Henderson celebrates former country musicians with exhibit

August 22 [Mon], 2011, 18:10
Henderson celebrates former country musicians with exhibit

Over the summer, Leigh Ann Tipton noticed an uptick of people coming into The Depot Community Room (where there's small museum of local history and memorabilia) asking if there were anything on exhibit about Les Smithhart, or Rusty Pendergraft and other local musicians of a certain era and genre.

That got the event coordinator's wheels turning, and she started doing some research with the help of Linda Hallmark at the Henderson Genealogical & Historical Society.

"Linda remembered all of these people and had seen them perform," Tipton said, adding that their excitement grew into a temporary exhibit that's just opened at the Water Street facility called "A Tribute to Henderson's Country Music Legends."

It opened this past Friday evening with a personal appearance by Robards native Jim Owen, a songwriter and entertainer now working in Branson, Mo., who played some of his music and shared stories about his career.

Owen also loaned some items for the exhibit, including a suit he wore while playing Hank Williams Sr. in a television movie, a guitar and photos, including one of him with Hank Jr. and Johnny Cash while wearing the suit he wore to play the elder Williams.

The exhibit includes Grand Ole Opry archival photos of Louis Marshall "Grandpa" Jones, and photos and memorabilia on Smithhart, Pendergraft, James "Spider" Rich and Doug Oldham.

It also offers an opportunity to watch a 20-minute episode of the locally produced "Hillbilly Hoedown" -- probably from sometime in the 1960s -- that aired on local television station WEHT.

"It's nice to celebrate that part of Henderson's history," Tipton said, noting that being able to open the exhibit was a nice segue from Henderson's summer music festivals.

"Sometimes musical traditions get lost," she added, "or don't get celebrated as much."

A little information about the musicians featured:

- Jim Owen. The musician's first public performance was on Les Smithhart's WSON Radio Show in 1953, when he was 12 years old. With a voice compared to Hank Sr., Owen performed in Las Vegas during the 1980s and portrayed the famous country star in two movies.

Also a songwriter, he wrote "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man" recorded by Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn and wrote songs performed by Mel Tillis, Jim Ed Brown, Eddy Arnold, Waylon Jennings, Crystal Gayle, Charlie Pride, Jerry Reed and Roy Clark.

- Louis Marshall "Grandpa" Jones. Born in Niagara, Jones learned to play mandolin, fiddle and a 75-cent guitar at an early age. With wire-rimmed glasses, knee-high boots and suspenders, he adopted the persona of a "grouchy old grandpa" as a young man on tour and it became his trademark.

That trademark carried over to years as a regular performer on the Grand Ole Opry and the television variety program "Hee Haw." He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1978.

- Les Smithhart and the Super X Cowboys. Musician and luthier Smithhart fronted the western swing group that was a hit on local airwaves -- both radio and television -- starting in the 1940s. Their live television program "Hillside Hoedown" was one of the first to air on WEHT. Smithhart played in several Nashville studio sessions and his superb craftmanship made his fiddles highly sought after in later years.

- Rusty Pendergraft. He started locally with the Super X Cowboys and developed his own personas for local television including "Rusty Neck" as he served as emcee for the "Hillside Hoedown." He played bass fiddle on the show with Doug Oldham and the Dixie Six and was the star of a children's program called "Rusty's Round-Up."

- James "Spider" Rich. A local star guitar player with Smithhart's band, Rich became known as a composer of guitar instrumentals on the Nashville country music scene and as a regular contributor to the repertoire of the legendary Chet Atkins.

Rich's most recognizable song is "Yakety Sax," which he co-wrote with Boots Randolph. In the 1950s, he worked as a member of the Grand Ole Opry house band and worked tours with country stars of that era.