Can Music Be What Defines Shreveport?
*This column appeared in the Shreveport Times Sun. Jan 12, 2020
By Liz Swaine
Each year, visitors by the thousands trek to the Chaffee Crossing neighborhood in Fort Smith, Ark., to see the small building where Elvis Presley got his first Army haircut in 1958. Elvis is so popular there that Fort Smith also hosts a yearly Elvis Haircut Day that attracts people from around the world who can get their hair buzzcut just like the King’s. Do you know what is amazing about this?
Elvis spent just three days at Fort Chaffee prior to being transferred to Fort Hood, Tex. Compare Fort Chaffee to Shreveport, where Elvis spent every Saturday for more than a year in 1954 and 1955. He performed at the Louisiana Hayride, held several odd jobs here, slept here, ate here, did a radio jingle- his only one ever- for Southern Maid donuts here, shopped here, had friends here, likely kissed a few girls here.
The Elvis Haircut Historic Site in Fort Smith, the museum created because of a single haircut, is called by Roadside America a “bucket-list pilgrimage site for all fans of The King,” and fans have been making that pilgrimage now since 2008. Municipal Auditorium, where Elvis performed multiple times, is mentioned by Roadside America only in the context that it is the location of an Elvis statue. Something is seriously screwy. Shreveport should be the Mecca of music history.
Bear with me for a minute on this. The need for new businesses or business expansion is a common local concern; everyone seems to be talking about it. That’s good; we should be. We need businesses and the jobs that come with them; jobs that encourage people to stay in Shreveport or to move here. We need the people, the infusion of dollars, the boost to our collective self-esteem. We all know that there are businesses and projects that will come to Shreveport if given a huge infusion of taxpayer dollars; but our experience with them has been almost universally bad. Once the incentives tap out, they are gone, leaving vacant buildings and unfulfilled promises. What if we could develop something that is uniquely Shreveport, something that sets us apart, that can’t be taken away from us by someone else dangling more incentives or a larger tax credit? What if it could be done quickly, inexpensively and will stay here because it is physically tied to Shreveport?
A smart man named Winston Hall has been begging people to listen to him about this. I did one day because it would have been rude to walk away. The more I listened, the more I understood and the more convinced I became that Hall and several others like him are onto something big…something that has been staring us in the face for years. Hall came to Shreveport in 2007 to work in the movie industry but stayed behind when it left and became a full-time musician. He had some peripheral knowledge that Shreveport had been home to the famous Louisiana Hayride radio show, and the dozens of musicians who had come through here to perform on it, and over time learned more about local musical history that he could only describe as ‘amazing.’ Hall was familiar that Chaffee Crossing had built an entire tourism industry on a single haircut and wondered why a place that could claim Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter, James Burton, Elvis, KWKH Radio (home of the Hayride), Hank Williams, Johnny Horton, Jimmie Davis, Stan Lewis, Van Cliburn, Webb Pierce, Slim Whitman, Kitty Wells, Joe Osborn, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and more recently Kix Brooks and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, had no place to go for a tour, a t-shirt, a souvenir, or any sort of musical experience. Winston recently travelled to Branson, Mo., a town that has become a destination for musical shows, a town that has zero connection to Elvis Presley, and saw entire Elvis sections in stores. “Music is a pipeline for money.” Winston told me recently. Graceland, Elvis’ Memphis, Tenn., home, has 500,000 visitors each year, has an economic impact to Memphis of $150m per year, and has recently launched a $75m expansion. “Tens of thousands of international visitors plan entire trips to go to Graceland. They spend thousands of dollars to fly to Memphis to spend thousands of dollars while in Memphis. They sleep, eat, shop, pay for experiences. I hate to use the term, but it has a trickle effect.” Says Hall. “They should be coming here, too.” What does Shreveport do to attract this money? Not much at present. The Municipal Auditorium offers sporadic tours, which Hall occasionally leads. “I once gave a tour to a busload of European visitors who stayed in Shreveport for one hour, then loaded back on the bus and left because there was nothing else for them to see or do. They didn’t eat, didn’t shop.” We can’t allow that to keep happening.
We’re talking about OUR history, it’s part of who and what we are. No one can take away the many musicians who have worked and lived in our area, the countless locations that they performed in, lived at, ate at, worked in, places in which they are buried. We have much more going for us than a barber chair, we just need to collect, polish and present it.
I’m not a shill for tourism. What I am is peeved that we’re missing the boat on additional jobs, opportunities and wealth. We need to find the money to pay a person to run our Office of Blue Suede Shoes Development or whatever we want to call it. This person will be the torch bearer and will pull all the pieces together. He will collect and centralize information, work to get signage on the Interstates, create guides to physical locations, have a place that people can call for information. He will be responsible for contacting businesses to encourage them to carry items that musical tourists would buy, will share with businesses the ways they can participate to make more money, will coordinate tours and events, and will reach out to tour operators in the U.S and abroad about all that we will (then) have to offer. He will seek out entrepreneurs to encourage them to open retail venues, handle social media and marketing, and coordinate with the convention and tourist bureau, local cities, DDA and other entities and organizations. I nominate Winston Hall for this. “The first thing I would do,” Winston told me, “would be to contact the three dozen tour operators operating in New Orleans and let them know we’re ready for their music visitors. I want to open the money spigot.” “When people think of St. Louis, they think of the arch. When you say ‘Memphis’, it’s blues, BBQ or Graceland. The name Shreveport conjures no mental image. That’s what we need to change.”