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Gettin' back to their roots

It don't mean a thang if it ain't got that twang. That's how country music purists feel about it.

By JAY CRIDLIN
Published November 5, 2004


SEFFNER - Never before has a motion to adjourn drawn such sighs of relief.

No one has come to this borrowed church on a Tuesday night in October to balance a budget or plot a Thanksgiving potluck. No one has come for new business, or old.

They've come for music. For Hank and Johnny and Patsy.

After 15 minutes of guitar-tuning, interspersed with the occasional, half-interested "aye" or "nay," it all begins, as Ken Conklin croons the ancient Bobby Helms country ballad Fraulein:

Far across the deep blue water, lives an old German's daughter, On the banks of the old river Rhine.

There I loved her and left her, and I can't forget her,

Oh, I miss my pretty fraulein.

Conklin's voice, bolstered by more than a dozen guitars, sets heads swaying and toes tapping for the next three hours. For a week they have hungered, this boot-and-buckle crowd of 40. It has been that long since the last meeting of Seffner's 19-year-old Society For the Preservation of Early Country and Western Music.

Thanks in part to the club's devotion, mountain music has found a welcoming home in rural east Hillsborough, from Seffner down to Sun City Center, where a new country music club draws dozens of pickers and grinners from up and down Interstate 75.

"I've found in booking shows that we don't get a lot of response in western Hillsborough County," says Conklin, the Seffner club's president and music director. "But out in eastern Hillsborough . . ."

In eastern Hillsborough, fans convene for blockbuster country concerts at the Florida State Fairgrounds, the Strawberry Festival and the smaller, bluegrass-leaning Ruskin Tomato & Heritage Festival. An entire network of bluegrass pickers throughout Brandon and Riverview call one another for backup whenever there's a concert at a festival or mobile home park.

Usually, each show features at least one guitar, fiddle or banjo player from the 140-member Seffner society, founded in 1985 by Roy Bodden, who for years hosted a country show on WMNF-FM (88.5).

Down the road, the 8-month-old Sun City Center Country Music Club - a.k.a. the Front Porch Pickers - has brought more than 80 retirees together over a shared love for old-time music, from Ernest Tubb and Ray Price to Ralph Stanley.

"This is a lot of people from up North, from Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, West Virginia. They're all bluegrass people," says Kelly Emerson, 43, a maintenance supervisor in Sun City Center who helps arrange the Pickers' rehearsal room each week. "When they hear bluegrass is going on, they all come."

Says club president Ike McCloskey: "We call it front-porch music. It's the kind of stuff you did at home. You got out on the porch in the evening, and everybody'd grab their Dobros (slide guitars) and banjos and do their thing. We love it. That's why we're here."

Some just sit a spell

The Front Porch Pickers draw a host of regulars who don't even play. They just sit and listen.

"Our groupies," McCloskey says with a chuckle.

The Pickers aren't picky about who plays. Anyone with an instrument can lead the group in song.

Even Emerson, whose father, Bill, is a bluegrass banjo legend, sits in on occasion. The members all love it.

"They try to get me in here all the time, but my boss doesn't like me to do it while I'm working," he says with a grin after a recent three-song cameo.

Unlike Emerson, who plays bluegrass around the Tampa Bay area, most club members aren't professionals. Conklin and McCloskey admit that this isn't the Grand Ole Opry. Jam sessions have a karaoke-night vibe. At times, the music is more honk than tonk.

And each club's focus is a little different. The Front Porch Pickers might rehearse a few more traditional tunes now and then, from I'll Fly Away to You Are My Sunshine, while the free-wheeling Seffner club leans more toward bluegrass and outlaw country.

Either way, the music perfectly suits the folksy, down-home demeanor of those who play it. The Pickers started with a handful of fans jamming once a week in each others' homes, and Conklin's group still holds a big potluck dinner once a month.

