Americana Music Triangle
Tony Scarlati

Every afternoon at 12:15 p.m., "Sunshine" Sonny Payne signs onto his legendary radio show, King Biscuit Time, the same way he has since 1951. Listeners around the world tune in to hear the legendary blues sounds that originate from the Delta Cultural Center on KFFA-AM in Helena, Arkansas.

Instead of asking about the artists Rick Hall has worked with in Muscle Shoals, you might be better served to ask him who he hasn't spent time with in a studio. He has helped to steer the sound of artists such as Mac Davis, Aretha Franklin and Clarence Carter.

Fans of the legendary Tina Turner might be surprised to know "Nutbush City Limits" is very much a real place -- although the building the future R&B queen went to school in is now located in nearby Brownsville, Tennessee -- as part of a Tina Turner Museum.

Those historic places and people -- as well as areas that played pivotal roles in the lives and careers of such artists as Elvis Presley, Robert Johnson, Conway Twitty and Patsy Cline -- are a part of the Americana Music Triangle, a multi-state initiative that is designed to bring people from around the world to discover the history of so many musical genres.

Elvis Presley's Billboard Chart Records

Last week, members of the initiative toured the entire area, going from Franklin, Tennessee, all the way down to Lafayette, Louisiana, and back up through the Delta before wrapping up in Middle Tennessee. According to Aubrey Preston, the founder of the Triangle, the trip has been an educational experience -- especially for him.

"The more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn. It's kind of a never ending story. I think that's why it's so exciting. You can take the Triangle the whole 1,500 miles, start over, and you would have a totally different experience. We've been talking in these cities and towns, and everyone has been very enthusiastic. Everywhere we stop, someone will come up and give me another piece of history I didn't know."

The Americana Music Triangle is designed to not only tell the stories of artists ranging from Muddy Waters to Tammy Wynette, but also to allow the various cities along the 1,500 miles of the Triangle a chance to work together -- to make it a sought-after tourist destination. After all, Preston told Billboard that nothing unites people of all cultures like music.

"We're talking about making an impact on some real issues -- politics, economic development for areas that are out of answers and desperate for them. It's fun to be a part of something that is really a win-win. We're also creating a platform for education. There's no platform that takes American music history and simplifies it like this. We've been having some really good conversations with the Berklee College of Music and their faculty. They come to the Triangle regularly. We hosted them at Studio A this year, and they've been coming to the Delta, and it's becoming more and more a part of music education."

Preston -- who was the integral piece of the puzzle in keeping Nashville's Studio A alive -- says it's been rewarding for him to see how each town on the Triangle is eager to do their part. "The areas along the Mississippi have had a tremendous era of boom or bust. There's been a history of high highs or low lows. When people have that many years of bad times, they tend to lose their hope. When you've had that many years of a downturn, I think it's hard on a region. We're seeing music renew the spirit in a lot of these areas where they have lost their factories and so many other things. There's a real glimmer of light with international tourism. It will take a while to build up to be a substantial economic factor, but it is making a big difference," he says.

Government leaders were all along the route with Tennessee's chief executive, Bill Haslam, and his Mississippi counterpart, Phil Bryant, attending the stops in their state. Bryant said during a stop in Tupelo that music has long been a source of inspiration in his state. "Back in the 1960s, there wasn't a lot for Mississippi to be proud of. But we had Elvis Presley. He was born here and was one of ours. It's that reflection on what an impact he still has almost 40 years after his death. On and on it goes -- Marty Stuart, Tammy Wynette, Dorothy Moore -- what a great blues singer she is. We look at this as just a beginning. Every home in Mississippi probably has a guitar or a piano in it. Somebody in there is singing -- either at the church on Sunday morning or the honky tonk on Saturday night. It's part of our DNA. It's a part of our way of life."

Events throughout the region will be promoted on the Triangle's website, AmericanaMusicTriangle.com, which Preston said is a useful tool to make potential tourists aware of the rich musical legacy. "We believe the market can be so much bigger if we can present the music in a way that is intuitive and makes for easy access to people who just love music. You have to make things accessible at a reasonable level to get people interested, and we're very confident that if we can get people to give this area a chance, they won't stop for the rest of their lives."

Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association, applauded Preston and the organization for uniting not only so many towns in the Triangle, but also music forms along the way. "I think the thing that has messed up the music business -- especially in the past decade -- is that we have tried to subdivide it into 99 different categories," Hilly said. "The truth is, that's not how people listen to music. They love it -- not because it's country or pop, electronic or rock, they love it because it touches their soul."

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