fundamentals of the language in an effort to keep it alive among members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians near Henning, Tennessee. Living languages are foundational to culture, and their preservation is one key to sustaining endangered traditions. I’m equally gratified to live in a state that recognizes, and proactively supports, such efforts.

November is Native American Heritage Month, and I have a suggestion for anyone who would like to engage more thoughtfully with this history. My plan starts with the land itself. 

No corner of this continent is unknown to native feet. Indigenous peoples, both historic and contemporary, leave indelible imprints on the land from the Florida Keys to the Pacific Northwest; the Rockies to the Smokies; Jamestown to Painted Rock. Flourishing nations were first encountered by white immigrants on the coasts and in the Desert Southwest where their influence is still very much in evidence. The Great Plains, which have always held particular fascination for me, are rich with Native American sacred sites and monuments well worth visiting and understanding.

Closer to home, two incredible sites left behind by native mound building cultures are easily accessible to West Tennesseans. Mississippian and Woodland peoples erected earthen mound complexes, beautifully preserved at Shiloh National Military Park and Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park. Regular events and good interpretation at both public spaces tell the stories of the communities who lived and thrived there. Additionally, the Trail of Tears Bell Route is walking distance from my front door, and I am glad to see the Tennessee chapter of the Trail of Tears Association doing more to call attention to that history. On a related note, Tom Hendrix performed a small miracle, building the Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall in north Alabama, near the historic Natchez Trace Parkway. The monument pays honor to Hendrix’s native ancestor who was forced to walk the Trail of Tears. You can read a little more about that history, here, in a short piece I recently wrote for Salvation South

A panoramic fall view of the plaza at Shiloh mound village, from atop Mound A. Mound D and B are visible in the distance and the Tennessee River is seen on the left.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I believe we do well to remember that seasonal observations have traditionally involved giving some nod to the role native peoples played in the survival of the first white settlers on these shores. My suggestion is to take some of the time most of us are afforded around the holiday to visit the highly accessible indigenous sites near us, in order to adopt a more substantive view of history, rather than embracing sentimental, feel-good myths. Lately it seems that many among us prefer not to acknowledge, or allow our children to learn, uncomfortable truths about our history, but that’s a fool’s errand, not to mention an abominable disservice to future generations.   

I retired my teepee, action figures and war bonnet, for a more sober view of Native American history—which, incidentally, is American history. “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.” I’m thankful for the land that bears testimony to those who came before, and for the immutable truths upheld by native communities. I am thankful too, that I’ve come to see the world more clearly through the beauty of these cultures.

Happy Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month to all.

Learn more about Native American Heritage Month or find resources for indigenous people at the following links:

First Nations

National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center

American Indian Policy Institute

National Museum of the American Indian

Native American Rights Fund

National Congress of American Indians

Cultural Survival

Native American Indian Association of Tennessee

Tennessee Native American History

This post appears as a Thanksgiving feature in the November 24, 2022 edition of The McNairy County News

That’s a Rap

Many years ago, The Tennessee Arts Commission invited me to sit on a conference panel about cultural asset mapping. That was before any of us knew enough to call it that. The session engendered some lively discussion and I recall talking about how tradition evolves and is preserved within communities. Around that time, one pitiful participant loudly announced, “Well, I certainly hope that doesn’t apply to rap music!”

I was embarrassed for the lady. What’s worse for her, she was hoping in vain.

Nobody would probably peg me as a hip hop aficionado. In all truth, when hip hop and rap were rapidly evolving art forms, I was entering what I affectionately call, “my blues period.” I was living in Memphis at the time, and I was enamored of that city’s incredible contribution to the older musical genre I was just then coming to appreciate. It was a joy and wonder to discover an older generation of musicians–most of them obscure to Gen Xers like me–who profoundly influenced the sound of artists I had grown up enjoying. Once you’ve heard Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, you’ll never hear the Stones and Zeppelin in quite the same way. But unbeknownst to me, another incredibly influential music revolution was taking shape right under my nose.

