Calvin Bodiford grew up without a radio in the house.
He’s thankful for that.
A radio just might have kept him for enjoying one of the truly great joys of his life — playing music.
Bodiford was born in 1932 in rural Crenshaw County in Southeast Alabama.
Like most folks back then, his family had what they needed to get by, but none of the luxuries of life. A radio would have been a luxury.
"I got interested in playing music because we didn’t have a radio," Bodiford said, with a chuckle. "Nobody in my family played music, so I didn’t inherit my love of music. But there was this band of boys who would wander around the neighborhood playing country music. They’d sit on different porches, play music and sing for people. I fell in love with pickin’ and singin’ at an early age."
When Bodiford was about 10 years old, he wanted his own guitar. But, with money being tight, he knew he would have to earn the dollars he needed. So, he began to comb the neighborhood selling garden seeds.
"I guess my daddy felt sorry for me because he broke down and bought me a guitar—a Gene Autry guitar from Sears and Roebuck," Bodiford said. "I started to learn to play and I didn’t know any better than to like it."
The guitar was a ‘finger killer.’ At first the blisters came. Then the bleeding.
"I could have quit then, but like I said, I liked it so I kept playing until the bleeding stopped and the calluses came, and I never thought about stopping again," Bodiford said. "I learned to play from a song book that had guitar chords in it and from watching others. Soon I got the hang of it and I was hooked. Roy Gibson and I grew up together and went to school together.
"We hunted, fished and played music together and together we made music fun."
As a young teenager, Bodiford learned to play the fiddle and "got good enough" to play for square dances in Brantley on Saturday nights.
Before he was really dry-behind-the-ears yet, Bodiford and a "whole group" of his friends joined the military together.
"Money was hard to come by and we’d heard we could join the army together and stay together as entertainers," Bodiford said. "That sounded like a good idea so, in 1950, five of us joined up for that specific purpose and were assigned to Fort Rucker. But we had to go through basic training first. We went on a few maneuvers to Texas and North Carolina, and put on shows there."
Bodiford said there were about 150 "army entertainers" and they played all kinds of music.
"We had an orchestra and played classical music as well as marches," he said. "We put on Broadway shows like South Pacific. I heard ‘There is Nothing Like a Dame’ so much until I was tired of it and never wanted to hear it again."
Bodiford admitted he also danced in a chorus line and that was a big stretch for a boy from the red clay fields of Southeast Alabama.
"I wasn’t too bad at it," Bodiford said laughing.
Just as they went into the army together, the five entertainer friends got "separated" together.
"I came home in 1953 and went to work playing music in Montgomery," Bodiford said. "We’d play social dances or beer joints — just any place where we could set-up, play and they’d give us a little money. We had a band called the Moonshiners that was kind of patterned after Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys. This feller, John Blackwell, was the front man but we operated like a democracy…if we didn’t want to do something, we didn’t."
Bodiford also played with Shorty Sullivan and his Green Valley Boys, and they brought WBAM in Montgomery on the air in 1953.
"We were the first group to play on WBAM and played the Saturday Morning Jamboree," Bodiford said. "The radio station had talent shows all around and we played backup to the singers. Once a year, they had a big show in Montgomery."
At the same time, Bodiford was attending business college in Montgomery. In 1953, he had gotten married to the love of his life, Alma, and knew he wanted a better life for them than he could give playing music. So, when it looked like he might starve to death playing music, he went back to spend time with his "Uncle Sam."
That was in 1956 and he "wound up" playing a little Western Swing, fiddle music and steel guitar. Then, in 1958, he left for Korea.
"One day in the Armed Forces paper, I saw an advertisement where this group of service men needed a guitar player," Bodiford said. "I went, auditioned and started that night. We played two jobs on Saturday, one on Sunday and one every other night of the week. We were called the Country Gentlemen and played at the NCO and Officers Club. I was making more money playing than I was in the Army."
When Bodiford came back stateside, he was assigned as a personnel clerk at Fort Rucker and was kept so busy he didn’t have time to play music.
He retired from the Army on April 1, 1973, and started playing "a little" again. But he found another outlet for his music—- teaching.
"People wanted me to teach them or their children how to play instruments," Bodiford explained. "So, I started teaching and just played with loose groups, nothing professional."
Not one for idle time, Bodiford went to work with the state as a tax auditor— "quite a life for a redneck," he said, laughing.
Once again "retired," Bodiford continued teaching and playing with loose groups. He taught acoustic instruments at the Pioneer Museum of Alabama until last year. Now, he’s content playing with one of his favorite groups, the Lighthouse String Ensemble, working in his garden, being with Alma and enjoying a leisurely life at home in Brantley.
"Playing with the Lighthouse String Ensemble is a real honor," he said. "They are great musicians and singer and one of the best bluegrass/Southern Gospel bands anywhere around. I’ll stay with them until they throw me out.
"Alma and I are happy and content, and I count myself very fortunate that music has been a big part of my life and that I’ve been able to play it and enjoy it for so many years."
Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.