by Joe B. Coates
When community leaders gathered recently at the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame, smiles and good vibes were bountiful. After all, the museum represents a brighter future–not just for lovers of all kinds of music, but for the greater good of Hazlehurst.
“This museum is a destination for tourists from all over the world,” said Dr. Jim Brewer, who serves as director. Brewer was one of a group of enthusiasts who saw a need to honor the music of the state with a place just for musicians, many of them from Copiah County.
The community leaders that gathered here in mid-November were marking the occasion of new signage that was installed on both sides of Interstate 55 by Mississippi Department of Transportation near Hazlehurst. Hazlehurst Mayor Henry Banks, Dist. 76 Rep. Greg Holloway, Ward 2 alderman Ron Sims, Hazlehurst Chamber director Randal Day, Hall of Fame representative Shaw Furlow and Dr. Brewer all discussed with pride the positives that come from the museum’s location in Hazlehurst. One of those is an up-tick in tourism as evidenced by the number of entries in the visitor’s log at the museum just since the signs were erected in October.
“As of this week we’ve had over 70 visitors who stopped by because they saw the signs on the interstate,” Brewer said. They’ve come from Illinois, Washington, Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, Alaska, Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, New York, Ohio and Tennessee.
Even while the community leaders were meeting, the museum was being visited by a musician from Ormalingen, Switzerland. “I’m in the United States for a few weeks by myself just following my intuition and chasing the dream of being in a band. I was driving north on the highway and saw the sign, so I stopped by to check it out,” said Lou Haze, a self-described fledgling musician. He was headed to the Mississippi Delta for two weeks to “experience the blues,” he added.
“This is very impressive, this museum. I’m in great spirits about what I’ve found here,” he said.
Haze spent several hours at the museum looking at the exhibits and asking questions about Mississippi music and musicians. He even purchased a couple of souvenirs while there.
“We are getting many new visitors, now,” Brewer said. “A great number of them are from out of the United States from countries like Australia, Austria, France, Israel and England. They’re hunger for history, and more specifically, all genres of Mississippi musical history, is so much greater outside of our own community and even our state.”
Brewer has seen a shift in the types of visitors in just a few months. Most, at first, were blues fans, but that has transformed into visits from fans of all music. Local visits have gone up, too, including from garden clubs and other civic organizations, school groups, music classes and senior’s groups.
Increasing tourism means increasing dollars being spent in local shops and the like. Tourists purchase fuel and patronize hotels and restaurants, providing more tax dollars for municipal coffers. In turn, the community gets the benefits of better police and fire protection, better streets and sidewalks and other improvements in infrastructure.
The museum is connecting with locals through various activities, as well. “We sponsored the first-ever vocal contest and songwriters workshop during the Rockin’ Railroad Festival in September,” Brewer said. Though small this year with only a few entries, Brewer said that he expects participation to increase next year.
Visitors to the museum during the Rockin’ Railroad Festival numbered around 200, Brewer added, which equates to good publicity at little cost.
The museum is one of three operated by the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame. The oldest is the Jackson Evers International Airport, which was erected in 2003. And, the Mississippi Music Experience on the second floor of the Iron Horse Grill in Jackson is just a couple of years old.
“We all work together and try not to duplicate what the others offer,” Brewer said.
Unique to the site in Hazlehurst are exhibits that honor local musicians. Babs Wood, a resident of Hazlehurst and a long-time performer at Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans, has a corner. A movie about the life of Don Linzey Dixon of the gospel group The Dixon Singers of the Georgetown area plays on a loop. An area is dedicated strictly to the late Robert Johnson, a one time resident of Hazlehurst who is considered by many as King of the Delta Bluesmen, and is highly popular with guests from out-of-town.
“We have so much memorabilia that one could spend an entire two or three days trying to experience all of it,” Brewer added.
A recent addition to the museum is the “Crossroads Too” sign that is set up on the outside and highlights the crossroads of State Hwy. 28 and U. S. Highway 51 in Hazlehurst. Sponsored by Entergy and the Hazlehurst Garden Club, the sign was donated and erected by Roger Berry of Hazlehurst, whose contributions have been a driving force behind the creation of the exhibition inside the museum.
“Roger is part of a group of enthusiasts who have made invaluable contributions to the museum, whether in financial terms or by donating labor and materials to fix up the inside,” Brewer explained.
Future projects include a Walk of Fame in front of the museum and a possible recording studio, both of which will require outside funding to complete.
For now, hundreds of visitors from all over the world are finding enjoyment from the escape into Mississippi’s musical past the museum offers. Located inside the Depot on Ragsdale Avenue in downtown Hazlehurst, the museum is open 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm Monday through Friday. The online home of the musuem is http://www.msmusic.org/mississippi-music-museum.html.
by Joe B. Coates