In the 1980s Memphis was the epicenter of a burgeoning underground rap scene that would transform the sounds of East and West Coast hip hop into something much darker and more atmospheric; in short, more Memphis. As with previous music originating in Bluff City, Memphis rap would be low on investment and high in impact. Pioneers like DJ Spanish Fly would create a thoroughly distinct sound on a shoestring budget that continues to impact the evolution of hip hop culture almost forty years later.

Photos courtesy of DJ Spanish Fly and The Tennessee Historical Society

I was recently honored to co-convene the first in a series of webinars for the Tennessee Historical Society which endeavor to shine the spotlight on under-appreciated facets of the state’s diverse music heritage. As co-convener, Dr. Langston Collin Wilkins, reminds us in session one, the innovations of DJ Spanish Fly, which helped create the unique sound of Memphis rap, more than fits that bill. Without the conventional marketing and distribution channels, or the investment of major record labels, Memphis hip hop found a way. That’s something all Tennesseean–especially those of us on this end of the state–should be proud to know.

It wasn’t until the day after the recent webinar that I recalled the TAC conference comment, openly hoping for rap music to recede into the mists of history. I am glad to say that the sentiment found very little support among those who attended that panel session. I had little room in my heart, then or now, for elitist exclusion and art snobbery. The shame in such attitudes is that they seek to minimize and wish away authentic, cultural expressions, shared and cherished by millions of people, simply because they do not conform to the narrow experiences or tastes of the speaker. It’s worth noting that they said the same sorts of things about blues, and old-time, and rock ‘n’ roll, and…you get the point.

The 1980s will probably always remind me of my first, wide-eyed forays into blues, but as history brings yet another fascinating chapter of Memphis music into sharper focus, I find I have an even deeper appreciation for the depths and riches of Tennessee cultures. I wish I could find the poor, misguided lady who was so proud of publicly hating on rap music. I’m pretty sure Dr. Wilkins and DJ Spanish Fly could change her mind.

The Sun Rises, Yet Again

The much-hyped Hollywood feature, Elvis, will premier later this summer. From the look of the slick trailer, Elvis Presley’s early career, including the magical Sun Records years 1954-56, will receive ample screen time. As far as I am concerned, the Sun era is the most compelling period of Presley’s remarkable biography, so I am eager to see how it’s treated by filmmaker, Baz Luhrmann. Most of the buzz about the film naturally focuses on the portrayal of Presley by emerging actor, Austin Butler. Any attempt to fill those King-sized, blue suede shoes has to be respected for its sheer gutsiness and this is likely to make or break Butler’s career in the short run. I’m rooting for him.     

Perhaps more interesting to hardcore music fans will be the November release of The Birth of Rock ‘n Roll: Seventy Years of Sun Records, by venerable music writers Peter Guralnick and Colin Escott. Guralnick has famously written an extensive, two volume, set on the rise and demise of Elvis Presley as well as biographies of Sun founder, Sam Phillips, and a number of other blues and country music luminaries. Similarly, Escott has authored or coauthored several excellent music titles, including what many (count me in) consider the definitive history of Sun Records. Escott is also responsible for the Tony nominated jukebox musical, Million Dollar Quartet, featuring the music of legendary Sun artists, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. 

I have high expectations for Elvis, at least as far as entertainment value goes; complete historical accuracy is probably too much to ask. But if seeing how well or poorly Butler pulls off an impression of arguably the most recognizable figure in the history of popular music doesn’t excite you, maybe Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker will. I would pay to see Tom Hanks play solitaire. I also look forward to Guralnick and Escott’s exploration of the Sun legacy through the lens of the label’s most iconic recordings by blues, rockabilly and country artists. It is a more nuanced and imaginative way to judge the lasting impact of that label and I can think of no writers more qualified to offer such insights. 

Still, I must admit I approach these “birth of rock ’n roll” narratives with a certain amount of dread. A couple of thorny, related issues always seem to cloud my sunny optimism for such projects. 

