Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
In 1930, a twin-engine Fokker plane was flying low over the wide green valley of Wiley's Cove, just north of Leslie, Ark. Most of the townsfolk below had never seen any kind of aircraft, so they watched in still silence as it drew closer to town, and ran after it as it passed overhead.
Two hands reached out of the plane and dropped a small bucket to the ground. Inside was a message from 14-year-old Hugh Ashley telling his mother he was OK and headed for Los Angeles, Calif.
That's how a long career in music began for the former state representative and mayor of Harrison, who passed away on Oct. 31 at 93. In addition to his public service for the state of Arkansas, Ashley was a successful songwriter whose songs have been recorded by Bill Monroe, Porter Wagoner, Brenda Lee, Jim Reeves and Dinah Shore.
Everyone is familiar with the television show, “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but few are old enough to recall the popular West Coast radio sensation that predated it. Originally staffed by studio musicians, the program's gimmick was that hillbillies had been found in the Beverly Hills (then entirely forested land) and brought into the studio to play music. The show was immensely popular in southern California in the late 1920s and early '30s, and after its initial success, talent scouts took to the hills of Arkansas to find actual folk musicians to augment the program's lineup.
The Ashley Melody Men, led by Hugh's father, Hobart, were an initial target, but the elder Ashley told the KMPC broadcasters he had a farm to run. However, he said, he might spare young Hugh, a budding singer, guitarist and songwriter.
In the field plowing corn with a stubborn mule, the young man impressed the reps enough with his high yodel to strike a deal, and off Ashley went, down from the hills and to a plane in Pine Bluff. His family had requested some form of assurance that he'd made it safely down south and onto the plane, so the radio men arranged the message drop on Wiley's Cove.
“The Beverly Hill Billies” (“hillbillies” not yet a compound word in 1930) was the hottest radio show on the West Coast, and Ashley's arrival had been heavily promoted, although his given name was deemed far too elegant for a true hillbilly. Upon landing in California, he was introduced to the throng of thousands of excited fans as “Little Hubert Walton.”
He stayed for six weeks that summer, and again the next summer. Shortly thereafter, the show's principals broke up the group and the show faded into history, but not before it made a big stamp on the collective consciousness of California's nascent country music scene (not to mention a young upstart group in 1933 called Sons of the Pioneers). The legendary Jimmie Rodgers even thanked Ashley personally for playing his tunes on the radio and for helping popularize the sounds and styles of what would come to be known as country music (the genre was known as “hillbilly” until the 1940s).
After graduating from high school in Marshall and attending the University of Arkansas, Ashley continued to record, write and perform music in various forms for 15 years between Memphis and Los Angeles. While serving three years in the Army Special Services entertaining troops during World War II, he met his wife, Helen. They were married in 1946 and moved to Harrison, where shortly thereafter, he began a music store business.
Ashley Music Store, in its various incarnations, has been a fixture in Harrison for decades. It evolved from a few records sold in the back of a local drugstore to its own building on Main Street, where it now offers a full line of musical instruments, sheet music, and CDs in addition to a recording studio. It's also been the place where nearly every kid in Boone County would go for guitar lessons (courtesy of the Smith family, who've since opened their own store, GuitarSmiths, just off the Harrison square).
Not content with a life dedicated solely to business, Ashley stepped into public service as a city councilman in the 1960s, ascended to mayor of Harrison in 1970 and then to state representative in 1976. Afterwards he remained an active Democrat, and was awarded the Chairman's Heritage Award by the Democratic Party of Arkansas in 2005 for his lifelong service and dedication.
Despite the years, Ashley never truly retired. His tall, strong frame could always be found six days a week at his music store, right up to the days before his death. He was a solid fixture in a slow moving small town, always available in the back of the store, usually chewing on a still-wrapped cigar, ready to share a story or a tune. A little taciturn or gruff perhaps, but behind those glasses and beard lived a man who'd collected a lifetime of stories to tell. He was an Arkansas original who will be greatly missed.