You’ll Find a Mindfield of Culture in Brownsville
“Brownsville, Tennessee: a Good Place to Live,” reads the sign on the way into town, an interesting visual break from fields and farmland. Most visitors don’t read the sign, too busy going 65 in a 50, trying to get to the next place. But the kids who grew up there, who passed it on the way to their grandparents’ and back again, know it well.
Brownsville, Tennessee is filled with life and substance just under its slow-moving surface. It has interesting characters, stories, and local history. From the interstate, it looks just like a McDonald’s and a Walmart, the growing face of rural America, but that is just a snippet of this place.
Heading east away from the Court Square about a mile or so sits Helen’s Barbecue. This is a wooden shack with a tin roof stuck between a gas station and an out-of-business jewelry store.
There is smoke billowing from the smokeroom almost constantly, as you as you walk in the door, sticking to your clothes as a souvenir.
A hand-painted sign welcomes you and catalogues the menu. Upon entering (because how could you not?), you’re welcomed into a one-room space no bigger than a shoebox with walls painted red and a TV turned to the oldies station.
Mrs. Helen greets you, serves you the best barbecue you’ve ever had (that she smoked herself, one of the few female pit masters in the South), and lets you sit a while. It is a place that feels like something from a movie, something a visitor can appreciate from the outside while knowing this space can be appreciated in its fullness by a select few. This makes it all the more desirable.
Take a trip back through town and you can find a massive metal sculpture, three stories high and 50 yards wide, crafted by Brownsville artist Billy Tripp. He calls it “The Mindfield,” and is perpetually adding to it. Visitors come from across the country to see it, tall and shiny in all its glory, sitting right next to the Food Giant.
Another Brownsville fact is its ties to Tina Turner, who grew up there in the reaches of Haywood County. She is honored in Brownsville’s Delta Heritage Center. Located off the interstate to be more accessible to visitors, the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center honors Turner by presenting the one-room schoolhouse she attended and shares some of her life history and connection to Brownsville.
The center also honors the late blues legend Sleepy John Estes, another Brownsville native who lived and died in this tiny town, by presenting his house and hosting live shows with newer blues artists on his front porch. Fisherman Bill Dance and blues musician Hammie Nixon are also honored there, as they too are Brownsville natives.
Just beyond the Delta Heritage Center lies acres of land open to the public by way of the Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge. This land is accessible for fishing, walking, birding, picnicking– you name it.
It is a beautiful slate of land reserved for the critters (and the people). This type of public land, though common out West, is rare in the Southeast and, yet, is just right beyond the interstate.
Beyond the major attractions are the everyday gems that solidify Brownsville’s coziness – the thrift store, Hobock’s House of Antiques, right off the square; the fish market right beyond the railroad tracks, where they make up for the fact that they’re only open on weekends by giving you four of the best hushpuppies of your life for just a dollar (or less if you know the woman behind the counter) and the assurance that while you were craving their food throughout the week, they were out catching the fish you are about to devour.
There are high school football games on Friday nights, church on Sunday morning. Brownsville falls perfectly into all the clichés of rural, Southern America. This is a characteristic at times that is beautiful and empowering, and sometimes weighty and unwelcome.
It is easy to discount the rural South. Brownsville is an incredible example of richness hidden in plain sight and how rural America is responsible for greater cultural influence.