The racial dynamics and commercial disparity in the early history of rock ’n’ roll music has been much debated over the years and I have nothing new to add. But I can say I have rarely walked away from any historical and cultural framing of that period feeling satisfied. Perhaps I ask too much of modern interpreters. 

It’s indisputable, however, that many white artists, and the labels who recorded them, reaped obscene profits from the music of their African American contemporaries with little or no thought for just compensation or due credit. Fortunately, In recent years, scholars and music journalists have attempted to complicate the narrative without sugar coating it, which has led to healthier dialogue on the subject. As I have written before, unresolved questions that probe deeply into what it means to make and share music across racial and cultural boundaries—both real and perceived—is more productive than offering facile answers.

Much has been made of evolving racial attitudes that facilitated the convergence of Black and white identified music launching Elvis Presley into stratospheric success. That is to say, the focus has mainly centered on the particular historic moment when young white audiences embraced the high energy mashup of blues, country, R&B and gospel that characterized the Sun sound. What is rarely mentioned here is that “the rockabilly moment” took place in a cultural environment already saturated with jump blues and R&B—some, but far from all of it, recorded at Sun—that sounded suspiciously like what would later be called rock ’n’ roll. White kids were voraciously consuming these “race records” before Presley and the other white rockabillies came on the scene. This does nothing to diminish the genius of Sam Phillips or his incredible roster of white artists, but the insinuation that 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee was the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll glosses over too much history to be taken seriously.                

In America, where the almighty dollar reigns and fame is everything, a musician’s commercial success means unassailable vindication. Gold and Platinum records offer their own kind of absolution from the sins of omission or even deliberate appropriation. How could millions of record buyers be wrong? Right? And yet, the glaring spotlight of celebrity and all that attends it obscures, not just the racial origins of popular music, but the depths and breadths of the cultural milieu that gave rise to it. Stars, we are asked to believe, simply fall from the heavens to grace us with their light.

A young Carl Perkins and the Perkins Brothers Band perform with songstress, Marie King, at Chickasaw State Park in rural southwest Tennessee, circa 1953. Photo courtesy of Terry Bryant Harrison.

Reflecting on the dizzying—and fleeting—success of Sun Records, the earliest practitioners of rockabilly music likened Sam Phillips’s role to capturing lightning in a bottle. It’s no mean feat to tame a force of nature, but it is beyond mere mortals to create the storm. Looking back on it with the clarity only distance can provide, Carl Perkins, among other Sun artists, recognized that Phillips possessed an uncanny ear for talent and a unique gift for getting the best out of his artists, but nobody who was there was buying “the creator” mythos. Their lifelong experience argued against it.   

Perkins got it right when he said the success of Elvis Presley’s Sun singles started something, but the something was the commercialization, not the origin of the R&B inflected country music —or hillbilly inflected R&B in the case of artists like Chuck Berry—we call rockabilly. Postwar  musicians in the South had been playing that music in dancehalls for years before Presley’s first Sun single hit the airwaves in 1954. Stanton Littlejohn’s recordings of Perkins in the early 1950s offer incontrovertible evidence that the rockabilly sound was alive and kicking out here in the sticks without the prompting or studio magic of Sam Phillips. More importantly, it was already popular with the rural honky-tonk and juke joint crowds across the Mid-South.   

Most white artists in the Sun cohort were keen to acknowledge their debt to Black musical mentors, and the relationship is often highlighted as a key element in the development of the rockabilly/rock ’n’ roll sound. That is commendable, as far as it goes, but a fuller accounting of the complex musical culture which formed the seedbed of rock ’n’ roll music would do more to illuminate the rural communities who were often surprisingly egalitarian in their musical tastes and pursuits. The music was born in backwoods honky-tonks, juke joints and dance halls where it was enjoyed by a working class clientele—Black and white—long before it was widely embraced by a national audience. 

