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Rockabilly Exhibition (pending funding)

Arkansas State University Museum plans to mount a long-term exhibition on the 1950s music genre known as "Rockabilly," an early form of Rock 'n' Roll first widely associated with Elvis Presley ("That's Alright"). This distinctive style of music merged elements of Blues, Rhythm & Blues (R&B), Country/Hillbilly, Western Swing, Bluegrass, and other pre-existing genres of roots music. Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Conway Twitty, and Roy Orbison are among the most widely known Rockabilly stars who performed live to audiences in Northeast Arkansas. What is not commonly known, is that an extraordinary number of musicians who were born and raised in Northeast Arkansas affiliated with this genre, including Sonny Burgess, Billy Lee Riley, Larry Donn Gillihan, Sonny Deckelman, Jerry Jaye, Skeets MacDonald, Slim Rhodes, Bobby Lee Trammel, and many others. Many Rockabilly musicians aired their works on Arkansas radio and performed live in dozens of roadside clubs in small towns and along US67--now designated the "Rock 'n' Roll Highway" (Arkansas Act 4997, 2009). Yet, the clubs and hole-in-the-wall juke joints where the story of Rockabilly unfolded no longer exist, making it hard for Arkansans to tell their story. ASU Museum's exhibition will provide a tangible stopping place that fills in the missing history, lauds our regional stars, and highlights the role of Northeast Arkansas in the rise and spread of this highly popular music.

Significantly, the Museum's take on Rockabilly goes beyond this celebratory narrative by placing Northeast Arkansas within the broader context of post-World War II American history. Entitled Rockabilly! Musical Lens on the 1950s, the exhibition will foster public understanding of major, enduring social issues that originated during the momentous 1950s and are still relevant today. Many Americans visualize an idyllic 1950s era, as in the TV series "Happy Days." Rockabilly music reflects a different story. The Rockabilly story of NE Arkansas provides a lens through which people can more intimately relate to major transformations that were underway in rural America during the 1950s--disruptions of agrarian life by industrial forces, the relaxing of racial divisions, threats to religious leaders' conceptions of morality, and the emergence of the modern teenager as a political and economic force. Rockabilly both reflects and causes us to reflect upon subjects that are relevant to current conditions of national life, such as race relations, gender inequality, the generation gap, and sexuality. The music itself--irreverent, provocative, and in your face--is imprinted with latent sentiments of social discontent and intergenerational friction that came to term in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement, sexual revolution, and the emergence of the "Me Generation."

Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Museum has made great strides in planning this exhibition. Here is the A-State news release about the NEH Grant award. The result of that NEH grant, which concluded on June 30, 2017, are conceptual drawings, schematics and elevations of each exhibit component, a refined content narrative, and other critical documents. With these plans in hand for the exhibition, ASU Museum is now actively seeking the major funding that will be needed to produce and mount Rockabilly! Musical Lens on the 1950s. 

To contribute to the Rockabilly Exhibition project, follow the instructions to the left of this article.

Have Rockabilly memorabilia? Consider making a tax-deductible donation of your Rockabilly artifacts by contacting us via museum@astate.edu

THE PASSING OF ROCKABILLY LEGEND SONNY BURGESS

While in the midst of planning its Rockabilly exhibition, ASU Museum mourns the passing of one of Northeast Arkansas' greatest Rockabilly legends, Newport native Sonny Burgess. Here is the A-State news release that tells more about Burgess and his special connection to Arkansas State University:

Campus Community Mourns Death of Honorary Doctor Sonny Burgess

FB NEH Grant