• 66°

Old and new come together at Atwood

The Atwood Music Festival in Monticello is a self-proclaimed “party on the Pearl River.” Every Memorial Day weekend for 43 years, musical artists have performed as crowds sang along, ate various fare and spent the time with friends, old and new.

It’s the longest-running music festival of its type, bringing a mix of country, Southern rock and gospel genres with a goal to entertain as many as possible.

Some of the big names to grace the stages over the years have been Grandpa Jones, Minnie Pearl, The Carter Family, Tom T. Hall, Paul Overstreet, Aaron Tippin, Ricky Van Shelton, The Bellamy Brothers, Trace Adkins, Marty Stuart, Charlie Daniels, Travis Tritt and Brothers Osborne. This year’s headliners are The Steel Woods, Ben Haggard (son of the legendary Merle Haggard), Muscadine Bloodline and The Oak Ridge Boys.

Muscadine Bloodline is a duo of young men that hail from Mobile, Alabama, and have joined together after each pursuing their own paths into the music business. On his own, singer/guitarist Charlie Muncaster has opened for such artists as Brad Paisley and The Band Perry. Moving to Nashville from Mobile — with a few years’ layover at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg — guitarist/singer Gary Stanton also paid his dues traveling and opening for various performers.

Via email, Stanton and Muncaster said they write what they know — country music.

“Being from South Alabama, country music is just richly engrained in our everyday lives. The imagery in country songs that everyday blue-collar people can relate to, and seeing it impact their lives, is the reason we wanted to play country music,” said Muncaster.

As for sharing the stage with legends like The Oak Ridge Boys, the duo says it’s a great honor.

“We speak for a lot of artists when we say in country music we respect the artists that did it first. It’s a close community and the fans are the most important part of that. They are the ones responsible for guys like [The Oaks] to have such a long successful career,” Stanton said.

The guys say touring the country has been incredible, and watching attendance at their shows grow over the past few years has been a humbling experience.

“We have learned that reaching people takes time and that doesn’t happen overnight. As we keep playing shows, we always want to strive to make the show experience better for the fans, cause at the end of the day is all you’ve got,” they said.

Muscadine Bloodline is the final act Friday night.

After a lineup of Doug Duncan, Third Beat, Logan Greenlee and Band and The Steel Woods Band, one of the best-known groups in country music history will take the stage. The instantly-recognizable lead, tenor and bass lines of The Oak Ridge Boys will bring smiles to the faces of long-time fans and may create new ones.

Bass singer Richard Sterban says he wanted to be either a baseball player or a singer, and decided he had more of a natural talent for the latter. Already part of a couple of gospel groups in his 20s, Sterban got the opportunity to sing with Elvis Presley for about 18 months in the early 1970s, and still considers it a highlight of his career.

His recently-published autobiography, “From Elvis to Elvira: My Life on Stage,” shares several stories of practical jokes played by the King of Rock-n-Roll, heartwarming experiences over the years of lean and success, and encouragement from the Man in Black.

“Johnny Cash was such an encourager to us,” Sterban told The Daily Leader by phone. “One night in Vegas, after a show, we just didn’t know where we were going to go from there or what we were going to do. We had nothing lined up — no dates, no prospects.”

But Cash asked them to come up to his room in the hotel and talk with him. He told them he saw something special in them and in what they were doing. He even added them to his own show and “paid us more than we were worth,” Sterban said.

“He told us not to give up, to somehow find a way to keep going,” said Sterban. “He said, ‘If you give up, no one else is going to know how special you are. You’ve got to find a way to hang in there. If you do, I promise good things will happen.’ We walked into that room with our heads hung low and depressed, and we walked out of that meeting with our heads held high and smiles on our faces. We said, ‘If Johnny Cash thinks we can make it, we can find a way.’”

A few years later, in 1978, The Oak Ridge Boys won their first Country Music Association award for Best Vocal Group of the Year. Cash was the host of that show.

“When our names were announced, Johnny was standing on one side of the stage and the person with our award was on the other side,” said Sterban. “Instead of running over to the microphone to accept our award, we ran to Johnny and hugged him.”

Sterban laughed. “He said, ‘See fellas, I told you so.’”

Despite a few more rough patches along the way, The Oaks haven’t given up and are still performing an average of 150 shows each year after nearly 50 years on the road and with each member of the group age 69-79.

“We love what we do and we love to bring smiles to the faces of the people who come out to hear us,” said Sterban. “At Atwood, we’ll do all the songs that people know us for — ‘Elvira,’ ‘Thank God for Kids,’ ‘Y’all Come Back Saloon’ and ‘American Made’ — some patriotic songs, and some new stuff off our new album ‘17th Avenue Revival.’”

“The song ‘Brand New Star’ (on the new album) is already making an impact on people and we’re real excited about that,” Sterban said. “We’re looking forward to being back in Mississippi.”

Promising “good friends, good food, good music, good times,” festival tickets are $25 at the gate for each night, or $35 in advance for the weekend. Children ages 9 and younger get in free. Tickets are available at ardenland.net and at the following locations: Ramey’s Marketplace and First Bank in Monticello; Pearl River Honda in Columbia; and State Bank locations in Brookhaven, McComb and Monticello.