The Art of the Unseen River

Haywood County has become the envy of the country with the commitment of Ford Motor Company and the rise of BlueOval City, the single largest vehicle manufacturing facility in the United States. Quite literally, it’s the talk of the town. The focus on BlueOval is understandable but the true richness of the county lies in the creative talent that is born from the soil and water… and floats around in the soft breezes of this sleepy little West Tennessee city. The Hatchie River is well known as a pristine waterway, but there is an unseen river of talent that flows through the artistic tributaries of Haywood County.

When one looks at the depth of creativity that has come from its boundaries, you begin to wonder what makes this county, in the heart of the Tennessee Delta, such a rich environment for the arts? No one can really put their finger on it but, you might say, “Creativity breeds more creativity,” especially when those talented individuals share their love and expertise with others who show a willingness and desire to “dabble” in the arts.

From world famous to locally famous, Haywood County has produced writers, musicians, singers, songwriters, fine/graphic artists, sculptors, photographers, crafters, etc. They spring from a well that shows no sign of going dry.

Take the adventurer, Richard Haliburton, who was an American travel writer, journalist and lecturer. He is probably best known today for swimming the length of the Panama Canal, but he authored several books on his travel adventures throughout the world. His first book, The Royal Road to Romance (1925), became a bestseller.

I learned so many lessons from my parents in those early years that still serve me today. They instilled in us an understanding of the value of an education, and I’ve been committed ever since to lifelong learning. They taught us not to allow our circumstances to limit our vision of the future.

That was a radical idea for black families in the South. We weren’t that far removed from the long, dark shadow of Jim Crow. The Civil Rights movement was still in its early days. The idea that we ought to dream big and even chase those dreams, despite our start, is something my parents gave us as children, and I’ll be forever grateful that they did.

They taught us the importance of hard work and accountability, that you can’t make excuses, to boldly face life’s challenges, to prepare ourselves for the future we want, and then to go out and achieve it.

Armed with faith and the lessons our parents taught us, I enrolled in the University of Memphis. It took me five and a half years to finish because I couldn’t always attend classes full-time. Working to pay for college made me appreciate the education I was getting. Through my toughest days as a student, I was motivated by the fact that I wanted to make my parents proud and not disappoint them.

Still, earning that degree didn’t put me on some fast track to the corporate C-suite. When I was working my way through school, I spent time as a janitor, truck driver, warehouse operator and a convenience store clerk working the graveyard shift. It was a step up in the world when I landed a job as a part-time security guard at Target, making $4.35 an hour. That was the real start of my career in retail, and it’s been a long and winding road from there to here.

"There is an unseen river of talent that flows through the artistic tributaries of Haywood County"

When his father advised him to get the wanderlust out of his system and adjust his life to “an even tenor,” Haliburton strongly responded with, “I hate that expression, and as far as I am able, I intend to avoid that condition. When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means in making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible. And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills – any emotion that any human ever had – and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed.”

Contrast Haliburton with Taylor Wilson, whose outdoor tales evoke as much humor as they do the love of all things wild. Wilson is well known for bringing light to sometimes dreary subjects but in a way that makes you truly think about what he’s saying. His most recent writing chronicles letters and texts to his son who, on the rise to a stellar baseball career, was involved in a tragic accident but fought his way back to the diamond when most would have given up. Wilson’s love of baseball is evident in the title Glove Letters: A Father Recalls His Son’s Greatest Game.

Then we have the Blues legend John Estes, better known as Sleepy John Estes, whose traditional country Blues brought him international acclaim and inspired countless musicians and singers throughout the world. He often played with another pair of well-known musicians – Hammie Nixon (harp) and Yank Rachell (mandolin). J. D. Taylor, local favorite and nationally recognized harmonica player, probably summed it up best saying, “After picking up the harmonica in 1993 and falling in love with the instrument, I started my quest of studying the Blues genre. I realized shortly afterwards that I had grown up in a town full of history and Blues. When I discovered the music and legacy of Sleepy John Estes and his sideman Hammie Nixon playing harmonica, it opened a whole new world to me in the way I played harmonica. Sleepy John has his own style and so did Hammie. In 1997, Steve Patterson and I recorded an album in honor of Sleepy John and Hammie titled Brownsville Blues Revisited. It was our best effort to honor their style by not only covering some of their songs, but also creating new music in the style of Sleepy John. I am forever grateful for his music and the claim that we both grew up in the small Southern cotton town of Brownsville, Tennessee, that paved the way of the Blues of Sleepy John Estes.”

