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The Role of Rockabilly in Northeast Arkansas
by Cody Moore, photography by Kayla Broadway

Arkansas State University Museum’s latest exhibit, “Rockabilly! The Northeast Arkansas Story,” highlights the rockabilly genre, as well as the Northeast Arkansas artists who helped make it what it is today.

Known as one of the earliest forms of rock ’n’ roll, the rockabilly genre first made its way onto the musical scene in the early 1950s. The unique genre blends the many sounds found in blues, rhythm and blues, country, honky-tonk and western swing.

“Rockabilly has a vibrancy that has stood the test of time,” said Dr. Marti Allen, director of ASU Museum. “After it fell out of vogue in American mainstream music, it went on to influence The Beatles, launch a European rockabilly revival and make a spectacular new century comeback in America in the 2000s.”

The “Rockabilly! The Northeast Arkansas Story” exhibit, which the museum anticipates will be open to the public for the next five to 10 years, is something that Allen believes will benefit both ASU Museum and Northeast Arkansas.

“This specific exhibit will connect Northeast Arkansans with significant but little-known aspects of their history,” said Allen. “The project also addresses needs of colleague institutions and agencies in the state who serve heritage tourists.

“Growing numbers of national and international tourists seek physical heritage and music destinations in the mid-South, but end their travel in Memphis because they are unaware of the exquisite history in nearby Northeast Arkansas.”

ASU Museum began its funding for this exhibit in 2013 by hosting a Rockabilly Boogiefest concert with Newport native and popular rockabilly artist Sonny Burgess as the headline performer. Due to its popularity, the concert was held again in 2014. Burgess died in 2017.

“These concerts were held specifically to raise money for a rockabilly exhibit,” said Allen. “In addition, the museum saved annual dues from its membership program and donations from the donation box on our premises and used funds from the bequest of museum member Alma Stroud. Some individuals also contributed through the online donation portal on our web page. Finally, A-State gave us generous support during the construction and installation phases.”

The exhibit not only enables the community to learn more about rockabilly music, but to also learn about the many Northeast Arkansas artists affiliated with the genre.

“An incredible number of rockabilly musicians grew up in Northeast Arkansas,” said Allen. “The biggest rockabilly stars like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty, Sleepy LaBeef and Ronnie Hawkins all played live in the clubs of Northeast Arkansas. Musical gigs and gags meeting with applause made the cut for future venues. In this way, the rural populations of Northeast Arkansas played a major role in the shaping and spread of rockabilly music.”

Legendary rockabilly artists from the area featured in the exhibit include Sonny Burgess, Little Herbie Mays, Larry Donn Gillihan, Bobby Lee Trammell, Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Deckelman and Slim Rhodes, among many others.

The rockabilly exhibit features several informative installations on the local artists, as well as an array of fun and interactive elements.
“Visitors will get to know the Northeast Arkansas rockabillies from their descriptive bios, hear examples of their rockabilly hits and see artifacts donated to the museum from local rockabilly celebrities,” said Allen.

The late Joe Lee, who started Alley Records Label in Downtown Jonesboro in the 1960s, is also recognized in the exhibit. Several of Lee’s handmade recording instruments, such as his transistor-based soundboard, can be viewed up-close.

For guests who may not know exactly what rockabilly is, Allen suggests that they begin their journey in the interactive section of the exhibit, where they can dissect the rockabilly genre step-by-step.

“Children and adults can enjoy lingering at the listening stations, where they can learn how to distinguish rockabilly from other genres of music and decide for themselves why rockabilly still finds fans all over the world,” said Allen.

After visiting the exhibit, Allen wants guests to walk away with more knowledge, a potential love for the rockabilly genre and an appreciation for the fact that this unique genre of music grew up right here in Northeast Arkansas.

“This exhibit is about us, for us and by us,” said Allen. “It was custom designed and built for ASU Museum. It will not travel anywhere, and you can only see it here.”

Experience the “Rockabilly! The Northeast Arkansas Story” exhibit by visiting ASU Museum, located at 320 University Loop West on Arkansas State University’s campus. ASU Museum is open Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Wednesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For questions concerning the exhibit, contact the ASU Museum at (870) 972-2074 or email museum@astate.edu.