Spend an afternoon with Estha Mae Parker and you will come away with the same belief as me – she is one of the great jewels of Calhoun County.
Never mind the fact that she is remarkably talented, able to play most anything with strings or keys, can sing with the birds, and appears quite ageless. I’m talking about how she is as interesting an individual as you will meet, is filled with fascinating stories, is one of the sweetest ladies you will come across, and she makes about as good a pecan pie as you will find anywhere. (You’ve been put on alert, Mom.)
As a matter of full disclosure, our family has a long history of significant fandom when it comes to Estha Mae and the Coleman family.
The Journal’s original publisher, the late Sellers Denley, once petitioned the City of Bruce in his “Purely Personal” column to recruit the “Porter Parkers and Coleman Family to have their yearly party on the Bruce square instead of their scheduled homestead. And the community furnish refreshments at no cost to anybody.”
I don’t know who dropped the ball on that one, but the idea of the Coleman-Parker Bluegrass Jamboree being held regularly on the Bruce Square should have been a slam dunk. Had Mr. Denley’s advice been taken, Bruce might be thought of on the level of Mountain View today.
Years later, my late father-in-law S. Gale Denley attended the 1991 Jamboree held in the front yard of the Parker’s home west of Bruce in the Old Field Community, where with more than 500 others in attendance he reached the conclusion the Coleman Family could be headlining the Grand Ole Opry, but instead choose to entertain the fine people of Turkey Creek, Parker, Old Field, Ellard and Rocky Branch communities at no cost. (The Coleman Family only accepts pay for performance at professional events, although everything about their talent says professional.)
“Several groups performed that night, but the Coleman Parker group was special,” he wrote in his column. “For it was their night.”
I reveled in it all last Wednesday as Porter and Estha Mae gave me the grand tour of their Opry House. My wife Lisa and I attended one of their semi-monthly performances shortly after the Opry opened in April of 2001. I wrote about the great time we had and witnessing the entertaining “Buck Dance” for the first time.
The musical history from my visit last week was endlessly entertaining, but Estha Mae has so much more to offer. Among her many stories she shared with me was how when she was little they didn’t get to go to town much, so when they did they would go to Dr. Landreth’s office in Bruce, whom they are related to, and “he’d take that ole tongue blade and want us to open our mouths.”
“Aunt Alice would always give me a dime and I’d go down the street to Mr. Ky Logan’s Five and 10 Cent Store and he had black walnut ice cream in those buckets. I’d get that and a Coke and sit on the curb and eat it.”
She spoke of her mother’s side of the family – the Landreths – the same Landreths who farm sweet potatoes in Vardaman. She told me about childhood visits to Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church and Schoolhouse in Yalobusha County and her parents’ stories of riding in a buggy to Old Harp Singings in Concord of Calhoun County.
We talked about how she learned to play guitar as soon as her hand could reach the neck, the founding of the North Mississippi Opry, her 30-plus year career as a nurse in Oxford and her years of performing on WCPC in Houston for Robin Mathis.
When I began typing up my notes, I had more than a newspaper page full, forcing me to edit the story down to fit in this issue on pages 13 and 14.
That means there’s lots more to tell, which I plan to share in a future edition of the CCJ. It’s too good not to.
“I love playing with my family more than anything,” she told me. “There’s just something about it you can’t describe. You can feel the love in the music. It’s a great joy.”
Listening to Estha Mae play, sing, and tell stories left me with the same feeling.
Email Joel McNeece at firstname.lastname@example.org & follow him on Twitter @joelmcneece