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  • Discovering Carl
  • Shawn Pitts (bio)

I like to imagine what it might have been like for Carl Perkins that day: the drive, the anticipation, the performance—all of it.

U.S. Route 45 meandered in a lazy series of curves out of Jackson, Tennessee, a slick black ribbon of two-lane highway that took a hard right turn near the county line, plunging, as if with sudden purpose, toward the Mississippi state line. West Tennessee was experiencing an unseasonably warm and wet winter that year. Christmas of 1950 had come and gone, giving way to a drizzly New Year's Day. At 50 degrees, it must have felt more like April than January.

Scattered along the roadside at odd intervals were the honky-tonks where working-class country boys and farmhands blew off steam by drinking and dancing with their girls, and throwing punches and beer bottles at each other before staggering home to sleep it off. Many of these were familiar haunts for the kid behind the wheel, none more so than the infamous Cotton Boll Club which derived its name from the rural environs. The dangerous backwoods bar sat just a few feet back from the asphalt shoulder, a brittle brown stubble—all that remained of last season's cotton crop—crowded right up to the back door. He would have recognized a rust bucket car or two out front as he hurried by.

Around Henderson, Tennessee, he might have been thinking about country music superstar Eddy Arnold, whose unparalleled success as a crossover artist had set the bar pretty high for the rest of the region's aspiring entertainers. This was Arnold's old stomping grounds, and though he wore it with a certain amount of hometown pride, his baritone crooning and smooth delivery belied the hillbilly label as well as his nickname, the Tennessee Plowboy. If Bing Crosby had been the son of a Chester County, Tennessee sharecropper, the result would have been much the same. But it was hard to argue with success and, for at least the last five or six years, Arnold had been one of the biggest names in country music, churning out one hit after another and broadening country music's growing fandom with his clean-cut image and sound. Even so, the more raucous hillbilly blues preferred by the patrons of the Cotton Boll owed more to Hank Williams than Eddy Arnold.

Nothing much would have been stirring in the sleepy little hamlet, Bethel Springs, as Perkins passed through. The bustling McNairy County seat, five miles farther south, was another story. He would have slowed down to observe the posted speed limit signs approaching the courthouse in Selmer. Entering the square, it's likely he shot a quick glance left to see if anything was happening at the Latta Ford Motor Company. He had been there often. The owner, Earl Latta, [End Page 89] staged one of the best music jams for miles around right there in the spacious garage of his Ford dealership. A good picker could just show up on a Saturday night and count on playing with some of the best musicians anywhere, always in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd. The kid had learned a good lick or two from some of those old timers and made the acquaintance of more than a few interesting characters.1

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The music was alive and well long before there was a Sun Records or a national appetite for rock 'n' roll. Rock 'n' roll was alive in the blues. It was alive in country. It was alive in men like Carl Perkins who didn't care much about making such distinctions.

Photo of Carl Perkins by Michael Ochs, ca. 1957, courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images.

South of town, the road rose slightly and flattened out, running straight on into Eastview, Tennessee, near the Mississippi state line, the young guitarist's final destination. As he approached, he might have tried to recall who first put the idea in his head. Arnold English was a likely suspect. English was one of the best young [End Page 90] fiddle players in McNairy...


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