November 2010
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Benton Bros. are Knee Deep in Bluegrass

The Benton Brothers, Alex (right) and Lee, of the Enon community in Pike County, are making a name for themselves as bluegrass pickers and singers.

 
   

Maybe, somewhere, far back in the recesses of their minds, Alex and Lee Benton might dream of performing on the stage of the famed Grand Ole Opry.

Then, maybe not.

The Benton brothers might be content to continue playing their music in church houses, at small town harvest festivals and at the bedside of those who are in need of a merry heart.

After all, it was at the bedside of their grandmother where the brothers first realized the "medicinal" qualities of music.

"Our grandmother, Enid Benton, was sick and we wanted to do something to cheer her up," Alex said. "We had just started playing the guitar and we thought we would play for her and sing some of the old hymns she liked so much."

Because the brothers were new at both picking and singing, they weren’t sure how much their grandmother would enjoy the off-key concert. But they could not have had a better audience for their impromptu concert.

 

Nationally acclaimed storyteller Barbara McBride-Smith found two “do-right” boys in the Benton brothers, Alex (left) and Lee.

"We weren’t all that good but our grandmother liked our music," Alex said. "She would smile and clap her hands a little and the music was good for her—almost like a medicine."

The brothers performed encore concerts for their grandmother almost every day and they chose her favorite hymns, among them were "Precious Memories" and "Amazing Grace."

"We were learning and we didn’t always get the chords right and we missed some of the words, but that didn’t matter to our grandmother," Lee said. "She just liked to hear us sing. It was good for her and for us, too."

The brothers realized, if music could bring enjoyment to their grandmother, it could also lift the spirits of others.

Their mother, Patricia Benton, works in the beauty shop at Troy Health and Rehabilitation Center in Troy and she made arrangements for the brothers to sing at the Wednesday church services at the Center.

"We still weren’t very good, but the residents liked what we sang—the old church hymns they all knew," Alex said. "Their eyes would light up and they would clap and sing along with us and they kept asking us to come back."

That was two years ago and Patricia Benton decided, if her boys were going to perform "music medicine shows," they could benefit from a few guitar lessons.

"We first got a book of chords and then took lessons but mostly we practiced," Lee said.

The brothers are home-schooled so their mom added Picking and Singing 101 to their course of study and they practiced religiously. Their play list included hymns and favorite gospel tunes.

The Benton brothers have become regulars at Rex’s Bluegrass Festivals at Henderson in April and October. Rex Locklar (right) and the droves of bluegrass pickers who frequent the festivals have taken the brothers under their wings, for they, and other young people like them will carry on the bluegrass music tradition. Lee Benton helped Locklar strap on his mandolin and Locklar didn’t let arthritis keep him from strumming a tune.

 
   

But, they might never have signed up for Bluegrass 101 had it not been for the Pike County patriarch of bluegrass, Rex Locklar.

"Rex Locklar has bluegrass festivals twice a year at Henderson and we went over there just to see what it was all about," Lee said. "We heard the Rivertown Girls from Blounts-town, FL, picking and singing, and got to talking to Rex and all of the bluegrass musicians and we got interested in bluegrass music."

Bluegrass musicians are one big family and they are anxious to bring young people into the fold. The Benton brothers were welcomed with open arms and, before they knew it, they were under the wings of a huge flock of pickers and hooked on the high, lonesome sound of bluegrass.

"Everybody at Rex’s Bluegrass Festivals really helped us," Alex said. "We’d ask, ‘How do you do that?’ and they would show us. We learned a lot from them and we kept practicing and we got better. Rex told us, if we worked at it, we could help carry on the bluegrass tradition."

Locklar said the "old pickers" who come to his festivals are glad to see young people interested in bluegrass.

"If we don’t have young folks playing bluegrass, it’s gonna die out," Locklar said. "You look around the festivals and most of us are getting old and some are like me and can’t play anymore. Arthritis has crippled my hands and I can’t play like I used to. I wish I could."

There is a growing interest in bluegrass, as more young people are playing it and more fans are joining the ranks.

"When I see young folks playing bluegrass, I know it won’t die out—at least not any time soon," Locklar remarked.

And, certainly not if the Benton brothers have anything to do with it.

They are knee-deep in bluegrass.

Just about any weekend, they are where the bluegrass "grows." The Benton brothers are finding more venues for bluegrass and their other kinds of music—gospel, country, front porch, and even some 1950s and ’60s songs.

Each week, they still play at the nursing home, but no longer limit their playing to the commons area.

"There are some people who can’t come to the church services, so we go to their rooms and sing for them," Lee said. "We really like to do that. And, we still sing at churches and festivals just anyplace we are invited."

The brothers said helping people is what their music is all about.

"When you play music, you never know who you touch," Lee said. The brothers believe there is a greater purpose for each and every performance.

 

Alex and Lee Benton are at the center of things at the We Piddle Around Theater in Brundidge. They are featured pickers and singers at events there. They are pictured during a recent practice session as singers prepared for the November production of the original folk life play, “Come Home, It’s Suppertime.”

"There is somebody in every audience who we are supposed to play for," Alex said. "We might not know who it is or ever know, but there is always someone who we are singing for."

The Benton brothers are featured pickers and singers at the We Piddle Around Theater in Brundidge. The theater’s official folk-life play, "Come Home, It’s Suppertime" gives them an opportunity to play front porch music as well as the old-time church hymns and their pre-show includes gospel, bluegrass and a country song or two.

Alex and Lee stepped out of their comfort zone to sing the music of teenage idols, the Everly Brothers, at a 2010 summertime storytelling event at the We Piddle Around Theater.

Master storytelling Barbara McBride-Smith told the story of the "do-right" boys of the 1950s and then took time to have her photograph taken with two "do-right" boys of the 21st century, the Benton Brothers.

Their group, the Benton Brothers & Company, features Alex on guitar, Lee on mandolin, Tim Ellis on standup bass and Kathryn Young-blood on guitar. Although their favorite audience is their grandparents, Eugene and Ruby Turner, they play for churches, benefits and other functions. The Benton Brothers may be reached at (334) 735-5815.

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.