JACKSON—I am at a breakfast joint, sipping lukewarm coffee, eating scrambled eggs. Seated at the counter beside me is an old man. He asks what I do for a living.

“I’m a writer,” I say.

“Oh yeah? What’s your name?”

I tell him.

He frowns. “Never heard of you.” He scoots closer. “But I’ll buy your breakfast if you listen to my story.”

I’m looking for the exit.

“It won’t take long,” he says. “All you gotta do is listen.”

“Fine,” I say. “But you’d better keep your hands to yourself.”

He tells me that Jackson is famous. For starters, Johnny Cash and June Carter sang about it. Though, nobody seems to agree on which Jackson they were singing about. Some think they were singing about Mississippi. Or it could have been Jackson, Maine. But the old man doubts it.

“It was right here,” says the man. “Johnny Cash sang about our town because Carl Perkins lived here, and Carl invented rock and roll.”

“Invented rock and roll?” I say.

“You dang right.”

Carl Perkins is not a name that today’s generation knows about. He didn’t have his own hashtag, YouTube channel, Twitter account, or any of that “fandangled crap,” as the old man calls it.

“But,” says my new friend, “Carl could sure nuff play a guitar.”

“And he invented rock and roll?” I clarify.

Sort of.

Carl Perkins is the king of rockabilly music, which is rock and roll’s older brother. Or rock and roll’s mother, depending on how far you want to carry this metaphor. Or maybe it was rock and roll’s step cousin.

“It was just country music,” the old man explains. “Country music that you could move your feet to.”

But rockabilly was like nothing anyone had ever heard. It was a mix between blues and country, with a touch of boogie woogie, electric amplifiers, drums, lots of moonshine, and enough Brylcreem to wax the floor at the VFW.

The old man says that Perkins stumbled on this new sound when he started playing hyped-up versions of bluegrass tunes at beer joints. People on the dance floors went ape.

Perkins, who looked like the all-American farm boy, was the poster child for the new music. He wasn’t ultra flashy, his ears were a little big, he had long legs, and he sang with a country lilt.

“He was like you and me,” the old man says. “That’s what made him great.”

The old man went on to say that Carl Perkins was the son of sharecroppers, he grew up poor. He learned gospel music from field workers while sweating alongside them. And on Saturday nights Carl listened to the Grand Ole Opry on a dilapidated battery powered radio.

The old man tells me a few stories about Carl Perkins’s childhood. I get the feeling that he’s told them a few times.

There’s the one about Carl asking his father for a guitar, but times were hard. So his father built a guitar from a cigar box and a broomstick.

The old man laughs. “It doesn’t get any more country than a guitar made from a broomstick.”

And there’s the story of how Carl wrote what would become his first hit. The song was called “Let Me Take You To The Movie, Magg.” The tune became well known with the nightlife crowd in Jackson.

Carl was fourteen when he wrote it.

To give you a little perspective, when I was fourteen, I was still trying to successfully develop armpit hair. But Carl Perkins was changing the face of music history.

It’s hard to imagine young people getting excited about going dancing like they did in the 40s and 50s. Especially when you consider that today’s kids pay big bucks to see some pop star perform in only a thong and two strategically placed bottle caps. But back then, kids just wanted to boogie.

“It was a good time to be young,” the old man says. “The war had just ended, our parents were rebuilding their lives, we all danced.”

In those days, Perkins was working in cotton fields, or in a mattress factory. But his nights belonged to music. He kept writing songs. He played at a joint off Highway 45 with his brother.

Then came Carl’s big hit.

“I think it was in fifty-five or fifty-six,” the old man goes on. “There ain’t a man alive who don’t know the lyrics.”

The song was “Blue Suede Shoes.” Carl wrote it after he’d seen a young couple dancing. A girl accidentally stepped on her partner’s suede shoes. Her partner got mad. Carl noticed the boy was more worried about his shoes than he was about his pretty date.

It was the first million-selling crossover country song in American history. Carl Perkins went from picking cotton to scooting his boots on the Perry Como Show. His new song was getting airplay from Oregon to Miami. And some people claim this was the beginning of rock and roll.

“But,” the old man says, “sad thing is, Carl never made it as big as he should have.”

I ask why.

“Oh, some snot nosed kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, upstaged him.”

The kid was named Elvis. Carl Perkins didn’t stand a chance against Elvis’s good looks and quick moves.

Even so, Carl kept performing, and he kept writing, but ultimately he was overshadowed by the boy from Tupelo. And over time, a lot of people forgot about the town of Jackson.

“I just wish someone would write about Carl,” the man says, “He was a genius, and someone’s gotta remind people about all he did for our music.”

And in this era of pop music that sounds like it was written by lawnmowers with clogged air filters, it just so happens that there’s nothing I’d rather write about. A humble Tennessean who, according to one old man, gave birth to a kind of music that changed the world.

And I’m not just telling you this just because he bought my breakfast.

Though it certainly didn’t hurt.

24 comments

  1. Joyce Bacon - November 4, 2019 10:00 am

    And it’s all true.

    Reply
  2. Kat - November 4, 2019 10:19 am

    💕(the time is 5:15 am as I write this). Just want to say thank you again, Sean, for your amazing ability to take a humble and forgotten story and for bringing it into the light so we can learn something new. We all so look forward to your writing us every morning!💕

    Reply
  3. Elizabeth - November 4, 2019 11:40 am

    Never knew it was Jackson, Tennessee! Fantastic. Another reason to love the volunteer state because it sure isn’t football right now!

    Reply
  4. Elizabeth - November 4, 2019 11:41 am

    I never knew it was Jackson, Tennessee. Another reason to love the volunteer state because it sure isn’t football right now.