Everyone agrees, the clubs are like family. Three ditties into one recent sing-along, Eloise Snead strolls onstage to warble Kitty Wells' It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels. Her 84-year-old mother fell the day before and will have hip surgery the next morning. But Snead, 61, has a couple of hours between hospital visits, and besides, traffic is a nightmare this time of day, so she decides to pop in, say hello and sing one of her favorites before heading back to the hospital.

"There goes somebody else we need to pray for," Conklin says into the mike as Snead makes her way to the door through a gantlet of hugs.

A whole lotta livin'

There is, it seems, a reason these bands of older adults have bonded over a genre of music that's all about cryin' and drinkin' and dyin'.

"All these guys have a story," says Annamae Ahlstedt, eyeing the 15 or so guitar players onstage in Seffner. "Every one of 'em."

Take Ahlstedt's husband, Charlie Goode, 61, who also plays in Sun City Center. Goode toured with a troupe from the Grand Ole Opry before retiring to Florida. He developed heart trouble and eventually Parkinson's, seriously hindering his motor skills.

It had been 25 years since he'd picked up a guitar, but his doctor said it might improve his dexterity. He hasn't missed a meeting since.

"This has been incredible therapy," Ahlstedt says.

In Sun City Center, the Pickers feel rejuvenated by the music and moved to dig out old banjos and bass guitars from the attic so they might play in public for the first time in years.

John Manning has multiple sclerosis and can hardly move without his motorized wheelchair, but he still has the booming baritone he had years ago as a country songwriter in northeast Tennessee. Kenneth Ward is 91 and nearly deaf, but he's still a master of the mandolin.

"I can do all right if I know the song," says Ward, who has played in one band or another since World War II. "If I don't know it, I can chord it."

None of that new stuff

Old-time music has found a new generation of fans recently, thanks to the success of films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and buzz-generating artists like Gillian Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show.

Yet you'd be hard pressed to find a member younger than 40 in either of the two clubs. Conklin would welcome new blood, but few young fans know the good old days well enough to appreciate them. They know only today's Nashville: Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Toby Keith.

Those artists' albums regularly break sales records. But to country diehards, they also break hearts.

"There are a lot of country performers on the radio right now that I don't consider country," Conklin says. "It's more rock-oriented music. And they do it for the money. Let's face it, the young kids want to hear the popular stuff."

There is one precocious youngster in this bunch. David Michael Kimes, stage name John Henry, is an up-and-coming bluegrass talent who sings a mean Folsom Prison Blues, insisting that he "shot a man in Reno just to watch him die."

John Henry is all of 9 years old.

"But he's been singing and playing since he was 6," says Tom McClure, his grandfather and fiddle player.

John Henry, who loves Tim McGraw and Garth Brooks, isn't even the club's youngest member. That would be 4-year-old Mason Benton, whose daddy, Scott, is a bouncer at the Dallas Bull country-western bar in Tampa.

Scott Benton, 25, has been coming to club meetings for five years, happily strumming away in the background while his more experienced compatriots take the mike.

"No one else knows half these songs," says Benton. "The only way you're going to hear something from Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash and Hank Williams is to come here."

Ask if he feels out of place in a room full of seniors, and he'll shoot back a look worthy of the Man in Black himself.

"I've played professionally, but this always goes back to my roots, where I started," he says. "There's nothing like the old stuff."

- Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or cridlin@sptimes.com

Country music clubs

* SEFFNER: The Society for the Preservation of Early Country and Western Music meets at 6:30 each Tuesday at First United Methodist Church of Seffner, 1310 S Kingsway Road. Annual membership is $15 or $25 per couple. For more information, contact Ken Conklin, president and music director, at 689-9266 or specwm@juno.com

* SUN CITY CENTER: The Country Music Club, also known as the Front Porch Pickers, meets from 1-3 p.m. Wednesdays in the Armstrong Room of the Community Association Atrium Building on North Course Lane off North Pebble Beach Boulevard. The club is open to older musicians living in and around Sun City Center. For more information, call president Ike McCloskey at 642-9803.