By Jim Pfeifer
In order to visualize the Hillcrest of the 1950s enjoyed by Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame member, Wayland Holyfield, I prowled around the corner of Kenyon and Beechwood where he grew up. Unfortunately, his home at 1019 Beechwood has been demolished, but several surrounding homes have been protected and preserved. Music was on my mind after interviewing Wayland Holyfield from his Nashville home, but I never expected to see other musicians across the street from the Hillcrest house he left over a half century ago.
There, raking leaves in front of the beautiful 1917 craftsman bungalow pictured here, was George West, who has entertained Arkansans for decades with his wife Starr Mitchell in their much-loved band of dulcimers and fiddles, “Lark in the Morning.” When I explained that I was retracing the steps of famed musician Wayland Holyfield, he was excited and pointed out a home two doors away where he had met country singer Patsy Montana, who often visited there. Somehow, understanding the creative spirit and accomplishments of many Hillcrest residents, it was not surprising to learn of this “musical corner.”
Wayland Holyfield had two loves when he grew up in Hillcrest … making up songs on his ukulele and dribbling a basketball. “I was short but slow” is how he wryly describes his Hall High School basketball career, adding “I dribbled my ball all the way to War Memorial Park swimming pool and back every summer day after throwing a paper route." As to his ukulele, “I called it ‘making up stuff’... I had no idea what a songwriter was, but that’s what I did for years as a kid.” It took him a while to decide ‘which dream to follow’, but once he did, he jumped straight into the fire and didn’t stop.
After stints in two much loved mid-20th century regional bands, “The Rebels” and “General Store”, a marketing degree from UA, and a couple of desk jobs, “My wife and I quit our jobs, rented a Ryder truck and left for Nashville without knowing a soul there.” His songs hit the charts within a year with “Rednecks, White Sox and Blue Ribbon Beer” at number 1 and his successes followed year after year with dozens of hits covered by artists as diverse as Randy Travis and The Who. He is highly respected in his field, Grammy-nominated, and was elected to lead the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
How did he do it? Wayland talks of the support by his parents and his wife, and about the importance of following through with his education. His marketing degree gave him abilities to present himself and his work in a positive way. He also had commitment. He knew what he loved and just did it. “I have been asked many times by budding young musicians, ‘should I go to Nashville?'...and I am tempted to respond, 'If you have to ask, are you really ready?' ”
Songwriters don’t really want to hear the question, “What’s your favorite song of those you have written?” There is little doubt that Wayland Holyfield deeply cherishes his 1986 masterpiece, and one of our official state songs, “Arkansas You Run Deep in Me.” President Clinton shared with the nation his fondness for the song at his 1993 inaugural ball.
Much more could be said about the great artists associated with this musical corner of Hillcrest - Kenyon and Beechwood. What dream will be followed from your corner of the neighborhood?
Research assistance from Butler Center for Arkansas Studies is appreciated