University of Memphis Magazine
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Spring 12 Features


Earning His Stripes
Walkin' in Memphis
Class of His Own
Pieces of Home
Blasts from the Past

Make it your Biz
Virtual Symphony
Lambuth Campus enrollment
100 Women
Planting Seeds
Johnson leaves impact
Sherrod's feats
Blending the Blues
'Up-and-down' Career Ride
Blending the blues is center stage at rockabilly museum

Rockabilly music is as American as apple pie. Every sweet melody and airy flake of bass from its blues, hillbilly and rock ‘n’ roll lineage combines into one harmonious bite of American music. A U of M alumnus has been right in the middle of it.

The International Rock-A-Billy Hall of Fame Museum, located in Jackson, Tenn., and created by Henry Harrison (’57), has captured the essence of rockabilly music through concerts, personal mementos from artists, and video interviews of singers and musicians of the genre.

Harrison, president of the museum, began collecting items for the facility 14 years ago to honor the performers integral to the popularization of rockabilly music.

Henry Harrison opened the International Rock-A-Billy Hall of Fame in Jackson,
Former U of M student Henry Harrison opened the International Rock-A-Billy Hall of Fame in Jackson Tenn., in 2001 to showcase the artists and combined genre of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll music. Outside the museum, a mural pays tribute to the dozens of artists that the museum highlights.

"We simply present the history of the life and music of a group of people who were not formally educated, who created a style of music that changed the way people danced, the way they combed their hair, the way they cut their sideburns, the way they jumped and the way they made music on the stage," Harrison says.

Rockabilly music, a blend of hillbilly country twang and rock ’n’ roll rhythms, began in the South and the Delta regions in the early 1950s. Several artists recorded rockabilly songs at Sun Studio in Memphis. Singers like Carl Perkins, Charlie Feathers, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash launched this style of music into mainstream.

The term rockabilly isn’t as common as the music of the genre. For example, the song "Blue Suede Shoes" by Carl Perkins, later recorded by Elvis, is a rockabilly song. Describing the difference between rock ’n’ roll versus rockabilly is not easy because music genres are so interchangeable, says Jayne White, public relations director at Sun Studios. "You’d have to listen to it, I suppose," she says. "It’s hard to describe without talking about where it came from."

Interest in rockabilly music didn’t last as long in Memphis and the South as soul and funk music became more common. As the popularity faded there, it increased on the West Coast and in southwestern states like Texas.

But its roots are in the South, which is why Harrison opened the museum in Tennessee. Harrison’s roots run deep in rockabilly music, too. Growing up in Marie, Ark., Harrison lived a mere eight miles from the Dyess, Ark., hometown of Johnny Cash. Teenagers Harrison and Cash often saw each other at local recreational baseball games when the two attended as spectators.

Harrison also heard stories from his uncle, Frank Kinney, about Cash. Kinney, the barber in Dyess, cut Cash’s hair and learned about the aspiring artist. Kinney and Cash later traveled to Detroit together in search of jobs in the automobile industry.

"Kinney was talking constantly in the late 1940s that Johnny was going to be a major artist of our area," Harrison says. "We sort of chuckled. We didn’t think anyone from that section of the world would ever become a major artist. But Uncle Frank was correct."

In 1998, Harrison announced that the city of Jackson would be building the museum. Upkeep of the facility would rely only on ticket sales, not taxpayer dollars, and volunteers would staff the museum to keep costs minimal.

Collecting items from years of producing shows on Sundays at the Harrison Toyota service department in Jackson, Harrison realized he did not have enough memorabilia to create museum displays yet. He contacted several entertainers about performing at a rockabilly festival in 2000, which he was in the process of organizing, and asked each person to donate pictures, posters or news clippings from early in their careers.

Those contacted enthusiastically responded. Harrison received records and an eighth-grade commencement certificate from Johnny Burnette’s wife; John "Ace" Cannon contributed a saxophone; Sonny Burgess donated guitars; and one woman gave three editions of The Commercial Appeal from the week Elvis died.

The overflow of items left Harrison with enough to organize and open the museum in September 2001. Now the 4,000 visitors each year can take a guided tour, see the 16 life-size oil paintings of influential artists and watch video interviews with rockabilly musicians at the museum. "We keep it an honest museum where people can come and learn the history," Harrison says.

He continues to receive items from artists and their families and plans to soon open another wing of the museum dedicated solely to honor the rockabilly musicians from Sweden, where the genre is popular. Several Swedish performers will also be honored at the International Rock-A-Billy Hall of Fame Music Festival in Jackson this August. — by Laura Fenton

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