And everyone should recognize the name Nutbush and the community that sprang Tina Turner onto the world scene. The rhythm and blues, rock ‘n roll queen came from humble beginnings and rose to prominence as the lead singer for the Ike and Tina Turner Review. From there she launched a solo career producing multi-platinum albums and winning 12 Grammy Awards. Her history is housed at the world’s only Tina Turner Museum, located at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Museum at I-40 and Exit 56 in Brownsville. Inside the Flagg Grove School building (Tina’s childhood school) you’ll find a collection of her memorabilia including movie costumes, gold records and even her high school yearbook.

In the world of alternative rock, we have lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist from the band Fuel, Brett Scallions. The band scored a double platinum album during his tenure. Scallions has also been ranked in the Top 100 Heavy Metal Vocalists by Hit Parade (#50).

Singer/songwriter Alex Harvey really put Brownsville on the map with the song Delta Dawn. His songs were recorded by several top artists including Kenny Rogers, Helen Reddy, Bette Midler and a list of others. Harvey was also an accomplished actor, winning roles in movies and television series.

Music seems to be the strength of creativity in the county, but it doesn’t stop there. There are many accomplished fine artists as well. Jan Mayer’s watercolor paintings can be found in many homes in the area. She was best known for depictions of historic homes and landmarks. Helene Veirs’ paintings covered the charm of the South, including large wall paintings that can be seen at the Brownsville Press office.

Another artist making his way onto the Brownsville scene is John Jarrett. His elementary approach to everyday life and people, including nods to the past and simple country life, make him an artist to watch.

Artist and sculptor Roy Hawkins, Jr., promotes Brownsville in a DNA strand sculpture. Hawkins says, “We, the Brownsville community, each have a ‘link’ to our town that has inspired us to live here, and/or influenced us to remain here, and/or motivated us to return here. Regardless of our race, background, etc., individually “we” each comprise the DNA of the City of Brownsville. This sculpture will give visitors insight on the Brownsville community and encourage them to want to join with us.”

"Newcomers can anticipate crossing paths with talented and approachable artists and patrons."

As sculptures go, there is only one that really stands tall in the city…Billy Tripp’s ever-evolving Mindfield. The towering marvel is a metal expression of Tripp’s thoughts, dreams, joys, heartaches and ongoing conversations with himself. It is a sought-after destination for journalists, photographers and tourists eager to delve into the tangled web of the sculptor’s mind (see the in-depth story on page X).

Today’s digital technology makes us all “photographers” to some degree or another. But for Joe Guinn, “old school” is the only school. Guinn is most famously known for photographing the Hatchie River in all its scenic glory for decades. One might go so far to say he is…and has been, the “official photographer” of the Hatchie. Willing to get off the beaten path for the best nature shots, he has amassed thousands of images of wildlife, floral and river scenes. He does acknowledge the convenience and quality of digital photography but says it still does not compare to the higher resolution and ability to capture subtle details that conventional film offers.

And that, as they say, is just the tip of the iceberg, a small sampling of the creative talent that has come from Haywood County and continues to flourish. There are many others not mentioned who work to ensure the flow of talent continues. Newcomers can anticipate crossing paths with these talented and approachable artists and patrons.

It seems it is the challenging nature of the creative mind to seek that which has not been seen or heard or written about and to forge the path that brings it to life for others to see and hear and feel. With the Hatchie River serving as an inspiration to non-conformity, it’s little wonder that the artists from Haywood County go with the flow of its muddy waters.

We bring art and form, music and song, and so much more. Color us rebels of the unseen river.