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.
|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