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.
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.