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March 01, 2017

Sun Records: A Trip Through Time and Music

Sun Records brings back the 50s.

Karen DeLong
  • CMT
  • CMT
  • CMT
  • CMT
  • CMT

What’s it like to go back in time to the 1950s and meet music icons like Elvis, BB King, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis?

Just ask Jennifer Holland, starring in CMT’s new series, Sun Records, which premiered Thursday, February 23 on CMT.

Sun Records showcases the birth of modern music through the eyes of record label Sun Records creator Sam Phillips (Chad Michael Murray). Holland plays Sam’s driven yet loyal wife Becky in the series.

Holland, whose acting career has included film and TV roles in the comedy, horror and crime genres, stars for the first time as a series regular and historical character.

Born in 1987, Holland competed professionally in gymnastics until she was 12, giving her an appreciation of performing in front of an audience. She left home in Florida to pursue acting while she was still in high school.

Always driven, she “was incredibly studious,” had a 4.2 GPA and took honors classes. “When my teachers found out I was dropping out of high school to go to L.A and become an actress, they were shocked,” she says, noting that she finished high school online while taking acting classes for about a year.

Early in her career, she starred in the American Pie series film American Pie presents: The Book of Love. Other credits include the Anthony Zuiker (CSI franchise) created thriller Level 26: Dark Revelations and numerous television series including American Horror Story, Rizzoli & Isles, Bones, The Glades and Rush Hour, among others.

“In horror, you can’t draw from personal experience, hopefully!” she quips. “If someone writes a story and you’re a part of that, your job is to be a conduit to the story’s purpose, regardless of genre.” She finds her role as Becky one that is particularly rewarding because the story is authentic. “I’ve never gotten to do anything that was a real story about real people before,” she said.

“It’s crazy that I’d never heard of Sam because he was so influential in music by discovering all these artists,” she said. The label signed Elvis Presley in 1954, soon followed by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. These four became known as the Million Dollar Quartet. Viewers will get to meet them and many other music icons throughout the series.

“I did a lot of research and reading for the role” Holland says, and even arranged to meet Becky and Sam’s son, Jerry Phillips, who lent “incredible insight into Becky’s character.” Jerry related that his mother had taken in many of the young artists, fed them hot meals, and essentially became a mother figure to them.

Becky is a study in contrasts. “She’s the consummate supportive wife, yet she has an amazing career in her own right. She’s a force,” says Holland, noting that Becky started working in radio in her teens and continued her career throughout her marriage to Sam; she was instrumental in the development of launching WHER, the first “all-girl” radio station.

“Becky did it all, raising children, having a career, all while remaining loyal to Sam through his many affairs and his troubling struggles with his mental health.”

Sun Records tells the story of young artists at a time of optimism in America that is nevertheless threaded with racial tensions that eventually led to the Civil Rights Movement. 

“It’s all in there: the racism and sexism of the era. Sam was one of the first to put the music ahead of race, but while the music seems to be colorblind, the people aren’t,” Holland says, noting that Becky is humanly flawed and harbors some fears about people of color.

Filmed in Memphis and directed by Roland Joffe, Sun Records has a cinematic feel to it with “amazing photography, just beautiful,” says Holland. “It was like being in a very long movie; we spent four months on location and filmed all eight episodes there. We were so lucky to have Roland for all of them.”

A self-described feature director, Joffe says he approached the project as if it were a movie. “I want this to have the depth and quality of a feature film so that people watching it feel like they’re watching a film.”

Sun Records still stands in Memphis, along with many of the original clubs, homes and other landmarks that existed in the 1950’s, making an authentic experience for actors and viewers alike. “We were walking in these people’s footsteps, literally,” says Holland.

Viewers will find the series a treat to watch, with its vintage clothing (much of it curated from the era rather than sewn for the project), classic cars, and of course the music.

“It’s an honor to work with such a talented and diverse cast,” Holland says. “Drake (Milligan), who plays Elvis, is just 18 years old and has never acted before, but he’s brilliant and has an incredible voice.”

Other standouts are Keir O’Donnel as Dewey Phillips, the era’s first shock jock, who is credited with giving Elvis his first radio play. Viewers will get to see portrayals of other artists including Carl Perkins (Dustin Ingram), Ike Turner (Kerry Holliday), Jerry Lee Lewis (Christian Lees), Jimmy Swaggart (Jonah Lees), Johnny Cash (Kevin Fonteyne) and more.

“I believe that Sun Records will appeal across generations,” says Holland. “The youth I know are interested in history, vintage, older music, café racers and other things from this time period. My character is trying to make a better life for her family, and that’s something that anyone can relate to.”

In her personal life, Holland is excited about the new mini-farm she bought with her long-time boyfriend. “It’s exactly what we wanted,” she says of the 3.5 acres of green, leafy slice of serenity in Malibu that backs to state park land. Along with their two dogs and rescue cat, “We’ll start with chickens for eggs, get a few goats and go from there,” she says.

Maybe it’s another way of going back in time.

Sun Records airs on Thursdays at 10pm/ 9 central starting February 23.

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