There was a time when it was hip to be a hillbilly - so much so that the U.S. Congress decreed a National Hillbilly Day because of an annual event held in Maryville.
Years before the Foothills Fall Festival existed, the Hillbilly Homecoming was a week-long festival that drew people to Blount County for a variety of activities, including an antique car show that peaked with 250 entrants.
There were pie contests, hog-calling contests and music from top performers of the day - folks like Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline and Pat Boone.
And the big event was the pageant and the crowning of Miss Belle of the Smokies.
It’s the Miss Belle of the Smokies pageant that is the focus of “A Hillbilly Homecoming,” a play written by Mike Everett, owner of Shear Magic. Actor David Dwyer will direct a cast of local talent that will bring the production to life from Oct. 27 - 31 on the stage of the Flex Theater at the Clayton Center for the Arts. Admission is $10 and all proceeds after expenses go to support the Clayton Center.
Everett said the show is a fundraiser. “We’ve learned there is lot they still need at the Clayton Center,” he said. “One thing they need is risers for the flex theater.”
“And those risers are $60,000,” Dwyer added.
Everett and Dwyer sat down recently to share the story of the play and why they’re committing their time to bring it to stage.
“Hillbilly Homecoming was an event that celebrated the mountain heritage. It was probably bigger than Fall Festival. There were demonstrations of mountain culture. It ran from 1953 to 1967, and it was sponsored by everyone in town,” Everett said.
Everett said there was hog-calling, pie-baking and most importantly there was the Miss Belle of the Smokies Pageant. “It was a week long of events and on Saturday there was a parade and activities and in the evening a concert on long hay wagon on the football field at Maryville High School,” he said. “The who’s-who of country performers like Patsy Cline, Flat and Scruggs and a very young Pat Boone were guests.”
Everett said he got a lot of research for the play by simply talking with people in the community who participated in the Hillbilly Homecoming.
“If you try to look up Hillbilly Homecoming you can hardly find anything on it. When I set out to write a history of it, and I had to talk to people because there was nothing written down,” he said.
Everett said collecting oral history about the festival wasn’t difficult because, in his line of work, he listens to people share their thoughts everyday. “In my job, everybody is talking to me. That’s how I got the story of Patsy Cline coming,” he said.
Businesses and organizations throughout the community sponsored and helped make the event happen, including the Junior Service League, he said.
“Janie Minton Hill was in Junior Service League the year Patsy Cline came and every civic organization did something. JSL was asked to take care of Patsy and take her to lunch,” he said. “Janie was driving her around in Janie Minton’s brand new Cadillac, and Patsy really took a liking to that Cadillac and wanted one. Janie took her over to Rodgers Cadillac to get a car and Patsy couldn’t get financed. Country music back then was so different.”
Everett said Hillbilly Homecoming became so popular, the U.S. Congress declared a National Hillbilly Day because of this event.
Dwyer said his friend actor Bruce McKinnon, a lifelong Blount-resident, shared how children always got into the spirit of the Hillbilly Homecoming that happened during July 4th holiday each year.
“He said everyone dressed in hillbilly outfits and best hillbilly kid got a silver dollar -- which was something special for kids back then,” Dwyer said.
Everett had fond memories of the homecoming. “In 1961, year this play takes place, I was 10. I grew up when Hillbilly Homecoming was something to look forward too,” he said. “This festival received national recognition because at one time the parade maxed out with 250 antique cars, and people came from everywhere to put their cars in it.”
Downtown was the center of Maryville long before New Midland Shopping Center and Foothills Mall were built. “In fact, Maryville went from the train viaduct to Circle Drive but that was it in 1961,” he said. “There wasn’t any shopping center and was very little anywhere else.”
Sevier County-native Dolly Parton was still in high school and performing on the Cas Walker radio show. “She sang the Hillbilly Homecoming one year, and naturally that is who I chose to be the fictitious guest artist,” he said.
Everett said while learning about the pageant, he also recalled how small Maryville’s population was at the time and how everyone knew everyone else in town.
