Words and photos by Ken Billett
I navigated my way through a good-sized crowd that occupied lawn chairs, camping chairs, and a couple of wooden picnic tables until I made it to our spot on a small section of asphalt. We sat under the shade of several trees, situated right next to the two-room shotgun home of the late “Sleepy” John Estes, a pioneer of Country Blues, who grew up in Brownsville, Tennessee.
On a pleasant, sunny Saturday afternoon, we mostly stayed out of the sun while soaking up the songs of local and regional blues musicians. Memorial Day Weekend, the unofficial start of summer, brought out folks looking to enjoy the sunshine, good food, hot cars, and great music.
I plopped down into my festival chair (my foldable camping chair), glanced over to Vicki, and her sister, Alisa, and said, “Isn’t this cool?”
To me, cool, in this instance, meant real, genuine, and authentic.
The sisters ignored me and continued bopping their heads and tapping their feet to the blues of JD Taylor, Brownsville native and harmonica player extraordinaire, currently performing with his band on the outdoor stage.
West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center
Driving east from Memphis to Jackson, Tennessee along Interstate 40 (I-40), you eventually come to Exit 56, which is the exit to the city of Brownsville. The West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center is located across the interstate overpass after a quick right on to Sunny Hill Cove. The Delta Heritage Center is free to the public and currently open six days a week.
The Delta Heritage Center, opened in 1998, is a collection of five museums, which provide a history of a region centered around both agriculture and the natural beauty of the Mississippi River’s coastal plains. The exhibits and collections within each museum give visitors an insight into the men and women who called this area home. Three of those museums—actually separate sections or rooms—are housed within the main building. The other two museums are in stand-alone buildings located outside on the Delta Heritage Center’s grounds.
One of those external museums is a one-room school house, the restored Flagg Grove School, which was attended by a girl named Anna Mae Bullock, who grew up in nearby Nutbush. Anna Mae eventually moved to St Louis, married a musician named Turner, and changed her first name to Tina.
You probably know the rest of Tina’s story.
Music Legacy—Brownsville and Western Tennessee
The Exit 56 Blues Fest is a celebration of West Tennessee’s rich musical legacy, particularly those local blues pioneers featured prominently in the Delta Heritage Center’s Music Room—Sleepy John, an acoustic guitarist with a crying vocal style, Hammie Nixon, a homegrown harmonica (harp in blues parlance) player, and James “Yank” Rachell, a master of the blues mandolin. Three incredible bluesmen who played together, toured together, and recorded their unique brand of blues for future generations to enjoy.
Others from this part of Tennessee include music legend Carl Perkins, originally from Tiptonville, country singer Eddy Arnold, from nearby Jackson, Stax icon Isaac Hayes, born in Covington and raised in Memphis, and, of course, Tina Turner.
Part of the Delta Heritage Center’s mission is to not only share this musical legacy with travelers from all over the world, but to get them excited about their experience. Sonia Outlaw-Clark, the Center’s Director, told me “I…want people to know that museums and historic sites aren’t just ‘old dusty stuff’ but…are living connections to the past and future.” Outlaw-Clark went on the say, “We use events, both musical and otherwise, to try to meet folks where they are…where their interests lie and gently ease them into experiencing the history themselves.”
Obviously, the Exit 56 Blues Fest fulfills a major part of the Center’s mission.
Exit 56 Blues Fest — 2022
Now in its 12th year, the Exit 56 Blues Fest is much more than a showcase for good blues music. Over two days, several thousand visitors converged on the Delta Heritage Center to listen to the music, stroll past the tents of dozens of local artisans, and longingly gaze at the gorgeous Corvettes on display for a car show.
Real. Genuine. Authentic.
West Tennesseans, along with folks from Kentucky, Arkansas, and Mississippi, settled in for a good time—a relaxing, laid-back time. For the people of Brownsville and Haywood County, the festival is a chance to come together and, perhaps, to “show off” their part of the Volunteer State. Outlaw-Clark says she hopes the festival “gives the (local) folks…a sense of pride to know that Brownsville was at the forefront of the Country Blues genre and (the early) music scene in general.”
That sense of pride extended to recognition for “Sleepy” John Estes’s former home, next to our spot in the shade, and the other outside museum on the Center’s grounds. On Saturday of the festival, Sleepy John’s home was made an official location along the Tennessee Music Pathways, part of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. Both the Brownsville mayor and the Haywood County mayor were on-hand for the dedication.
Vicki and I gazed at all the shiny cars with large, pristine engines, and aerodynamic bodies. Corvettes of just about every size and shape, and color, and almost every era, were well represented at the Corvette Car Show hosted by the Volunteer Corvette Club of West Tennessee. Corvette enthusiasts from as far away as Wisconsin to the north and Florida to the south made their way to Brownsville.
Hovering around a beautiful cherry red Vette with wing-style doors., I turned and smiled. “Early Father’s Day gift?”
Vicki ignored me and walked on to the next shiny Vette.
Real, Genuine, Authentic Blues
Lucious Spiller tuned up for his set. Red guitar at the ready, he launched into his first number. Spiller, a former International Blues Challenge finalist, who now calls Clarksdale, Mississippi home, is one of those talented performers who can morph his style to almost any genre. His set included blues, rock, soul, and a little country in the form of Johnny Cash.
Honoring the legacy of music pioneers like “Sleepy” John Estes and providing a venue for current blues musicians is what makes the Exit 56 Blues Fest so special. As Sonia Outlaw-Clark summed up, “we believe it’s important to give present day blues artists any opportunity to perform and hone their skills, including sharing their original music. Our festival is not only helping keep the sound and the history alive, but also participating in history-making” itself.
As Saturday’s festivities wound down, we made our way to the parking lot, wandering past the arts and crafts tents and a few remaining classic cars still on display. A nice, relaxing day of good people and great music. I’d say the Exit 56 Blues Fest accomplished its mission.
Real. Genuine. Authentic.
Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.