    Reply
  5. Jimbo White - November 4, 2019 11:54 am

    The Drive by Truckers have a song titled Carl Perkins’ Cadillac it is about Sun records. Excellent song.

    Reply
  6. Lita - November 4, 2019 12:52 pm

    Love this.

    Reply
  7. Nancy Laird - November 4, 2019 1:19 pm

    Sean, I just happen to have been in West Tennessee, in Tiptonville, where Carl Perkins grew up, two weeks ago. I was born and grew up in Union City, about 20 miles from Tiptonville. His “boyhood home” sits off the highway and there is a very nice explanatory sign near the highway. I have a couple of pictures that you might like to have and you can e-mail me and I’ll send them to you. As soon as you mentioned Carl Perkins in the column, I knew you were talking about Jackson, Tennessee, which is only 60 miles and a lifetime of memories from my childhood home. I was there two weeks ago; now I’m homesick and want to go home again.

    Reply
  8. Marilyn - November 4, 2019 1:31 pm

    After reading your blog this morning, I looked up more about Carl Perkins. His life was very interesting and now I know more about rock and roll/rockabilly than I did. He was very talented and changed the sound of country music forever. Thank you!

    Reply
  9. Ol' Retired Geezer - November 4, 2019 1:34 pm

    Good story, with one hitch: The main reason that Carl Perkins didn’t get much bigger is that, shortly after “Blue Suede Shoes” took off, Carl was in a horrific auto accident. The driver of his car was killed, Carl’s brother Jay was paralyzed, and Carl had a fractured skull and broken arm and spent quite a while in the hospital. If he’d been able to continue touring and promoting his hit, who knows what could have happened? Of course, show biz being what it is, Elvis had also recorded a version, and he was able to tour and promote the song. Yes, Carl got royalties as the writer, but, that has to have been a small bit of consolation. This certainly qualifies as an “If only” story.

    Reply
  10. Gerald - November 4, 2019 1:58 pm

    I always knew it was Jackson, Tennessee.

    Reply
  11. Shelton A. - November 4, 2019 2:58 pm

    I always thought it was a combo of Elvis and Chuck Berry…thanks for the history lesson!

    Reply
  12. Dawn Bratcher - November 4, 2019 3:10 pm

    Very Interesting story, Sean. Thank you for writing it!

    Reply
  13. Bobby - November 4, 2019 3:12 pm

    You should attend a production of the musical “Million Dollar Quartet”. It is about a chance meeting at Sun Records of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.

    Reply
  14. Linda Moon - November 4, 2019 4:19 pm

    Several years ago I heard you, Sean, on Bookmark TV. Some years after that, I accidentally saw and heard you sing and tell stories live and in person after someone else cancelled. That was a happy accident, sort of like giving birth to an unplanned baby. So, here’s my short story (but I can’t buy you breakfast today): My man picked cotton growing up and later in life learned how to scoot boots at Austin’s. He introduced me to the world of Carl Perkins music. That man (mine) and the writer, singer, storyteller I accidentally met (you) will never be upstaged! Next time I’m in Pell City, I’ll take you to the Cracker Barrel for breakfast-at-night and meet Katelin, the PAR-four waitress!

    Reply
  15. Tyson - November 4, 2019 4:25 pm

    Great read! Believe it or not, I just got done playing the role of Carl Perkins in a production of Million Dollar Quartet here in Dothan, Alabama. I knew most of his story already because my family raised me on his (and all the Sun artists’) music plus any guitar player worth his/her salt draws influence from Carl. It was such an amazing experience to get into his skin and see how all of it went down through his eyes.

    Reply
  16. Edna B. - November 4, 2019 4:31 pm

    Wonderful story. Yup, growing up in the forties and fifties was the best age. And Carl Perkins was one of my favorites. I like Elvis too, but country music is my love. You have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  17. JANICE R TAKASHIMA - November 4, 2019 7:13 pm

    As soon as I read Carl Perkins, I thought Blue Suede Shoes and I’m a city girl from Washington State.

    Reply
  18. Carol Luttschwager - November 4, 2019 7:41 pm

    I absolutely love these stories and save every one of them. Keep on writing!

    Reply
  19. Nancy Laird - November 4, 2019 10:41 pm

    So do I, Carol. I have a folder on my computer entitled “Sean of the South” and save every story every day. I’ve thought of printing them out and putting them into a binder so I can reread them at my leisure and leave them to my children. (I don’t do well trying to read on the screen.) They are priceless!

    Reply
  20. Nancy Laird - November 4, 2019 10:45 pm

    Sean and Ol’ Retired Geezer, the story about the auto accident is true. And Carl and the others were on the way to New York to appear on Perry Como’s show. When they didn’t make it, the word got out that Carl and his crew weren’t reliable, even though he had been badly injured in the accident.

    Reply
  21. Pingback: The Jackson Press – Jackson

  22. Jeanne Butler - November 5, 2019 1:44 pm

    My husband lived Carl Perkins. That man could play a mean guitar

    Reply
  23. Julia Coplin Cook - November 6, 2019 4:52 pm

    How timely, as I read this blog post the morning I was visiting my hometown of Jackson, TN (from Birmingham). Special story, just as the ones I grew up hearing. I grew up with the next generation, lots of Carl’s nieces and nephews!

    Reply
  24. Brett Campbell - November 7, 2019 12:16 am

    I spent my childhood less than an hour’s drive from Jackson, TN. My family would go there often. I remember my dad driving slowly past Carl Perkins’ house and Mom telling us the real king of rock-n-roll lived there. I knew who Carl Perkins was since I was a boy. Another great column, Sean!

    Reply

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