With her domestic life with husband and musical partner Ike a waking nightmare, it’s perhaps no surprise that by 1973 Tina Turner’s thoughts turned to her childhood home in Nutbush, Tennessee.
Nutbush City Limits, the first self-written song the former Anna Mae Bullock ever recorded, is steeped in ambiguous sentiment. Calling it a ‘city’ in the lyrics she sat down to write was ironic. An insignificant rural flyspeck in Haywood County, Nutbush is an unincorporated town, meaning, by law, it doesn’t have any city limits.
Nutbush is even too small to appear on most state maps, being hidden almost apologetically in the deep south west of Tennessee, close to the neighbouring states of Arkansas and Mississippi. Now you can understand why she wanted out.
Agriculture is still the most important element of the local economy, focused on the cultivation and processing of cotton. Anna Mae’s 1940s childhood there had been spent hearing country and blues on the radio, singing in church, and picking cotton with her father. Although they weren’t dirt-poor like their neighbours, Nutbush was anything but a nostalgic memory for Tina. “Cotton. I hated it,” she later spat. “That’s the one thing that made me change my life. I knew I couldn’t do that.”
‘Limits’ is the key word in the song, as she artfully sketches a rootsy, circumscribed life: “A church house (above), gin house (below), a school house, outhouse/On highway number nineteen, the people keep the city clean…/Twenty-one was the speed limit, motorcycles not allowed in it/You go to the store on Friday, you go to church on Sunday…”
This ‘little ol’ town’ sounds more like somewhere to escape than like a rural idyll. More to the point, having sunk back into her deepest memories to write it, Tina’s first lyric was perfect.
As the Sixties evolved into the Seventies, Tina had already begun to assert her tastes, suggesting what became hit covers of The Beatles’ Come Together and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary. “I just find R&B so depressing,” she told Charles Shaar Murray during her record-breaking comeback in the 1980s. “I wanna be up!… I always knew I wanted to be rock’n’roll.”
Mick Jagger, who’d copped his moves from her when Ike and Tina supported the Rolling Stones in 1966, always knew it. Compared to her static female vocal peers, he said “she was like a female Little Richard and would respond to the audience… really go out and grab them”.
Ike, who after all arguably invented rock ’n’ roll in 1951 with the groundbreaking single Rocket 88, was mostly on board with this new, lucrative direction. “You know, I read in some paper that we are an R&B show,” he railed to Blues & Soul magazine’s John Abbey in 1971. “I find it really disgusting when I hear that… I’m trying to make a blend between my horns and the rock sound of a small group.”
For all his manifold personal faults, on the hard-driving Nutbush Ike was the perfect musical foil for Tina’s lyrics (although she got sole songwriting credit). It begins with a down ’n’ dirty, fuzzed-up, catscratch rhythm guitar riff. The Revue’s brass add urban swagger as Tina makes her delayed entrance, singing at her most grittily incisive as she lists her home town’s minimal charms, mythologising her country upbringing in the process.
“I used a G tuning on Nutbush City Limits that I learned from Keith Richards when Tina and I opened for the Stones in 1969,” Ike recalled of his first instrumental contribution. His other was a wild, bucking Moog synthesiser solo only slightly less memorable than the Osmonds’ absurd Crazy Horses the previous year (For what it’s worth, Ike had already experimented with the synth on his 1972 LP Strange Fruit).
Released in June 1973, Nutbush City Limits was, fittingly, Ike & Tina Turner’s final hit, reaching No.4 in the UK and No.22 in the US that autumn. Tina wrote four other compositions on the less successful album of the same name, including Club Manhattan, which looked back to her first, fateful meeting with Ike at a late-night joint in St. Louis.
The ‘70s had seen Ike’s always violently abusive behaviour get worse rapidly, and extend to the Bolic Sound Studio and live-in apartment he bought. Tina recalled Ike consuming “cocaine like wine, and all of a sudden there were guns under the control board. It was like living in hell’s domain.”
By 1976, the irreparable chasm between the pair were becoming too obvious to miss. After a final explosion of violence in which she fought back physically for the first time, Tina quit Ike that year, divorcing in 1978. Her subsequent battle back from financial and career ruin to Eighties megastardom showed her steel. But Nutbush City Limits was Tina Turner’s defiant declaration of artistic independence.”
In November 2016, just five days before Tina’s 77th birthday, Nutbush became a brief pitstop photo op my way from Graceland to Nashville, the country capital of the world.
With a population of just 259, there’s not a lot to Nutbush these days, but cotton is still king, and neither old times, nor the Tennessee town’s most famous daughter, are forgotten here. Judging by what I saw, I think a lot of Nutbush must have packed up and left when Anna Mae headed out to find stardom. There are a couple of houses, a closed store, and, most pleasing of all, the church house and cotton gin house, both memorably immortalised in the opening lyrics to Nutbush City Limits, are still in use.
But not everything goes to plan. Tina’s home in Nutbush was inexplicably demolished years ago. The one-room school house for black children where Tina took lessons has been moved down to the Delta Heritage Museum at Exit 56 off of I 40, near Brownsville, TN. It now houses the Tina Turner Museum, which was sadly shut when I drove through.
Tina has been rewarded for her tourism promotion as much as for her musical contributions. The stretch of the Highway TN 19 between Nutbush and Brownsville you see in the YouTube video, (it runs by the country store she would often visit) has been officially renamed as Tina Turner Highway.
Tina mentioned there were two stores in Nutbush in the video above, and the tin shack pictured at the top of this article now appears to be storage for the cotton gin.
The ghost sign on this building reads, ‘Pepsi-Cola, Tops for Quality.’ Pepsi advertising is not as well documented as Coke advertising, but I did find a 1945 magazine advert with this same logo and bottle cap design, so I suspect this sign dates from the ’40s, when Tina would have still be been local.
In 1987, Tina filmed an infamous – OK, terrible – television advert for Pepsi with her old pal David Bowie, which was a contactual obligation imposed by the ubiquitous drinks maker in return for their sponsoring of both Turner and Bowie’s world tours that year. Watch and wince…
As Nutbush is only an hour from Memphis, any genuine music lover could check out the museum of another local, the one called Presley, and then make a short detour to downtown Nutbush, as I did. Cotton may need to be high on your list of must-see attractions, and once there, you could copy Tina – who got out of town as soon as she could.