FFA String Bands, From Front Porch to Center Stage

FFA gives young musicians a chance to shine.

By Amy Bickers & Brigid Galloway | Photos By Butch Dill

Thompson, McClendon, George, Hicks and Rains warm up outside before taking the stage at the state competition.

Thompson, McClendon, George, Hicks and Rains warm up outside before taking the stage at the state competition.

If they wanted to win the top prize, they needed to put in more hours.

That’s what the five Fyffe High School students concluded as they drove home from the 2012 Alabama state FFA competition. They had come in second. The next year’s competition would most likely be their last shot too, since four out of the five would be seniors at their small north Alabama school. Or as Marty Myers, their FFA sponsor, says: “This is the last rodeo for most of them.”

The high school boys weren’t vying for ribbons for their prized Holstein heifer or Rhode Island Red rooster, however. Instead, what John Hicks, Tom George, Jesse McClendon, Avery Rains and Levi Thompson needed to train were strings on a banjo, three guitars and a mandolin.

“We don’t know nothing about chickens,” says George, laughing. George, who plays mandolin, admitted he unsuccessfully tried showing poultry a few years ago. “All we know is music.”

And, boy, do they know music.

The Fyffe High School FFA String Band, now known as Pickett’s Charge, has enjoyed considerable success. The teenagers have appeared on RFD-TV, served as grand marshals at Fyffe’s Christmas parade, been booked for a variety of events and will release their second CD in 2014.

All the members of this five-piece ensemble fell in love with music at a young age. George, with a musically inclined family, started playing when he was only 7. Hicks, lead vocalist, began singing almost as soon as he began talking and played guitar at age 9. McClendon plays bass guitar and sings tenor. He first played guitar when he was 9 or 10. At 12 or 13, Thompson started playing the banjo. Rains, guitarist, began strumming at a tender age as well.

The guys are songwriters, too. For the competition, they decided to include original tunes as part of the three-song requirement. While most bands perform bluegrass at the state competition, the repertoire of Pickett’s Charge includes country and western and gospel, as well as bluegrass.

FFA Means More Than Most Think

Martin Guitars mean these guys are serious about music,

Martin Guitars mean these guys are serious about music,

To an outsider, it might seem odd that an organization founded more than 85 years ago to, as its web site states, “prepare future generations for the challenges of feeding a growing population” would recognize and reward musical talent.

Yet the organization’s Career Development Events program does just that. Besides awards for swine and goat production, dairy evaluation and tractor driving, the National FFA Organization honors members who excel at such endeavors as public speaking and crime prevention.

“Everybody stereotypes ag, thinking it’s just cows and plows. If you look at the industry, there are more jobs in the world not directly producing food but manufacturing it, hauling it or marketing,” says Myers. “Ag teaches leadership, not just farming and plowing. It tries to get them ready for real life.”

Music has always been a part of a farmer’s recreational time, he adds. “If they play an instrument, most farmers end up sitting on the front porch [playing] at the end of the day,” Myers says.

The Alabama FFA began holding its annual string band contest in the early 1940s. Going into the June 2013 competition, Pickett’s Charge knew that Arab High School was the band to beat. Danville High School took the win in 2012, but the Arab competitors formed their string band while the members were in seventh grade, and won the state competition in 2010 and 2011.

“This is the farthest that Fyffe’s FFA has ever been. They won district two years in a row,” Myers says. The state is divided into North, Central and South districts. The top two bands from each district compete at state. In 2012, Fyffe took first place in the North District FFA and continued to the state FFA contest where they placed second—prompting their pact to rehearse more. Every Monday evening since, they had set up in the Hickses’ living room to practice, week in and week out, leading up to the 2013 state competition.

Now it was time to see if all those hours of stringing, strumming and singing would pay off.

On stage at the competition.

On stage at the competition.

On competition day, the members of Pickett’s Charge dressed according to the official code: black slacks, black socks and black shoes; white shirts and official FFA ties; and the official FFA blue corduroy jacket, neatly zipped to the top.

The boys ducked outside to warm up, out of earshot of their competitors. As the harmonic sounds of strings and vocals drifted into the morning air, it was clear these young men flat-out excelled at music.

Yes, they wanted to win the state title and continue to the National FFA competition in Louisville in the fall. But as their stage time approached, these consummate performers also knew they were looking forward just as much to the sheer joy of entertaining an audience. “We just want to play good. That’s all we care about, giving them a good show,” George says.

During the competition, bands featured percussion, but the majority of instruments are required to be string. The string band from Arab (“the ones to beat,” reminded Myers) boasted not one, but two violins.

It was time for Pickett’s Charge to take the stage. As required, each musician must play the lead at some point in each band’s performance. That is part of what the judges evaluate, in addition to vocal harmonics, song selection and overall presentation.

Among the Fyffe group’s set was the original song “Grandpa John,” written by Hicks and George. The lyrics recount the tale of the Gettysburg battle. It’s an appropriate tune for a band named after the 1863 infantry assault ordered by General Robert E. Lee and led by General George Pickett. The battle is remembered as a mistake from which the Confederacy war effort never recovered.

But on this day, the band Pickett’s Charge finds victory. Fyffe’s FFA string band scooped the top prize at the Alabama FFA string band competition. Gleeful phone calls home spread the news among the town of Fyffe.

“For these boys, music is just one of the God-given talents that they’ve got, and they’ve harvested and multiplied it beyond my wildest imagination,” Myers says. “These boys are very gifted. It doesn’t matter what these boys do [in the competition], they always make you proud that they’re from your town.”

Resting on their laurels wasn’t an option for these hard-working musicians, then or now. In the summer of 2013 after the state win, Pickett’s Charge was booked every weekend, including headlining the Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative meeting on August 3 and, a week later, performing at Music on the Mountain. This festival at Northeast Alabama Community College touts itself as featuring the best bluegrass and gospel music groups in the South. In the fall of 2013, Rains moved to Auburn University to pursue a degree, so the band competed without him at the National FFA Convention and Expo in Louisville. There, Pickett’s Charge made the top 12 out of 270 acts in the Band, Chorus and Talent competition.

Now that they are high school graduates, except for current high school senior Thompson, band members still rehearse, upping practices to twice a week, and they play gigs from festivals to churches to ag events. Their goal is to make a full-time living with their music.

On New Year’s Day 2014, McClendon summed up the band’s success on its Facebook page: “Together we have brought the North District and Alabama state FFA titles back home to Fyffe, competed amongst the top national talent in Kentucky, played for thousands of people and made fans and true friends from all over America,” he wrote.

“With every new song we write and learn, we grow as musicians. Playing alongside my dearest and best friends is all I could ever ask for in life.”