The Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series continues tonight at 8pm ET / 5pm PT with a dynamic performance by husband and wife Americana/folk-indie duo Amy LaVere and Will Sexton, co-presented by the team behind the Levitt AMP Houston Music Series. No strangers to Levitt, LaVere and Sexton have graced the iconic Levitt Shell Memphis stage in their hometown multiple times. Recorded at the artists’ home, about two hours from Houston, Miss., tonight’s virtual concert will treat audiences to an intimate, eclectic and captivating evening of vocals, upright bass and guitar. Tune in at levittamp.org/virtual!
Envisioning a vibrant future where the Trail meets the Trace
Surrounded by lush North Mississippi forests, Houston, Miss., sits where the Tanglefoot Trail meets the Natchez Trace Parkway. In late 2013—10 years after a once active railway along an old Chippewa Tribe trail was abandoned—local businesses, government and residents joined forces to transform the Tanglefoot Trail into an inviting destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Stretching from New Albany in the north to Houston in the south, the trail traverses through more than 40 miles of fields, forests, meadows and wetlands in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and part of the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area, making it Mississippi’s longest Rails to Trails conversion. Today, travelers come from far and wide to experience its natural beauty. And Houston residents get to enjoy not one, but two natural corridors in their own backyard. The historic forest travel corridor known as the “Old Natchez Trace” or “Chikasaw Trail” extends more than 440 miles from the southern Appalachian foothills of Tennessee to the bluffs of the lower Mississippi River, with Houston at its midpoint.
With a population of just 3,500 people, Houston was once home to a booming furniture industry and enjoyed decades of prosperity—with a bustling downtown, abundant dining/shopping opportunities, new parks and well-maintained infrastructure. Like many small towns, Houston took a hit in the 1990s when these industries moved offshore, triggering a decline in its population and business community. Fortunately, in 2017 a dedicated group of forward-thinking residents and businesses began working together to ensure a vibrant future for their small southern town. They commissioned a downtown study and set to work making improvements, with an emphasis on local culture and celebrating the town’s unique character. They recognized that their town was much more than a friendly, family-oriented community of tree-lined streets surrounding the idyllic Pinson Square—named after Judge Joel Pinson, who donated the land for the town in 1836, and named it after his childhood friend Sam Houston.
These locals began positioning Houston as an active destination where people could experience true Mississippi flavor, complete with local events, bike trails, horseback riding, ATV trails, championship fishing, hiking, hunting and camping. One such forward thinker is Sean Johnson, director of the Chickasaw Development Foundation, which serves as a catalyst for economic growth in Houston and Chickasaw County by promoting business growth and development, recreational and tourism opportunities and diverse community development efforts. While fairly new to Houston, Johnson knows the area is filled with possibility, as he used to head up marketing and tourism efforts for the City of New Albany, at the other end of the Tanglefoot Trail. While Houston experienced some significant setbacks over two decades ago, Johnson recognizes that “the structure necessary for growth remains in place.” Designated as one of Mississippi’s 100 Opportunity Zones, Houston is poised for exciting investments. And with a new vision for the future, the city is ready to embrace opportunities that come their way.
Amplifying Houston’s momentum through free, live music
There is a palpable new energy in Houston. From its growing Saturday morning Farmers Market, to its budding mural program, to its forthcoming transformation of a historic 1930s theatre on the town square into a community arts space, the city’s renewed vision is sparking engaging developments. In this spirit, Johnson and the Chickasaw Development Foundation partnered with the Potter’s House Family Service Center, a nonprofit that nurtures the growth and development of disenfranchised youth and their families, to bring free Levitt AMP concerts to Houston, applying for the grant last fall. Having helped spearhead the effort to bring free Levitt AMP concerts to New Albany back in 2016 during his time as the city’s marketing and tourism director, Johnson had experienced first-hand the power of free, live music to bring together people of all walks of life while reinvigorating an underused public space. He saw potential for the same positive change in Houston. “It has been really fantastic to help redefine the perception of the community as an active place where things are happening,” explains Johnson. “That’s why we were so excited to get the Levitt grant because that said to everyone around us: ‘Look, this is where something is happening in North Mississippi.’” During the online public voting phase of the Levitt AMP grant competition last fall, votes poured in from residents in and around Houston, securing their place as a Top 25 Levitt AMP finalist and speaking to the community’s desire for free and inclusive arts programming.
The news that Houston won a 2020 Levitt AMP grant came on the heels of a number of other substantial downtown improvements, including new sidewalks, more pedestrian-friendly lighting and the City’s purchase of the historic Houston Theatre that will one day serve as a non-profit cultural center offering holistic experiences in film, theater, music, writing, photography and more. The Levitt AMP Music Series was set to expand the downtown revitalization efforts by six blocks over to Legion Lake Park. Situated in a quiet, predominantly African American-owned neighborhood, this beautiful lakeside park is light on usage and amenities. The hope is for the Levitt AMP Music Series to spark investment in the park, increasing its use by the immediate neighborhood, the broader community and travelers visiting because of the Tanglefoot Trail, which is only a few blocks away. And it’s already inspiring park improvements! After being designated a Levitt AMP concert site, Legion Lake Park was included in a state appropriations bill that secured $150,000 for transformative park additions, like a walking track, solar lighting and small stage for community groups to hold events. Johnson noted that he has “no doubt” that winning a Levitt AMP grant helped to secure this additional funding for Legion Lake Park. The 2021 Levitt AMP Houston Music Series will build upon this momentum, bringing together people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds, including the community’s growing Latinx population, to celebrate the area’s diversity, resilience and vibrant future.
Adjusting course in 2020
With communal programming, like the Levitt AMP Music Series, put on hold this year, the Chickasaw Development Foundation is finding innovative new ways to support the community. From a socially-distanced 50k run through local trails, to honoring each graduating high school senior with a personalized election-style sign on the courthouse lawn (created in partnership with Potter’s House and the local downtown association) to encouraging locals to shop at struggling downtown businesses, they are adapting and lending their support where it’s needed most.
In late June, Chickasaw launched the Downtown Dollars program with Greater Houston Merchants’ Association, awarding gift certificates to anyone who spends $100 at participating Houston businesses. From helping businesses secure emergency funding to setting up incentives for shoppers, Johnson and his team are doing all they can to help people and businesses stay on their feet during this challenging time. “When you have empty store fronts in town, it hurts the community” explains Johnson, “it effects the enthusiasm, it effects everything.”
Public safety measures permitting, another form of relief they’ll be providing is some long overdue entertainment. Celebrated Metropolitan Opera tenor Nathan Carlisle, who is home in Houston due to the pandemic, is slated to give a free public concert on September 19 on the steps of the former Houston Theatre in the center of town. And plans are already underway to bring free, live Levitt AMP concerts to Houston in 2021, “keeping hope alive when so many hopes have been dashed,” according to Johnson.
Fortunately music lovers don’t have to wait until then. Tonight, the Levitt AMP Houston team will be co-presenting a one-of-a-kind virtual performance out of the home of acclaimed Memphis-based husband and wife duo Amy LaVere and Will Sexton. Tune in tonight to experience a taste of the fun Houston residents enjoyed during their in-person, physically distanced fireworks celebration in late June, which took the place of the city’s annual Houston Homecoming festivities this year. LaVere and Sexton delighted audience members with their playful fusions of classic country, gypsy jazz, folk, indie punk and southern soul, that have earned them praise from critics and fans across the globe. And they are sure to do the same tonight. The fun begins at 8pm ET / 5pm PT—tune in at levittamp.org/virtual.