Tina Turner Museum Opens In West Tennessee

Ribbon Cutting Tina Turner-Flagg Grove School Dedication. Photo: Mary Bufwack.

Ribbon cutting at The Tina Turner Museum. Photo: Mary Bufwack

Tennessee staked another claim as America’s premier music state with the dedication of The Tina Turner Museum on Friday, September 26.

“Tennessee is the global music destination of choice,” said Susan Whitaker at the opening ceremony. She is the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development. The new museum is located on the campus of the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, TN.

“Brownsville has a connection to the whole world through our homtown girl, Annie Mae Bullock,” said Mayor Bill Rawls. Tina Turner was raised as Anna Mae Bullock in the rural community of Nutbush, TN, which is 10 miles northwest of Brownsville on Route 19. The road was renamed “Tina Turner Highway” in 2002.

She immortalized her hometown in her self-penned 1973 hit “Nutbush City Limits.” The song’s lyric begins, “A church house, gin house/A schoolhouse, outhouse/On Highway Number 19/The people keep the city clean/They call it Nutbush.”

The church is still there, historic Woodlawn Baptist. So is the “gin house,” Nutbush’s cotton gin. The “schoolhouse” now houses the Tina Turner Museum.

Flagg Grove Schoolhouse and Tina Turner Museum. Photo: WTDHC.

Flagg Grove School, which is now The Tina Turner Museum. Photo: WTDHC

Founded by Turner’s great uncle, it served as an African-American school between 1889 and 1966. The Flagg Grove School was used as a barn by Joe Stephens until he donated the historic structure to Brownsville in 2012. A rare surviving example of an African-American grade school, the building was relocated to the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center’s grounds and restored. Tina Turner then donated the items for the museum it has become.

“I am with you in spirit,” said the superstar via video from her home in Switzerland. “A very special good morning to you there…I’d like to ask everyone for a round of applause for everyone involved.” Turner cited and thanked many of the people who made her museum a reality, including designer Stephan Sills. “Have a wonderful day: Ciao!” she added.

Flagg Grove Schoolhouse and Tina Turner Museum. Photo: WTDHC.

Inside The Tina Turner Museum. Photo: WTDHC

“All I can say is, ‘Hallelujah!’” said Murrell Syler. “The family is very grateful [and] I am most grateful to my cousin, Tina Turner, for her support.” Syler’s and Turner’s fathers were brothers. “I come from good stock,” the 89-year-old Syler stated.

“This is a real blessing to our town, our county, our country,” said Lollie Beard Mann at the ceremony. She was a classmate of Turner’s at the Flagg Grove School. At the school, “Me and Tina sang ‘Standing in the Need of Prayer,’” Mann added, performing the gospel classic a cappella.

The Lewis Family Singers sang “God’s Been Good to Me,” which interpolated “Amazing Grace.” Rep. Craig Fitzhugh read a proclamation from Gov. Bill Haslam declaring “Tina Turner Day.” Turner was a babysitter for Fitzhugh when he was a child. “There is no finer lady and no finer person,” he commented.

Video congratulations came from Melissa Etheridge, The Beach Boys, The Oak Ridge Boys, Fred Cash of The Impressions, Ann Wilson of Heart and Robin Roberts of Good Morning America.

Flagg Grove Schoolhouse and Tina Turner Museum. Photo: WTDHC.

The Tina Turner Museum. Photo: WTDHC

More than 200 crowded the Delta Heritage Center for the museum dedication, including family members, politicians, museum specialists, music performers, Turner’s business associates, news media and her fans. “It’s not just Tennessee,” pointed out Elle Denneman, the president of the International Tina Turner Fan Club. “Also people from Germany, Sweden and Denmark are here.” Denneman, a professional photographer, had travelled from Holland for the event.

“I’m just blown away by the crowd,” marveled museum executive director Sonia Outlaw-Clark.

