Finding the King of Rockabilly

By Mike Steely

Unless you’re older than 60 you probably don’t know who Carl Perkins was. The early country-rock artist died in 1998 and was an inspiration to many people including Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Everly Brothers and many, many rock and roll artists.

You probably know of Elvis’ “Blue Suede Shoes” but you probably don’t know that the song was written by Carl Perkins, who is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,  the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was also selected to the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Carl Perkins was born just about as far west as you can go in Tennessee. His childhood home is in Tiptonville, on the northwestern corner of our state.  Tiptonville is about a six-hour drive from Knoxville and his childhood home is an unexpected treat for anyone visiting nearby Reelfoot Lake State Park.

Perkins was the son of poor sharecroppers Buck and Louise Perkins.  He worked in the cotton fields as a child and grew up listening to gospel being sung in the fields and at church. The Grand Ole Opry Saturday radio shows inspired him to ask his parents for a guitar. As they could not afford one, his father made one from a cigar box and a broomstick.

In 1947 the Perkins family moved to Madison County where Carl became familiar with the Memphis sound. At fourteen he wrote a song that caught the ear of Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records. The rest is history. Perkin’s songs like “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Everybody‘s Trying to be My Baby,” and many more tunes became classics. He wrote songs for various artists, toured England, and continued to write and record.

Tiptonville is a small community, the county seat of Lake County, with a population of about 4,500.  The long drive you take there might be broken into two parts with an overnight stay or camping along the way or doing an overnight in the Reelfoot Park.

Reelfoot Lake State Park has camping, cabins, a recreation area and many more interesting points of interest. Reelfoot was formed by the New Madrid earthquakes in 1811-1812 which is said to be the largest series of earthquakes in United States history. The quake rerouted the Mississippi River in the area and created the Kentucky Bend, a knob of land inside that state but accessed only through Tennessee.

Heading from Knoxville the easiest way to get to Tiptonville is to take Interstate 40 to Highway 412 North in Jackson through Dyersburg and then head north on Highway 78. The Carl Perkins home is located just to the south of Tiptonville and will be on your right.

 

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