On most Mondays, the audience of top-tapping, head-bobbing music fans outnumber the musicians, but not always.
“Sometimes, we have as many as 15 or 16 Pickers,” said Tennie Winter, 59, a fixture at the weekly events.
There’s no charge to listen, but people bring plenty of good food. A recent menu included barbecue sandwiches, slaw, potato salad, fruit slices and pineapple upside-down cake. Musicians and audience members filled their plates and plopped down wherever they could find a place to sit.
When the Monday Night Pickers meet, it’s not exactly a concert and it’s not exactly a supper club. The regulars wouldn’t even call it a synthesis of the two.
“One thing about this group is it’s a family. We try to take care of each other,” said Russ Witt, a 65-year-old guitar player from Tupelo. “When one is down, we pick them up. It’s a family support group. I don’t know what I’d do without them. Of course, we fight like brothers and sisters, but I wouldn’t trade them.”
The cobbled-together family meets and eats at the home of George and Patsy Wilson, who are happy to be hosts each week.
“Somebody asked why we do it,” Patsy Wilson, 66, said. “I said, ‘George likes music and I like company, so we love it.’”
Heat and air
The story started about five years ago in Verona, where a collection of musicians met to play at the Old City Hall building. The location fit the needs of the 10 to 12 original members of the Pickers, but there were drawbacks.
“We had no heat and no air conditioning in the building, and no bathroom,” said Larry Marshall, 68, a Picker from Carr Vista.
People sometimes stopped by to listen in Verona, but there was nothing approaching the high-quality spread of food available at the Wilson house these days.
George Wilson, 69, plays bass, and he heard about the Verona group. Before anyone could say, “Where’s the bathroom?” the Monday Night Pickers became a fixture on Cardinal Street.
That was about three years ago, so the Wilson’s neighbors have gotten used to seeing cars lining the street on Mondays.
“We checked with them to make sure they didn’t mind,” George Wilson said. “We talked to the police, too. They said as long as we didn’t block the street or cause problems, they’d leave us alone.”
Country is cool
The Monday Night Pickers focus on country music from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, but the players slip in rock ‘n’ roll or gospel numbers at times.
“We just have a circle and it goes around the room,” Marshall said. “Each person gets the chance to sing as it goes around. Everybody has their chance. It works that way.”
Tommy Clark, 45, from Mooreville, makes the scene whenever his work schedule allows. He’s a mostly self-taught piano player.
“I like to say that I studied Jerry Lee Lewis,” Clark said. “I can play just about everything he put down.”
When he started playing and singing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” head bobbing and toe tapping wasn’t enough for the audience. Several had to get up and dance.
Christy Francis, 61, of Tupelo, wasn’t in the garage. She was looking after the kitchen and cleaning up after everybody.
But the door into the garage connects to the pantry, which connects to the kitchen. Francis hears everything from her self-appointed post, and she, too, had to shake, rattle and roll when Clark channeled “The Killer.”
“I can still do it at 61 years old,” she said, with a big smile and a clap of her hands.
Songs by Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Gene Watson and other greats are covered. A rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky” resulted in a spontaneous sing-along with the audience during the “Yippie yi ohhhhh, Yippie yi yaaaaay” part.
“You see how much fun we have on Monday nights,” said Winter, still breathing hard after dancing to “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.”
Help from friends
David Gillentine, 65, of Saltillo, knows how to play the drums, but he’s committed himself to learning the bass. It’s been a challenge.
“George (Wilson) is very helpful to give me pointers,” he said. “Everybody has been very helpful with people who are learning. The audience is always encouraging, too, and they always applaud for every song.”
Josh Matthews is a 16-year-old from Tupelo, and he’s learning guitar. He’s been stopping by on Monday nights for the past few months.
“They’re really good teachers,” he said. “Each person has their own way of doing things.”
He’s learning those old country songs, but he’s also a fan of hard rock and heavy metal.
“I won’t do a metal song here,” he said, shaking his head. “I have to fit in.”
The helpfulness goes beyond music. When people get sick, other members check on them. There are past members who aren’t physically able to attend on Monday nights anymore, so volunteers fix plates of food and deliver them.
“A lot of people have come and gone,” Patsy Wilson said, “but they keep coming and keep going. There’s always someone new.”
The Pickers have monthly birthday celebrations, and the group once hosted a wedding reception. Around Christmas and Thanksgiving, everyone pitches in for sit-down meals that feed 45 or so hungry musicians and music fans.
Alcohol isn’t allowed, and there’s no profanity or dirty jokes. Music nights are family nights, as kids and grandkids tag along with their elders.
For the audience, Monday nights are a chance to socialize with friends and enjoy free entertainment.
“It’s just a good group of people,” Patsy Wilson said.
For the musicians, Mondays mean they get to eat well and play together in a climate-controlled environment with ready access to restrooms.
“There are a lot of guys like myself that know three chords and the truth. That’s what they say country songs are,” Marshall said. “There are very few venues for people to play. Most people end up playing at home by themselves. This gives old men like me a chance to play together, and we all look forward to it.”