“Where History Made Music, Then Music Made History”
By Becky Jane Newbold
American music has suffused the world and abides as the essence of life along the Natchez Trace. Uncounted are the number of stories within the Americana Music Triangle, many yet untold. The musical powerhouse cities of Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans may be thought of as beacons pointing within the lines of the triangle, to where the music began.
Music was a natural part of life for travelers who took the Mississippi River south, and then walked or rode horseback north along the Natchez Trace. Along the banks of the mighty Mississippi, improvisation in the voices and fingers of working men and women forever altered formal written music. The result was pure Americana.
“It was here the banjo first met the guitar and the fiddle,” preservationist Aubrey Preston told a gathering of regional leaders
at Leiper’s Fork last month. Music historians note that influences of Scottish, Irish, African, Native American, French, English, German and Caribbean music converged in the area marked as the Americana Music Triangle.
An African gourd instrument evolved into the banjo and was adopted by Scottish-Irish musicians. The German accordion, the European violin and the Spanish guitar met here.
“This geographic region is the crucible which forged nine distinct music genres,” Preston said.
To better understand, “We took a road trip,” Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association told. He and Preston traveled the entire area. “We had no real agenda. We went just to see what it was like. It was amazing, powerful,” Hilly said.
“Sitting in Studio A in Muscle Shoals where Aretha Franklin recorded ‘I’ve Never Loved a Man’ I tweeted a photo #AmericanaMusicT.”
Sometime later Hilly and Preston found themselves in Memphis riding in a 1954 Cadillac. “The guy popped in a cassette of Aretha Franklin’s ‘I’ve Never Loved a Man’ and we drove to the house where she grew up. The house had plywood boarded windows and the yard was overgrown. This man did not know we had been to Studio A. It happened organically.
“We have to preserve places like that. You need to know to tell people she recorded in Muscle Shoals. She was a child of Memphis and of the Americana Music Triangle,” Hilly described. “That to me, is what this project is all about.”
It was during this trip through the birthplaces of Americana music that reality set in. “He’s right,” Hilly said of Preston. “Here is where all this music bubbled up from out of the rivers and the dirt.”
Famous streets, Bourbon, Beale and Broadway draw lovers of music from around the world. From the Opry in Nashville to Elvis Presley’s humble beginnings in Tupelo to Aretha Franklin’s recording history in the Shoals, and south to Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride, the blues, R&B, rock and roll, country music and bluegrass represent just a sampling of the musical genres springing from the Triangle. Preserving the places and the stories behind the music are foundational goals. “This is a global heritage preservation project,” Preston said.
“The most exciting parts of the Triangle are the rich stories between the major points,” Dan Hayes, executive director of the Franklin Theatre commented.
One such example is close by in Waynesboro where the creation of a musical inventory is revealing more than the Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Director Rena Purdy ever dreamed. With the help of a volunteer, Anita Miller, stories of families’s musical histories, including stints on the Grand Ole Opry, are being discovered. “To them its just part of their life — no big deal,” Purdy remarked.
“Live music represents energy,” Preston told the gathering at Leiper’s Fork in May. “People are drawn to the energy of music.”
Traveling a portion of the Triangle between Franklin and Florence, there are many interesting stops within a day’s drive. Central to the Americana Music Triangle experience is advocating for the visitor’s authentic experience, Preston added.
Identifying venues between Franklin and Florence is a top priority at this point in the plan. Music Director Ward Boone and Manager Dave Story of the Mount Pleasant Grille are spearheading the organization of a “directory” with the help of Crystal Preslar. The creation of a database of artists and venues along the Trace will assist the group in networking.
“I love networking, the logistics and entertaining. It is unlike any other feeling in the world,” musician Kerry Gilbert said. “As I get older, its about putting a smile on faces and making sure they feel welcome.” A Russellville, Alabama native, Gilbert hosts a show every month at the historic Roxy Theatre in Russellville: Rocking at the Roxy with the KGB. Gilbert gave The Secret Sisters a start on his stage.
“They had never played before a large audience before.” Thirteen year old Jackson Nance is another young musical career Gilbert is nurturing. “I really like having young people on stage; to give them some recognition.”
Another local venue owner with a heart for up and coming artists is Kale Keith of Jeanette’s in Waynesboro.
“I grew up in Waynesboro playing in my bedroom because there was no place where I
could play. I started with the idea to give others the opportunity to play on stage,” Keith told. At Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant in Leiper’s Fork, owner Rob Robinson is celebrating the venue’s 60th year in business. “We have an average of 100 every Thursday for open mic night,” he told.
Natchez Hills Vineyard and Recording Studio owner Jim Odom finds southern roots music speaks his language. “I am a Mississippi boy. When we found the event center in Hampshire it was an ‘Ah-ha!’ moment for us. The Americana Music Triangle is like coming home.”
Musical hits seemed to “appear” from Muscle Shoals starting in the late sixties when The Swampers started the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. “Musicians who are experts know about the Shoals,” Preston said. “Headphone Town” produced hits such as Aretha Franklin’s “Mustang Sally,” Dwayne Allmon’s “Wild Horses” as well as singles by Simon & Garfunkel, The Rolling Stones and many others.
“Hits mysteriously came from there. It’s in the water,” Preston added with a chuckle.
“This is a new concept and a great idea,” George Booth II of Tupelo Hardware said. “It breaks through political boundaries. The Americana Music Triangle continues the story of southern music back to the geology of our land. And along the backbone is the Natchez Trace. This is a well thought out, organic unity through time and through place.”
Tupelo Hardware has a unique history as the place Elvis purchased his first guitar. “He wanted a 22 cal. rifle and his mother wanted him to buy a guitar,” a letter from Forrest L. Bobo, the salesman at the store in 1945, reads.
Visitors should ask for Howard when visiting Tupelo Hardware. “Howard is personable and talks to Elvis fans everyday of the year,” Booth said.
“It is an honor for Tupelo to be in the first generation of the Triangle. We are really pleased to connect with Florence, Franklin, Leiper’s Fork,” Booth concluded.