They Got the Beat

Story by Jeannie Stone

The Senior Activity Center of Pope County is a happening place on Friday mornings. Open the door to the main dining room and you’re apt to see couples two-stepping, waltzing or line dancing down the floor. Fortunately for them, the Town and Country band, who volunteers to play every week, keeps a pretty good beat even though they are seniors themselves.

“And here’s a song written by Tom T. Hall,” Johnny Hamilton announces as the band gears into a lively number.

“Do you know how old I am? And he said, ‘No.’
I turned 65 about 11 months ago. I was sitting in Miami pouring blended whiskey down when this old grey haired gentleman was cleaning up the lounge.
Uninvited he sat down, and he opened up his mind on old dogs and children and watermelon wine.”

Sherry Tidwell, senior program coordinator, lavishes praise on the group. “They are humble and don’t want to toot their own horns, but they bring such joy to the folks here. They are responsible for the huge increase we’ve had in the number of people utilizing this facility, and they’ve been playing here for two to three years.”

Lee Campbell, the fiddler

Lee Campbell, the group’s manager and fiddler, has been in Russellville since 1939 and has played music for 50 years. After a long stretch without playing, he returned to the fiddle when he retired from the shoe business. Many people in the community have fond memories of Campbell Shoes.

“I’ve known this fellow all my life,” Wilma Bearfield says. She has come to hear him play.

“He lived with my grandma and grandpa when he was a young handsome man. He’s wonderful and a pretty good fiddle player too.”

Campbell laughs shyly. “It wasn’t as easy coming back to it as I thought it’d be,” he said holding up the fiddle. “I just got the bug, and I had to pick it up again. It partly came back, and I had to do a little practicing.”

His wife passed away six years ago, and music has provided a creative outlet for Campbell, something he can throw himself into. He also stays active in the community and attends worship at Wesley United Methodist Church.

Bennie Docekal, electric guitar and vocals

Bennie Docekal grew up in Witts Springs. He is a career educator and retired as school superintendent of the Pottsville school district..

“My mother taught me a few guitar chords and I just went from there,” he said. Docekal has played all his life and performed since he was 9 years old.

Docekal is married to Bonnie, and together they have two grown children. He finds time to hunt turkey, deer and squirrel and to create treasures in his woodworking shop.

As with the other members of the band, Docekal looks forward to the Friday sessions. He laughs when he says, “We enjoy playing for the folks here because we’re old too.”

J.D. Virden, bass man

J.D. Virden admits his age and doesn’t mind spreading it around. “I’m 86 years old, and I didn’t start playing the bass till I was 72, so don’t let anybody tell you that you’re too old to learn something new.”

Before he picked up the bass guitar his music experience was limited to brief relationship with a guitar at 14.

“I never learned any chords or anything.”

One would never guess. His son also plays. “He’s just a kid. He’s 55, and he is smooth.”

“It’s been the best thing that has happened to me,” he says. “I don’t think I have a lot of talent, but I’m not stupid. I can learn.”

His method of madness makes an interesting story in itself. “When I decided I wanted to learn I chose a song that I really wanted to play hot. I chose Tracy Byrd’s “You Lie to me.” Virden practiced faithfully. His minister (he attends Union Grove Freewill Baptist Church) came to call and asked him to play. Impressed, he asked Virden to play for the choir, and he ended up playing for the entire church service.

Virden is married to Maxine. He graduated from Russellville High School in 1939 then entered the Air Force. Education was his chosen career after the military, and he remained in that field first teaching and then as superintendent of several school districts; Western Grove, Jasper, Leslie, Dover and Atkins.

“I was the old-school type of educator,” Virden says. “I believed in paddling. I’d tell those kids, ‘If you dance, you gotta pay the fiddler.’ You know, I’ve had former students come up and thank me for saving them.”

Johnny Hamilton, visiting vocalist

Johnny Hamilton isn’t a regular member of the band.

“I come when they call me,” he says. Hamilton plays rhythm guitar and sings. “My dad had a little music training, but all mine’s by ear.” He’s had quite an earful in his music career.

His father played guitar, his mother played French harp and his grandfather played fiddle.

“Everybody played a musical instrument back then,” he says. “What else were we to do with ourselves? There were no movies to go to.”

Hamilton was raised in Bass, Ark. He is married to Carolee and is the father of two grown daughters. Hamilton worked full time as the business controller for Arkansas Tech University, retiring after 42 years.

Early on he played a little country in a dancing group, and in the 70s, he played in a bluegrass band which performed around the state at festivals.

“I used to play a little golf, but I’m too old now to get around,” he says with a grin.

“I’m like them,” he waves his arm at the crowd. “I love to play with these guys when they invite me to join in.”

Hoyle Adams, drummer, et al

Hoyle Adams plays rhythm guitar, bass and drums.

“I fill in wherever we need,” he says. He honed that “Show-must-go-on” spirit from a lifetime of performing. He started playing and singing at high school dances, joined a band in Kansas City and formed his own band, Arizona Country, when he lived in Phoenix. His band lasted 18 years.

Adams and his wife Frances returned to Arkansas after he retired from Weyerhaeuser Wood Products. He worked as a salesman for 25 years. He left Newton County when he was 7 years old and has no immediate family.

“I’ve got far flung cousins living here though,” he said.

Adams enjoys woodworking and even had a little cabinet shop. The Friday sessions are the highlight of his week.

“They really enjoy us because there’s no other place for them to go,” he chuckled.

Walter Wooten, rhythm guy

Walter Wooten is another product of a musical family.

“We were all musically inclined. They sang gospel there in Appleton. My brother still lives in that community. I’ve been playing 50 years,” he says.

Wooten has more time to play now that he’s retired from Rural Electric Association. He and his wife Marie attend Freewill Baptist Church in Oak Grove, and he is a weekly participant in the picking and dancing at the senior center.

“It’s about this many every Friday,” he says and looks out at the crowd of 100 who have gathered for the music and dance right before lunch.

“We kindly play for our meal since they feed us. We play a variety of music; western swing, gospel, bluegrass, hillbilly. Whatever people like to dance to, is what we’ll play.”

The crowd gives the musicians a standing ovation and head for the lunch counter while the band members break down the stage. A few fans come to give them a squeeze or a compliment.

“We’re all slipping some, but we still got the beat. At least, the dancers tell us that,” Virden says.

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