The parking lot at the College Grove Community Center is packed. While normally a sleepy town, the third Friday of the month consistently brings folks out for music and dancing. In the foyer of the complex, a band of musicians is warming up for their set.
“It’s show time,” says the evening’s host to the band.
“Billy’s not here yet, but should be any minute,” Don Hazelwood says. “You know we can’t start without him.”
Hazelwood is talking about his elder cousin, the fiddle player and renowned “rock star” of the group.”
They file out to a large meeting hall where a crowd has gathered and are waiting.
As they take the stage, 83-year-old Billy Hazelwood walks into the room wearing a black fedora and carrying his weathered fiddle.
A minute later the Williamson County Bluegrass Band starts playing old standard songs and the crowd immediately responds. They take to the floor… some donning cowboy hats, others wearing clogs. Some are dressed up and others are wearing jeans and t-shirts. The demographic is wide ranging from infants to octogenarians with an overall “country” feel.
The two-steppers take the floor and the band is in full swing.
“We don’t really know how all this began,” says Don Hazelwood about the bluegrass band. “It’s been going for so long and there have been so many different players it’s hard for any of us to keep up with the history.”
Hazelwood attributes Freeman Poteete, Charles Edward Hood, JT Langley and Sammy Atkins as the original four members of the band, but is reluctant to be too confident in his recollection.
He’s also concerned to mention specific names in case he leaves someone out but prattles off a list of people who have been a part of the group, including: Jimmy Swindle, Red Hazelwood, Billy Gene Hazelwood, Sammy Atkins, Sharlene Hazelwood, Bobby Cates, Lou Morgan, J.T. Langley, Phillip Ryan, Jim Morin, Winston McPeak and Jeff Reed.
The current lineup is: Don Hazelwood (vocals/guitar), Jason Fogelman (lead singer/rhythm guitar), Chris Smith (banjo/vocals), Sam Atkins (bass), Tandy Poteat (mandolin), and Billy Gene Hazelwood (fiddle), Jim Morin (Dobro), but others do join in on occasion.
“When we get under a shade tree there might be five of us that start out and end up being 15,” Don Hazelwood says.
Anyone is welcome to join in on the picking. The only rule is that it has to be acoustic and drums are not allowed.
“I’d rather not see a harmonica or accordion either,” Don Hazelwood laughs. “One day we were playing and a little girl came in and played a song on a fiddle that was 100 years old. She’d been playing for eight years. It’s incredible to see the level of talent there is in Tennessee.”
The Williamson County Bluegrass Band never rehearses and just shows up to gigs ready to play.
“We don’t get paid to play so why worry about rehearsing,” Don Hazelwood laughs. “Bluegrass is about feeling the music anyway.”
“We all just love the music and have a good time when playing together,” says Red Hazelwood who plays guitar and banjo with the band when he’s available. “I like a good crowd that enjoys it too.”
Billy Hazelwood has a lot of energy for 83, and it’s obvious he’s enjoying himself on stage. From his recollection he’s been with the band nearly 40 years.
“At my age I can tell that I’m losing it a bit,” Billy Hazelwood says. “I can’t hear as good as I used to. I have hearing aids, but manmade is not as good as what the man upstairs gave us.”
“I don’t know how Billy does it,” laughs Nathan Williams, who’s attending the square dance with his wife Angie and children. “I don’t think he can even hear, but he sure can play.”
Bluegrass music’s origins trace back to the 1920’s and 30’s with the Monroe Brothers, who were a popular acoustic country act.
Charlie Monroe played the guitar, Bill played the mandolin, and they sang in harmony. When the brothers split in 1938, both went on to form their own bands, according to the Bluegrass Heritage Foundation. Bill was a native of Kentucky, the Bluegrass State, so he decided to call his band “Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys,” and this band started a new form of “traditional” country music.
“Bluegrass tells a story that folks can relate to,” Red Hazelwood says. “If they were raised poor they just need to listen to the words and they’ll hear their own story in the songs.”
Red Hazelwood is afraid bluegrass music could be fading away with this generation but his cousin Don disagrees.
“I’ve seen all sorts of young folks picking at festivals and events, he says. “Bluegrass is alive and well. Are you going to make a living playing bluegrass … no, make any money … no, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.”
The College Grove Community Center is located at 8601 Horton Highway in College Grove, TN. You may follow Williamson County Bluegrass on their Facebook page.