I doubt that any of the upcoming releases will go out of their way to acknowledge the rural origins of this music. The media tastemakers have a tendency to confuse widespread public acceptance with the origins of roots music, as if it never existed until there was a marketing plan.     


An essay based, in part, on this post appears in The Daily Yonder.

Walking Downtown

I’ve taken up walking downtown Selmer. I’m doing it for my health, but lately I begin to appreciate other benefits of my morning strolls.

I work downtown which typically involves pulling into my parking spot at the end of the block and hurriedly taking the twenty paces to the front door of my clinic. At the end of the day, it’s twenty paces back to the car and I’m headed home in no time. Intentionally walking the same streets I usually motor past has allowed me to see them with a fresh set of eyes.

A little over thirty years ago when I opened a business in Selmer, the downtown district could best be described as an eyesore. Certainly, there was a long and admirable history of commerce in the traditional town center, but most of that had dried up by the time I arrived in 1991. With a few notable exceptions, most of the retail and service businesses along Court Avenue were either struggling or already boarded up. Several were falling in on themselves. The courthouse and legal practices it supported provided most of the downtown traffic, with the postoffice, city hall and a stalwart business or two drawing in a few more folks. 

Now, however, my morning walk takes me past—dare I say it—some of the finest public art you are likely to find anywhere. Brian Tull’s Rockabilly Highway Murals are numbered among the South’s finest culturally themed art installations. They pay homage to the depths of the region’s musical heritage, as conceived by the artist and the sponsoring arts agency, Arts in McNairy. The theme is repeated in the Trail of Music Legends markers which offer period photos and brief bios of the men and women who helped forge our area’s unique musical identity. Those who remember what Selmer looked like in the 1980s and 90s will attest to the transformation.  

2010 Rockabilly Highway Mural by Brian Tull (photo by Bryan Huff)

I am a first hand witness to the changes that have taken place since Arts in McNairy began making what came to be known as “placemaking” investments in Selmer. The paint was still drying on the 2nd Street Rockabilly Mural when the character of downtown began to change for the better. In addition to the tourist traffic that is now commonplace, the appealing look and feel of the murals and other public art that proliferated in their wake, have helped retail businesses flourish again. The City of Selmer made several streetscape and public green-space improvements that added to the appeal, but no one I know seriously doubts that the downtown mini-renaissance was initiated by the intentional cultivation of first-class public art that made a statement about who we are and what we value.

The City and Arts in McNairy weren’t the only entities making fruitful investments. A partnership between McNairy County, Arts in McNairy and the McNairy County Chamber of Commerce resulted in the preservation and restoration of the Latta Visitor’s and Cultural Center. Under the management of Arts in McNairy and The Chamber, the County-owned facility has become a hub for regional community and cultural development attracting thousands of visitors and driving local tourism spending past thirteen million dollars annually. Where rats and birds were once the primary patrons of the property, locals and visitors now enjoy music, theatre, film, and cultural exhibits more than three hundred nights a years. Job fairs, civic gatherings, economic development meetings, and educational opportunities are staples of daytime activity. All of this adds the buzz of productive economic activity and gives the town a distinct vibe of cultural vibrancy that was sorely lacking before.

The McNairy County Visitor’s and Cultural Center, known locally as The Latta (Photo by Bryan Huff)

Others have noticed. Last summer Tennessee Department of Tourism Development installed an attractive Music Pathways marker near Rockabilly Park, connecting the cultural history of the Latta Building with the murals and local Trail of Music Legends. They understand that these assets can be potent development tools for communities who embrace the positive aspects of their cultural identity to build an interesting and inviting sense of place. That’s what happened in Selmer, and everyone involved in the aforementioned improvements has every reason to feel proud. Building on a community’s history and culture is smart, effective and sustainable.      

It’s cool to be in Selmer again. Everywhere you look, something new is taking place. Don’t believe me? Park the car and take a walk around town. The pleasing mix of specialty shops, boutiques and eateries offer unique local shopping and dining experiences that I hope will attract diverse new retailers and restaurants. We still have a long way to go, but my recent walks downtown tell me we will get there, one step at a time, if we can all manage to pull in the same direction.                              

