FERRIDAY, La. -- Frankie Lewis Terrell puts down her bottle of whiskey, closes the window to her drive-through liquor store and walks next door to begin the tour of 712 Eighth Ave., the family home that became a museum.
Pictures of first cousin Mickey Gilley sit atop a table. The birthing quilt of the first cousin Jimmy Swaggart lies on the very bed where, Frankie claims, the televangelist was "conceived in sin." And then there is the kitsch of big brother Killer: the golf clubs from O.J. Simpson, the Killer's rifles, his baby shoes, and, preserved for posterior uh, posterity: the Killer's potty-training toilet.
"That," says his baby sister, her chest swelling with pride, "is where Jerry Lee Lewis of Ferriday, Louisiana, learned to do his business."
Perhaps no town in America revels more in the messiness of life -- especially the lives of its favorite sons -- than Ferriday, five miles from the Mississippi River in northeast Louisiana. And certainly no single family has produced, in one generation, three pop culture figures as well-known, talented and notorious as Gilley, Lewis and Swaggart. From one little place, one small family, came three Southern archetypes: tortured country music singer, over-the-top rock star and disgraced preacher.
The Ferriday Three they are called in these parts, as if the first cousins were defendants in a criminal conspiracy. But there was nothing planned about "this crazy town or our crazy family," says Frankie. Instead, writes author Elaine Dundy in her history of Ferriday, lightning "not only struck twice in the same place it struck three times."
And if those three bolts started some wildfires, well, all the better for Ferriday. Damage can be entertaining. Everyone here seems to keep a broken piano that is deemed a relic because it was supposedly destroyed by Jerry Lee's ungodly banging on the keys. In a town of only 4,500, two competing museums -- one run by the Ferriday elite, the other by a devoted relative -- trade in controversy.
"All three [men] are sort of notorious, which is good," says Amanda Taylor, the Concordia Parish librarian who helped put together one of the museums. "People are not interested in perfect people."
Locals brag that this town, a crossroads 100 miles northwest of Baton Rouge, 80 miles south of Monroe, has always been a semi-wicked place, a mixture of hell-raising Friday night and Jesus-praising Sunday morning.
Here, at the junction of U.S. highways 65 and 84, good and evil, in all their forms, seem to intersect: morality and promiscuity, holiness and sin, God and the devil. Such opposing forces naturally conflict. But viewed in the Louisiana light, they are as close as cousins.
Before 1900, there was no town, only the Helena Plantation. Then J.C. Ferriday convinced the railroads to choose his field for their shops. In 1906, Ferriday was incorporated.
The new town was wide open. Southerners, Northerners, railroaders, real estate speculators, whites, blacks, Jews, Italians, even Chinese and Mexican immigrants moved here. Timber companies took the best wood out. Breweries and baseball bat factories opened. In the 1920s, Gov. Huey Long made Ferriday safe for slot machines, and the gamblers arrived.
Coming to town
Swaggarts, Lewises and Gilleys had been lured to town to pick cotton and bootleg whiskey. They stayed to build families. In 1935, Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Lee Swaggart were born; their mothers, Minnie Bell Swaggart and Mamie Lewis, were sisters. Mickey Gilley -- whose mother Irene was sister to Jerry Lee's father, Elmo -- came into world less than 12 months later, in 1936.
The family was more colorful than rich. Arthur Gilley, Mickey's father, ran a taxi service and chased women. Elmo Lewis did odd jobs and spent time in jail. Son Swaggart had a few businesses, played the fiddle but eventually chose to scratch out a living as a minister.
The branches of this extended family, as Frankie Lewis Terrell describes it, had much in common: they fought violently (Mickey's mother once took a shot at one of her husband's mistresses), drank and gambled to excess, believed in voodoo and never missed Sunday services at the Assembly of God church on Texas Avenue, where all three cousins performed. Mickey, Jerry Lee and Jimmy knew to stay on the white side of Mississippi Avenue, but nevertheless found comfort and musical inspiration at Haney's Big House, a black nightclub.
While Swaggart considered a country music career and Gilley and Lewis briefly contemplated the ministry, all three came to their callings early. Swaggart says God first spoke to him when he was 8. Lewis was so gifted by age 9 that his father mortgaged the house to buy a piano.