By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal
WALNUT – A craving for good old country music brings dozens of enthusiasts back to The Country Music Place week after week.
The Highway 15 music hall, just south of U.S. Highway 72, opened four years ago.
“I’ve had a band that for many years has played everywhere – Florence, Ala., Jackson, Tenn., Corinth, Ripley, Bruce – all around this area,” said founder Eugene Shofner of the Three Forks community. “We’re here every Saturday night from 7 to 10 p.m. and average 75 to 100 people.”
Shofner, 75, said that as he and other band members got older they wanted to spend less time on the road, and so he opened the business to give them a regular venue for their music.
And music is what it’s all been about for him since his early teens.
“My brother and I started out together, me on the mandolin and (the late) Freddy on guitar,” Shofner said. “We’d play special events, parties, benefits. We just loved doing it.”
Shofner’s love for music spawned his dreams of making country music a career.
In 1958 and 1959, in the early years of WMCT television, the NBC affiliate in Memphis, Tenn., Shofner was a guest performer with Slim Rhodes and the Mountaineers. He met country recording artist Wilford Ray at Sun Records in Memphis, and Ray became a good friend who has visited The Country Music Place many times.
“In 1958, I played at the Grand Ole Opry with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs,” Shofner said. “Then I was drafted in the Army and served two years. When I came back I was a ‘has-been.’ If you’re out of the music business for any time, people forget about you unless you’ve already made a name for yourself like Elvis Presley.”
Not only his Army service, but also his Christian salvation set Shofner on another music path for several years.
“I left country music for a while and sang with a gospel quartet for several years,” he said. “I was saved and began directing singing in church.”
Shofner already was working for American Biltrite, where he was employed until retiring after 30 years. He was doing his part with his wife, Cora Elawese Booker Shofner, to raise their family.
Though Shofner had dropped out of Walnut High School in ninth grade, he learned during his Army life that he’d made a mistake in not pursuing his education, and got his GED.
As a church music director, Shofner was getting by with his intuitive knowledge of music. But that wasn’t good enough for this man who likes his i’s dotted and his t’s crossed. Shofner enrolled at Blue Mountain College to pursue a degree in music.
“I went to school for piano, but what I really wanted was to learn to read notes,” he said. “I learned music to direct music, but I never did learn to play the piano.”
More in-depth knowledge of music made him a much better music director at church, but a man with country music in his soul can’t stay away from it forever.
Shofner assembled a band – The Country Classics Band – and together they spread their nostalgic country music as far as their bookings would take them until weariness from the road brought them to a permanent home in Walnut.
“The first half of the night we have walk-ons, people from the audience that we just let sing, two or three numbers,” Shofner said. “Then the last half is our band, or sometimes we’ll have other guest bands in.”
Shofner shares rhythm guitar and vocal duty with friend Charles McKee of the Hopewell community in Benton County. McKee had played with the group years ago, but not in recent years until Shofner asked him back.
“My wife and I both love the music, and we went to see them play at different places,” McKee said. “I was playing at home by myself, and it’s hard to get back in with a group when you’ve been on your own.”
When the band was playing gigs of one hour or one-and-a-half hours, Shofner said he could handle vocals on his own. But the three-hour sessions on Saturday nights at The Country Music Place require two singers.
Lead guitar player is B.L. Shaw of Falkner, who has accompanied well-known country music singer Carl Perkins, Eddie Bond, Del Reeves and others. Rounding out the group are Terry McClusky of Dumas on drums and Kevin Mullins of Walnut on bass.
And they play the old classic favorites their guests appreciate.
“We give them the music we all love,” Shofner said. “We’re surrounded here by pictures we take of the people who come here. I went through them and counted a little while ago, and there were 21 people who used to come who aren’t here now, either because they died or moved away. But there are others who learn about us and come to take their place, so we’re giving people something they enjoy.”