“One of the worst things that could happen to you in 1961 was for people to talk about you, because you knew everybody,” he said. “Even on Saturdays when you went to town, at Eagle Dime Store on Cusick Street and Broadway, the men always stopped there to talk about the weather and to gossip. That was the basis for this play.”
“The fact everybody knew everyone’s business,” Dwyer said.
Everett said the main character, “Geraldine,” is 25 and it is last year she would be eligible to enter the Miss Belle of the Smokies Pageant. “She was considered to be the town harlot. In the play she works a beer hall at Calamity Corner,” he said of current day intersection of Everett and Harper avenues where taverns were located. ‘“Geraldine’ was a young lady who would work in pool hall that served beer, and she had a need to be approved of.”
“She was always looking for love and approval in all the wrong places,” Dwyer said of the character.
Everett said the character Geraldine decides she’s going to enter the Miss Belle of the Smokies Pageant. “And that sets tongues a wagging,” he said.
But others in the town have plenty of secrets as well.
Everett said Dana Overholt Wham of Maryville portrays the pageant directress. “She was formerly a Miss Belle of the Smokies herself,” he said. “You learn, she’s having an affair with a man who has an estranged wife he hasn’t divorced.”
“And his wife ran off with an encyclopedia sales woman,” Dwyer said.
Everett said that in the play, the whole town is excited that Dolly Parton is going to be at the festival. “Dolly is played by Karli Kavat. She’s 14 and goes to Heritage High School,” he said. “The girl playing Geraldine is Murella Parton, who is studying opera at UT. She’s has one of the most incredible voices I’ve ever heard. There was no question.”
Everett said Rosemary Ballard, a former Miss Tennessee, plays the character Minnie Mallard, who enters a hog-calling contest in the play.
Dwyer said Walker Johnson of Maryville even created some original music for the production. “We’ve taken early 60s music and rewritten the music so people will remember the music but there will be new lines,” he said. “Dana is doing “The Duty of Beauty” to “That’s the Power of Love.”
Dwyer said the play opens during a funeral in present day Maryville. “Then it goes back to 1961,” he said.
Everett said someone from the Hillbilly Homecoming of 1961 has died. “The audience doesn’t know who it is in the casket so the bulk of the play is a flashback,” he said.
Dwyer said much of the action from the play happens back stage at the 1961 pageant. “So the audience sees the pageant from back stage,” Everett said.
Everett said he hopes to see some former Miss Belles of Smokies on hand for the play. “We’ll have a small display of memorabilia from the pageants in the lobby,” he said.
Dwyer said Everett did a good job in writing the play. “He hit the essence of it right on the head and it only needed some honing and editing. With the characters, you’ve got strong country women who love to talk and love to gossip and so there’s lot of words in this play,” he said. “But Mike has honed it down. It has gotten sharper and sharper as we’ve gone along.”
Everett said the costuming and wigs for the show are authentic, thanks to Diane Clendenen who designed the wigs he purchased. “The hair is a bit exaggerated and very much wonderful. Diane Clendenen spent many hours on this for me,” he said.
The younger cast members didn’t know what to think. “The kids in this pageant have never seen anything like this and when they had their fittings, they were overwhelmed,” he said.
Everett thanked Dwyer for his help in directing the play. “This play will be successful with the help of David. I’ve watched him take this cast experienced ones and make it come alive even better than when it was when it was in my head when I wrote it,” he said. “I feel very fortunate.”
Dwyer said Everett has always supported organizations like New Hope Children’s Advocacy Center’s April Foolies event. “He has done a lot of stuff for a lot of people,” Dwyer said. “He loves Maryville and this is his homage to the small town it was, and the promise it had, and what it is now and the bright future it has.”
The play is set for Wednesday, Oct. 27 through Sunday, Oct. 31 with shows at 7:30 p.m. each day except on Sunday, when there is a 2 p.m. matinee. The production will be in the flex theater at the Clayton Center for the Arts.
Tickets are $10. “I wanted it affordable for anybody,” Everett said.
Tickets are available online at www.claytonartscenter.com, the Clayton Center for the Arts box office on Maryville College campus or at Shear Magic, 540 E. Broadway Ave., Maryville.