Small-town Saturday night stars traditional country music
By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson PostLIBERTY -- Around 7 every Saturday night, come rain or shine, in an old DeKalb Cou
Going by the name of James Hamlett and the Family Tradition, the musicians who perform at the Saturday night Liberty Dance are, from left, Max Hight, Johnny Gentry, James Hamlett and Steve Hill. Three of the four hail from Wilson County.
Country tunes provide the music for the dancers on the hardwood floors of the Liberty Grammer School cafeteria in DeKalb County. Most Saturday nights four to five dozen dancers hit the dance floor to two step or line dance.
KEN BECK / The Wilson Postnty grammar school cafeteria, several dozen dancers shod in cowboy boots hop out on a hardwood dance floor and begin to two-step to the sounds of traditional country music.
About 80 old theater seats surround three sides of the dance floor, so folks can take a load off. Four American flags decorate the big room, and the band’s name, James Hamlett and the Family Tradition, painted onto a fabric, hangs before a backdrop of gray barn wood.
Welcome to the Liberty Dance in downtown Liberty (population 367), where boot scootin’ is the order of the evening.
Classics made famous by the likes of Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Loretta Lynn flow from the stage where James Hamlett and the Family Tradition Band churn out mighty pleasing music from behind the mikes, three guitars and a drum set.
“It’s just a fun deal. Ain’t no big deal,” says Hamlett, 58, who is lead guitarist and vocalist. He wears a black cowboy hat, western shirt, blue jeans and brown boots while sporting a gray chin beard, moustache and long hair, country-boy style, that almost reaches the top of his shirt collar. “They do line dancing, slow dance, and we play some square dances.
“The band’s been together for about 15 years. Me and the bass player and drummer, we’re all kin. We’re a four-piece band, mainly. I play a few fiddle tunes and do a little buck dancing,“ Hamlett said from behind his electric Harmony Gibson guitar.
Boots, jeans and cowboy hats fill the bill here as the dancers scramble about a 25-foot-by 60-foot hardwood dance floor. Once the music starts, well, you could just about swear you were waltzing across a Texas (or Tennessee) dance hall back in 1969. Think of Larry McMurtry’s “The Last Picture Show,” only instead of black and white and dreary, the mood here is bright and joyful.
“We play a mix of country and do a little upbeat stuff, but it’s mostly traditional. A lot of Merle Haggard, like ‘Mama Tried,’ or ‘Walk Softly’ by the Kentucky Headhunters,” said Hamlett, who also plays an original composition from time to time. “This new stuff, we don’t do it. The people love the older music. You can’t dance to the new music. It’s all rock ’n’ roll.”
The dance hall is behind the two-story, 1918 limestone structure that once served as Liberty’s high school and now is used as city hall, library, history room and senior citizen center. The tiny grammar school in back, built in the 1930s by WPA workers, has a rock exterior but boasts an all-wood interior.
The Liberty DanceKick up your heels and swing your partner along to live country music performed by James Hamlett and the Family Tradition 7-10:30 p.m. Saturdays in the old Liberty grammar school in DeKalb County. Admission is $5. For more information, call (615) 286-2721. Liberty is about 25 miles southeast of Lebanon on Highway 70 between Alexandria and Smithville.Those who enter here will be greeted by Jerry George who will ask for a $5 admission fee to help defray utility costs. Now you can dance a week’s worth of your blues away.
The first song up tonight from Hamlett and his band is a rousing rendition of Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here Again.” Immediately, four couples pop up on the dance floor where the lights are low. After the tune concludes, the dancers clap and sit down.
“Ya’ll give the band a hand if you want,” said Hamlett as he launches into Haggard‘s “Silver Wings” and then follows with Don Williams’ “Tulsa Time.”
The threat of a mid-December snowfall has kept many regulars away tonight but not the faithful.
“We been coming a year and a half,” said McMinnville’s Marlin Whitman, here tonight with his wife Karen, daughter and grandchild. “What we enjoy most is the dancing, and it’s got a big dance floor.”
“I like it,” Karen said. “It’s old-fashioned country. I don’t like that rock stuff.”
“We try to come every week,” said Jane Spradley of Murfreesboro. “We like the family atmosphere. Everybody’s friendly, and there’s good music. They do family events like Halloween costume contests, Christmas dinner and pot-luck dinners.
“The biggest thing is the friendly environment. We don’t have any really good dancers here, but it is a good place if you want to learn to dance. We try to teach each other.”
“We’ve been coming a good 10 to 12 years,” said Jane’s husband Joe. “We bring our grandkids ever now and then. You don’t have to worry about drinking and trouble. My sister and brother-in-law come. They don’t dance but just like to listen to James. The floor is big. A lot of places have got small floors where you keep bumping into each other.”
