Sun Records, the new drama on CMT about the early days of rock and roll in Memphis, is getting good reviews and showing a lot of promise after its premier episode. The producers wisely chose to shoot in some of the original locations, lending a great authenticity to the series. It’s always fun to see one’s hometown portrayed on the screen, big or small, especially when the show is all about how culturally important your hometown is. Sun Records is an entertaining show that does Memphis a lot of credit, and locals can feel justly proud. But at the same time . . .
Sure, I get that. Hitchcock supposedly said that drama is life with the dull parts removed. Well, it is that, plus a lot of stuff that’s totally made up. Sun Records does have some of that typical dramatic license embellishment, but it’s also got these little nit-picky things that only a local might notice.
1. That’s Somebody’s Grandma You’re Talking About!
That’s Sam Phillips, Elvis, and Marion Keisker in front of Sun Studio in Memphis. For the show’s producers and audience, they might be characters in a reality-based drama, but for a lot of Memphians, they’re actual people we knew and remember. Once Elvis was the most famous person on the planet, he became an aloof figure, but it wasn’t unheard of to see him around town, and if everybody didn’t know him directly, everybody knew somebody who did (I knew his barber). In the old days, you could walk right up and talk to Elvis’s Uncle Vester, who was often stationed at the gate of Graceland. Sam Phillips was such a familiar figure everybody in Memphis probably felt like they knew him personally even if they didn’t, and his son Knox is still well known around town as a producer, promoter, and all-around prominent citizen. Then there’s Marion Keisker, the unsung heroine of Sun, a pioneering radio personality, performer, and Air Force officer–who Elvis actually got in trouble once for being too familiar with an enlisted man (true story). Most people nowadays (myself included) remember her as a sweet old lady with a theatrical flair and a host of old stories on a wide range of Memphis history. So it’s a bit jarring to see Sam and Marilyn treated like a couple of soap opera characters, throwing off their clothes and getting jiggy with each other in the Sun Records office. Sure, we’ve heard the rumors, but please, a little discretion!
2. Tell It Slant.
There’s a reason “Bless his heart” is a famous Southern expression–because it means exactly the opposite of what it sounds like it means. Life down South is not exactly a Tennessee Williams play, where everybody is always making long, well-crafted speeches detailing every way their loved ones have ever failed them. Sure, we says things–but we have a way of saying things. So maybe Vernon did have complaints about Elvis making bad grades and mooning around with his guitar, but would he really recite his complaints like exposition in a movie? And we all know Sam Phillips had a vision for the kind of music he wanted to make, and yes, he was known to speak on the topic, but did he really make a speech about it to everyone who happened his way? And when Papa Cash tells JR–twice!–that “the wrong son died,” we couldn’t help but wonder if Dewey Cox was going to show up with his cut-in-half brother.
3. About that “D” in Geography
Maybe that scene about Elvis getting Ds in school was setting up a later scene in which he’s sitting with his girl on the river bluff by the old bridge. He’s making a speech (as the characters often do) about what a big, wide, wonderful world this is, and he points up the river and says, if you keep going that way you’ll hit the Atlantic Ocean–and he points the down the river and says, and if you go that way you’ll hit the Pacific. Now, as I remember it, if you’re in America–and Memphis is indeed in America–the Atlantic is east and the Pacific is west. But here’s the thing–the Mississippi River runs north and south. So when Elvis points upriver–north–and says, that way is the Atlantic…well…what can we say but bless his heart!
4. The Black Church Is Not Across the Street from the White Church
There is a scene–which our sources tell us is made up–in which Elvis becomes bored sitting in his mother’s up-tighty whitey Baptist Church and leaves to partake of the services at a black church, which appears to be either next door or right across the street. This gets him in trouble when some neighbors spot him fraternizing with the coloreds. Okay, it’s a fictional scene designed to illustrate two things about Elvis–that he loved black gospel music, and that this affinity for black folks and their music caused many whites to look at him askance. The weird, television geography aside, Hollywood has never been great at depicting church services in a realistic way–especially black church services. Yes, Black church services tend to be livelier than those in white churches, and the music is often louder and more rollicking. But this is what happens every Sunday, so the congregation tends not to act like it’s the first time they’ve ever been in church and it’s the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to them. We’ve been in black churches where the floor was literally vibrating with preaching and singing–and people were asleep in the pews! It’s church! Every single person isn’t clapping and yelling “amen” every single second. What’s more, in our experience, when a white person visits a black church they are welcomed like any other visitor. Ladies in big hats are not falling over the pews urging them to clap and sing along as if they were at a kiddie concert. It’s church!
5. Arkansas Is a Place Where Nothing Ever Happens
No offense to Arkansas, which is a lovely state, with lots of lovely people, including my mother (Hi, Mom!)–but why do people in this show keep bringing up Arkansas?!! Why would anybody ever say anything like, “They’re gonna hear this clear across Arkansas!”? Who cares about Arkansas? Have you seen that flag? It actually has the word “Arkansas” on it–like, otherwise, you might mistake it for the French Tricolore and ask for vichyssoise at the local barbecue joint. It’s true that a lot of people in Memphis come from Arkansas, but that’s just it–they come here, we don’t go there. And if we do go there, we often don’t even say, “We’re going to Arkansas.” A lot of times we just say, “We’re going over the River,” or “We’re going across the Bridge.” There are only two places in Arkansas people from Memphis ever go. One–if you’re taking the family somewhere close and cheap for vacation–is Hot Springs. The other is West Memphis. And there are only three reasons to ever go to West Memphis. One is to get cheap beer without the high Tennessee liquor tax. Two is to go to the dog track. And three is if you’re on your way to Hot Springs.
Editor’s Note: Thanks to our friend, music scholar, and raconteur extraordinaire Tom Graves for some of the information in this post.