This Town Made Tina Turner. She Made It Famous.
Reaching Nutbush, a speck of a Tennessee town between Memphis and Nashville, requires exiting Interstate 40, just after the tourism billboard plastered with Tina Turner’s photo, passing the Tina Turner Museum and driving up the Tina Turner Highway, which leads to the town’s sign declaring it the “Birth Place of Tina Turner.”
There’s little doubt over Nutbush’s claim to fame.
The iconic singer did not come back often. Hardly ever, in truth. Years ago, when David Letterman asked her why on his talk show, she replied, “There’s nothing to go back to, really.”
But after Ms. Turner died last week at her chateau in Switzerland, the residents of Nutbush found meaning as the repository of Tina Turner’s origin story, her beginnings as Anna Mae Bullock.
She had been molded by her upbringing there, those who knew her were certain. But they also knew that she, in turn, had come to define the place, opening it up to fans and tourists who were curious about Nutbush, which might otherwise be known for its cotton.
“That’s what Tina means to me,” said Sonia Outlaw-Clark, the director of the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center, which includes the museum dedicated to Ms. Turner. “She has connected me with the world.”
On Sunday evening, a few dozen residents gathered for a memorial. “How do we say farewell to a woman, an icon, a legend, a hometown girl?” said Achana Jarrett, whose mother grew up with Ms. Turner, and who helped organize the event on a simple outdoor stage, with people sitting around in folding chairs.
The answer: She and Ms. Outlaw-Clark led those assembled in singing along to “Nutbush City Limits,” a 1973 song by Ms. Turner.
Twenty-five was the speed limit
Motorcycle not allowed in it
You go to the store on Fridays
You go to church on Sundays
They call it Nutbush, little old town
To an older generation, Ms. Turner’s death was personal.
Robbie Jarrett Ewing remembered misbehaving as a child with Anna Mae Bullock in the pews at Woodlawn Missionary Baptist Church and trying to hide it from their grandmothers. “We just did whatever we could without the old women looking at us,” Ms. Ewing said.
When they were a little older, and slightly better behaved, Ms. Turner sang in the choir and Ms. Ewing played the piano. “I knew, even growing up, she had great potential,” Ms. Ewing said.
Ms. Turner played on the basketball team at Carver High School in the 1950s and pushed the glee club to a first-place trophy. She was an attentive older cousin and a babysitter — and the student who was known to show up late and sneak into school through a window.
Ms. Ewing lost touch, but she admired Ms. Turner’s resilience, particularly as she clawed her way back from her abusive relationship with Ike Turner. “Knowing you can have calamities but if you’re strong enough, strong-minded and have a strong will, you can make it to the top of the hill,” she said.
Pam Stephens, a resident who attended the memorial, often cautions outsiders who know of the community only from “Nutbush City Limits” to temper their expectations. For one thing, referring to Nutbush as a city is a stretch. The unincorporated area comprises Woodlawn Missionary Baptist, a cotton gin and some houses. “There’s not even a stop sign,” she said, “unless you pull off the main road.”
But the Tina Turner Museum, at her childhood schoolhouse, has given visitors another reason to exit the interstate. The one-room schoolhouse, which had been deteriorating on property owned by Ms. Stephens’s family, was moved next to the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, a nearby town.
The refurbished white wooden building is filled with artifacts that Ms. Turner personally sent for display. Sequined outfits by Bob Mackie and Giorgio Armani. Tour stops written by hand on a calendar: Stockholm, Helsinki, Paris. Royalty even drops in: King Charles, then the Prince of Wales, wrote a letter on Kensington Palace stationery, gushing about meeting her. “It was a great pleasure to meet you,” he wrote, underlining “great.”
“I now find that I am gradually becoming something of an expert on the rock scene,” he added, “and can occasionally impress those who are considerably younger than me with my knowledge of some of the pop groups!”
The dazzle and fame of the singer’s world deposited in a schoolhouse built in 1889 — that seeming contradiction captured Ms. Turner’s essence, to some residents.
“She made the big stage,” said the Rev. James T. Farmer Jr., the senior pastor at Woodlawn Missionary Baptist. “But she always remembered Nutbush. She never forgot her humble beginnings.”
During the memorial, people sung hymns and 83 candles were lit — one for each year of Ms. Turner’s life. One person after another stepped forward to share their stories about Ms. Turner.
Craig Fitzhugh, a former state lawmaker and the mayor of the nearby town of Ripley, told the crowd that she had babysat him when he was a boy. Years later, he approached her backstage after a show, and she pulled him into a hug. She remembered him, he said, or “she acted like it, anyway.”
He joked that as a politician, he sometimes used his ties to her to help win over voters: “I would say, ‘Well, you know, my babysitter was Anna Mae Bullock.’”
Sharon Norris, a cousin of Ms. Turner’s who helped start the Tina Turner Museum, said she was aware of at least one surreptitious visit — or at least as surreptitious as a person could be in a white limousine in rural Tennessee.
Ms. Turner stopped by the museum. “Later,” Ms. Norris said, “she emailed me all the things that needed to be improved.”
Carolyn Flagg, the vice mayor of Brownsville, talked about her friendship with Ms. Turner, which started when they were ninth graders.
“She had picked out a young man for the dance, but she didn’t know that both of us liked the same fellow,” Ms. Flagg recalled. “She got him, I didn’t!”
There were no hard feelings, though.
“I love Tina, and Tina loved me,” she said. “Whatever Tina was doing, I was doing it, too.”
Before Ms. Flagg spoke, she stepped to the small wooden stage, and honored her friend the best way she could think of: The 83-year-old galloped across the floor — her take on “the pony,” Ms. Turner’s trademark dance — as the hometown song blared through the speakers.
“Oh, Nutbush,” Ms. Flagg sang along with her onetime best friend. “They call it Nutbush city limits.”
Jessica Jaglois contributed reporting.
Rick Rojas is a national correspondent covering the American South. He has been a staff reporter for The Times since 2014. @RaR
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