“Yeah, it’s a great big old dance floor. It took a long time to get it where it’s at. We had to take walls out and stuff. We knocked out a wall and built the stage on at the end of the building. It was all volunteer work, thousands of hours,” Hamlett said. “Jerry George helped me get the thing started. We’re partners on running it.”
Hamlett and George lease the building from the town of Liberty.
“The grammar school closed in late ’60s,” said Edward Hale, 91, Liberty’s mayor since 1971. “The dances started small scale after the consolidation of the schools. Later on we let them take the partitions out and they made it larger. They been having dances there ever since.”
Different organizers came and went, and the dance hall shut its doors in 2005, but not for long.
“It closed down, and out of the blue James said, ‘Let’s hold a dance.’ So I went and talked to the mayor. I went and got the electric and water and gas turned on. On May 5 it will be five years,” said George, who lives a few miles down Highway 56 in Gassaway.
“We got people coming from Sparta, McMinnville, Murfreesboro, Woodbury, Smithville, Cookeville and Lebanon,” Hamlett said. “The dancers mostly range from 25 to 70, but we have kids probably in their teens.
“It’s family-oriented, and everybody is just real friendly. I get that a lot from people. They say, ‘This is the friendliest place I ever been,’ and I run it clean. There’s no drinking or drugs. We run it pretty tight.”
The trio in the Family Tradition band includes bass guitarist Max Hight of Statesville (Hamlett’s son-in-law), rhythm guitarist and singer Johnny Gentry of Cookeville and drummer Steve Hill of Watertown.
Patrons can get in on the act if they wish.
“Some people want to get up and sing or play with me,” said Hamlett, who has played back-up for such country stars as Billy Grammer, Bill Carlisle, Justin Tubb, Charlie Louvin, Johnny Carver and bluegrass king Jimmy Martin.
He beckons “Miss Mary” to come up and sing a few tunes, and she responds with a few of her favorite songs, such as Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Major motion picture to shoot in Liberty
If things turned out as scripted, James Hamlett is going to be in a Hollywood movie that plans to shoot one day in January or February at the Liberty Dance with many of the dance hall regulars appearing as extras.
The film, “Love Don’t Let Me Down,” stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw and Garrett Hedlund, while Tobey Maguire is producing, but don’t break your neck hoping for a peek at Paltrow or McGraw as neither are expected for the dance hall scene.
“It will be more or less like a regular Saturday night dance,” says Hamlett, who has already signed on for the film and will be in his regular spot on stage leading a band and probably singing a country standard. “It’ll be a lot of fun.”
Hamlett has been told the shot will be one of the beginning scenes. “I don’t think Tim McGraw will be here,” he says.
However, the stars are expected to sing in the country music drama about a has-been country singer (Paltrow) who tries to make a comeback with the help of her husband-manager (McGraw) and an up-and-coming songwriter (Hedlund). The latter portrayed McGraw’s son in the 2004 film “Friday Night Lights.”“That’s one we got a hit on. I got hit on the head,” Hamlett joked.
The band takes a 15-minute break at the top of every hour. At the first intermission, Hamlett’s wife Frances captures the mike for an announcement: “We appreciate everybody coming out. We’ve got some good food and it’ll get you full.”
The Hamletts live in Statesville from where they operate J&F Siding as James does vinyl siding, trim, window replacement work and a little roofing. Frances is retired from Lux in Lebanon.
“My band been together for a long time, oh, lordy, the better part of 20 years,” Hamlett recollected. “We just played here and there, little places. We decided we wanted a place to play every weekend.”
“We started here around 1988 and quit in the mid ’90s. It didn’t pan out so good,” said Frances, who calls the occasional square dance. “I enjoy the people. I meet everybody and like to socialize. I know ’em all. I just like to be here.”
“She helps with the little old concession and kind of helps runs the place,” James said. “We got a daughter, Judy, that helps with the concessions, and our granddaughter Brandy runs the concessions with her.”
The walls near the concession stand are decorated with country music album covers from the 1960s and 1970s to match the music most of the folks enjoy most. A sign advertises the cost of concessions where soft drinks are a buck, hot chocolate costs 50 cents, while a hamburger runs $2, a corn dog fetches $1.25 and a hot dog will set you back $1.50.
“It’s just like one big family,” said the Hamlett’s daughter, Judy Tarpley. “If somebody’s not here, you know it.”
And on a small-town Saturday night in the Liberty dance hall, that’s the way it’s meant to be.
Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.