Heart of Louisiana: Country music at Rebel State Park
Written by: Dave McNamara, Heart of Louisiana
Natchitoches Parish, La. -
Tucked away in the woods near the small town of Marthasville, you'll find a historic marker that tells the story of an unknown Confederate soldier who died there in the Civil War.
The Barnhill family buried the soldier near their home and cared for the grave site for the next 99 years. The soldier's final resting place is now a state historic site, dedicated to preserving Louisiana's country music.
Sandy Neal from Rebel State Park says, "The farmers had a very dull, boring and hard life, and they needed something to lift their spirits and enjoy, so they would get together and play music."
The story of country music, pictures of the early musicians, their instruments, their records and costumes are on display in the museum. Folk and old-time country music have deep roots in north Louisiana. And this is also where some of country music's greatest performers got their first big breaks.
Hank Williams, George Jones, Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Davis and Floyd Cramer are just a few of the music legends who performed on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport.
Steve Schutz grew up playing the harmonica and has added the mountain dulcimer. We spoke to him one night as he was judging a harmonica competition at the museum.
"You have to have your fundamentals down," says Schutz, "and once you do that, then you can do things like bending the notes and adding the riffs."
The competition is small, with a few players each blowing a couple of songs on the harmonica.
For Billy Williams, playing the harmonica is all about how you breathe.
"Once I worked with it and built the strength up in it… and now it's just amazing what you can do," Williams says. "You just got more air."
Louisiana Hall of Fame musician Billy J. Morris is also judging the performances.
"I listen to technique," Morris says. "I listen to actually the way they project… I check their timing, their feel."
The judges give the harmonica-playing crown to Vernon Birdwell of Marthasville. And it's more than just a friendly competition. It's a living tribute to the musical soul of this area.
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