“You’ve welcomed me, an outsider, with open arms,” said Turner’s assistant Rhonda Graam, who coordinated the artifacts. “I’m so proud to work for her and be a part of this. It’s a highlight of my life. It’s teamwork that brought this project together.”

One member of the team was Dr. Carroll Van West from the Center for Historic Preservation at MTSU. “We’re continuing the magic that began at the Flagg Grove School over 100 years ago,” he testified. Another team member was Nashville’s PLA Media.

Following the ribbon cutting, family members and media representatives were the first to see the museum. It houses flamboyant costumes, historic photos, major awards, movie stills, her high school yearbook, Gold and Platinum records, magazine covers and a model of Britain’s Wembley Stadium, where Tina Turner triumphed in concert, among many other items. A screen shows a continuous loop of a concert video. Behind the artifacts, school memorabilia commemorate the building’s long heritage.

Sleepy John Estes. Photo: Mary Bufwack.

The West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center’s grounds also contain the home of Brownsville’s Sleepy John Estes. Photo: Mary Bufwack

The West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center’s grounds also contain the home of Brownsville’s Sleepy John Estes (1899-1977). This “crying” bluesman recorded for Victor, Decca and others between 1929 and 1941. His influential songs include “Someday Baby Blues,” “Drop Down Mama” and “Milk Cow Blues.”

Both Turner and Estes are celebrated in the Center’s main museum, as are such regional music stars as Carl Perkins (Jackson), Alex Harvey (Brownsville), Eddy Arnold (Chester County), T.G. Sheppard (Humboldt), Mike Snider (Gleason), Sonny Boy Williamson (Jackson), Malcolm Yelvington (Covington), Yank Rachell (Brownsville), Carl Mann (Huntingdon), Denise LaSalle (Jackson) and Hammie Nixon (Brownsville).

The Center also houses a series of aquarium tanks containing fish native to the Hatchie River, a cotton museum, a collection of Lincoln memorabilia and a photo exhibit about Brownsville’s historic district.

Brownsville, Tenn. Sculpture. Photo: Mary Bufwack.

“Mindfield” sculpture in Brownsville, Tenn. Photo: Mary Bufwack

Downtown, the community’s outstanding attraction is “Mindfield.” This is Tennessee’s largest sculpture, a stunning piece of folk art that is a block-long, 10-story-high metal assemblage incorporating a water tower, a fire tower, giant propeller screws, toys and multiple girders. It is the work of Billy Tripp, and will continue to evolve until his death. Almost everything is painted in battleship gray, his favorite color. Tripp’s eccentric work also contains lyrics, slogans, verses and assorted exhortations.

On Friday afternoon, the Tina Turner Heritage Days weekend continued with a scheduled book-signing for Katherine Carlson, author of Arrows Across Eons: Becoming Tina Turner. Guitarist Durwood Hayes was booked to entertain that evening.

Saturday’s events included tours of Brownsville, Nutbush, Ripley and nearby Henning, the site of the Alex Haley Museum. At Carver High School that night, the scheduled entertainment included the W.S. Holland Band, Rayburn Anthony, Carl Mann and vocalist Samira, who is billed as “Samira’s Totally Tina.” She also attended the museum dedication.

“You have The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, 65 miles down the highway [in Memphis],” observed Turner’s former EMI Records chief Jim Fifield at the dedication. “You have the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll right here in Brownsville.”

Memphis has attractions devoted to Elvis Presley, as well as the Stax and Sun labels. In Hurricane Mills, near Waverly, is the Loretta Lynn Dude Ranch with its museum, mansion and birthplace recreation. Nashville has the Johnny Cash, Country Music Hall of Fame and Musicians Hall of Fame attractions. Sevierville has Dollywood with its Dolly Parton Museum and Southern Gospel Hall of Fame. In Bristol is the newly opened Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Brownsville now has the Tina Turner Museum.

“Just about every city in this state is on board,” said Cindy Dupree, the director of PR for the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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