Brownsville’s live music scene keeps Haywood County’s sonic heritage alive

In Brownsville, families gather around the stage for a summer full of music with a nod to the past.

The smell of sizzling tortillas and the reverberation of drum snares echo across Brownsville’s historic court square. It’s a Thursday night in June, and this small town’s outsized impact on modern music is rumbling back to life. On stage at The Brownsville Amp—a modern amphitheater built in 2017 on the site of a former vacant lot, Chad Karnes & The Missing Fifth are warming up as families gather around on a lush, green lawn.

Karnes and company are a part of Live on the Lawn, a free summer concert series presented by the Brownsville-Haywood County Arts Council, that has this small Tennessee town bustling on a weeknight. With school out of session, a row of food trucks and live music on tap, a strong following have turned out to enjoy sunset over the square as Karnes blends classics like Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” with alt-rock hits like “Teenage Dirtbag” from Wheatus.

Tonight, Brownsville feels alive. Children play tag in the cordoned-off street. Adults sing along to songs from their childhoods. On the lawn, fans pop the top on local IPAs from nearby breweries in Jackson and Memphis as Karnes works the crowd. It’s a welcome sight in rural America. And for Brownsville, the scene on court square is a throwback to days gone by when movie theaters and soda fountains populated the storefronts and the city was a regular stop for musicians on the road.

Just steps from The Amp, Blues pioneer Sleepy John Estes laid down the crying wails of what would ultimately become the electric Blues in the 1920s and 30s. In the 50s, Jerry Lee Lewis rolled through the square, fresh off a hit record in Memphis. Around that same time, a young Anna Mae Bullock would pass through on her way to school, before stunning the world behind a new stage name: Tina Turner.

In the 1970s, country sensation Tanya Tucker recorded a Top 10 hit, “Delta Dawn,” singing about a girl from Brownsville and written by local composer/singer/actor Alex Harvey, who channeled a composite of local people he knew in his childhood. In the 90s, hometown rockstar Brett Scallions scored his own Top 10 hit at the helm of the band Fuel.

All that music history has made Brownsville a regular stop for music fans making their way from Nashville to Memphis. And it’s a legacy that lives on in the small town’s thriving music scene. “There are not a lot of towns the size of Brownsville that are putting on music like this,” says Bryan Hayes, a music producer and Brownsville native who now runs Farmhouse Studio, one of the region’s premiere recording spaces for Americana artists. “I have to hand it to Haywood County because the sound crews they use and the production quality they have are top-notch.”

Hayes knows quality music. When he’s not behind a mixer, the highly-regarded producer can be found touring the country in front of his own band, Bryan Hayes & The Retrievers. In more than two decades on the road, he’s traveled the United States from coast to coast along bustling interstate highways and desolate, dusty mountain roads. But now and then, he makes time to come back for Live on the Lawn—sometimes behind the microphone and sometimes as a fan.

“There is always something special about coming back to Brownsville,” adds Hayes. “I have gotten to play Live on the Lawn at The Amp and at College Hill, and it’s fantastic. Your family and friends are out there. The kids can run around on the grass. Everyone feels safe, and everybody comes out to have a good time.”

Hayes’s studio regularly hosts singer-songwriters from across the Southeast who run a regular route from stops like The Bluebird in Nashville to Lafayette’s Music Room in Memphis. Along the way, he says, most of those musicians make time to stop in his hometown to walk in the footsteps of Estes and Turner. At the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, visitors can stroll through the tiny, wooden shack that served as the Blues legend’s real-life home; and they can take a seat at a wooden desk inside Tina Turner’s real-life schoolhouse.

Hayes says those tangible connections make all the difference in keeping Haywood County’s music legacy alive. “Brownsville has always put its music heritage out there. It’s something the people can be extremely proud of.”

The Amp is just one of several venues Haywood County uses to showcase live music each year. The lawn of College Hill—a former 19th-century female college that once served as a county high school and now serves as the home of a cultural history museum—also hosts live shows under the shade of 200-year-old oak trees. Meanwhile, the Exit 56 Blues Festival takes place annually at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, just steps from the buildings that helped birth some of modern music’s most transformational artists.

“All the musicians that I pal around with down in Memphis stop in out there,” adds Hayes. “The folks traveling from Nashville to Austin want to stop at Sleepy John’s house. They want to walk in Tina Turner’s schoolhouse. It is a big deal.”

Back at The Amp, Karnes lays into the opening riffs of 90s hit “Good” by Better Than Ezra. As a trio of elementary school children dance beneath the stage in the fading sunlight, the scene is almost exactly as Hayes remembered. On any given weekend in the summer, the crowds return to feel the bass drum, cry with the guitar and sing along with whatever front man is passing through this crossroads of history that night. It’s a story that has repeated itself for decades, perhaps best recorded by the actions of Sleepy John Estes himself.

“There’s a map in his house,” tells Hayes. “Here’s this guy from Haywood County that went all over the world singing the Blues, and he always came back home to Brownsville.”