My Christmas Knee

My right knee sometimes gets a little achey with overuse or just the right combination of cold weather and barometric pressure. It’s especially noticeable this time of year and it always makes me think of my one and only brush with the theatrical life. Yes, there’s a story. But it’s a holiday tale, so indulge me. 

When I arrived at Arts in McNairy’s very first theatre production in December 2001, I was excited to see our children perform in the holiday classic, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. I flipped through the playbill as I made my way to my seat, but the director met me halfway down the aisle in a breathless rush. Call it instinct, call it a suspicious mind, but it was obvious something was amiss the second I laid eyes on her. 

“Have you seen the program?” she asked.

“I was just about to—”

And then I saw it, my name, right there in black and white in the cast list. Fireman 2: Shawn Pitts

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. 

She was not kidding. I had not been to a single rehearsal, nor had I read the script or expressed theatrical ambitions of any kind.  

“But, I’m not…I mean, you can’t…I mean, what in the…” I stammered. 

“You’ll be fine,” she said, shoving me backstage.     

A half hour later I was sprinting across a stage in a firman’s helmet and heavy coat pursued by a pack of feral children. Just before I made my exit, one of the young actors unexpectedly sprang from a chair onto my neck like a demented chimpanzee. I won’t mention names (it was Jared Ruby). I went down like a sack of potatoes hitting the ground, knee first, with a resounding thud. The audience howled with laughter, like it was all scripted, which only encouraged escalation of the vicious attack. I tried to remind myself that it was just acting, but I suddenly felt like a gazelle caught by the lions in one of those wildlife documentaries. I managed to crawl off stage with four clinging children clawing at my flesh and biting my limbs. I was grateful for the protective firefighting gear.  

The next morning my knee was a black and blue basketball, but the show must go on, right? I struggled through two more performances and hung up my fireman’s costume forever. If I could go back in time I wouldn’t change a thing. Well, I might put on a pair of kneepads, but other than the injury, I cherish the experience. 

All this and more was on my mind as the houselights went down at the Latta Theater last Friday night. The second show of the Arts in McNairy Encore Theatre Season was a reprise of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. I anxiously checked the playbill on arrival just to be sure. I’m pleased to report that my name was not listed among the cast members, but in an incredible moment of community theatre déjà vu Fireman 2, Jonathon McDaniel, stumbled and fell onstage injuring his knee under the furious assault of a new generation of Herdman children. I kid you not. He was still limping when I caught up with him Sunday afternoon. I couldn’t wait to commiserate and share my war story. “Wait until the arthritis sets in,” I told him, “You’ll love it!” 

I have dozens of stories about the humorous misadventures of community arts development and I am proud of the arts organization I had a hand in founding, but it was none of that that put a lump in my throat as I enjoyed AiM’s holiday production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever last weekend. No, I was thinking about our adult children who got their start in theatre with roles in local community theatre productions. I was reflecting on how much it meant to them and the hundreds of other kids who had the advantage of growing up in a community that nurtured and encouraged creativity in all its forms. As I watched the smaller kids file onto stage in their white bedsheets, sparkly gold belts and cheesy wire halos, I was remembering how our youngest daughter, Allie, had been cast in the angel choir for her first role, earned her BFA in theatre performance, and returned home to direct the same show that kindled a creative fire in her all those years ago.

The original cast of Arts in McNairy’s 2001 production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever included Jared Ruby, Hannah Mead, Ryan Reed, Autumn Smith, Marisa Kelling and Emily Pitts Donahoe as the Herdman children.

I got more than an arthritic knee out of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. A seemingly ordinary children’s theatre production changed the course of our family life and altered the creative trajectory of our community all at the same time. For the last two decades, we have not been without quality community theatre in McNairy County and this is a healthier place for it, even if my knee is not.

Merry Christmas to all.  

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