My cousin Linda posted this article on Facebook this week and I can’t get it out of my mind. It was published sometime in 1983.
This is a profile of my paternal great-grandfather, Homer Rayburn. He grew up in Tennessee and raised his family in Niles, Michigan. I didn’t know him well because he died when I was seven years old but the memories I do have of him and my great-grandmother Myrtle are fond. I didn’t know it at the time or for many, many years but he was one of my earliest musical influences.
Niles musician aiming at the Grand Ole Opry
Still fiddlin’- Homer Rayburn of Niles strikes up a tune on his 50-year-old fiddle, an instrument he taught himself to play at age 10. Rayburn, 87, still dreams of playing his fiddle at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
At 87, he keeps fiddlin’– by Lyle Sumerix, Tribune News Bureau
NILES- At 87, Homer Rayburn of Niles has a dream- to play his fiddle at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
While most men his age would have retired 20 or 25 years ago, Homer is still fiddlin’ around. And, like the popular song “Thank God I’m a Country Boy, Homer still likes to take down his fiddle and rosin up his bow. Homer can no longer be considered a boy, but there is still a lot of country in him.
Homer’s favorite pastime is to get out his fiddle and strike up a tune, and it doesn’t take much coaxing to get him started. But once he does, a visitor is in for a treat.
Homer has been fiddling since about age 10, when he bought his first violin and taught himself to play while down on the farm near Manchester, Tenn. Although the fiddle is still his favorite, he also taught himself to play the banjo, piano, and guitar.
Homer and his fiddle moved to Niles in 1919 and he soon was playing for square dances almost anywhere within 40 miles. He teamed up with Frank Leonard, who played the mandolin, and George Fletcher on the banjo.
His favorite backup instruments in those days were the banjo and the piano. “When I hear the piano, I can really get to fiddlin'”, he explained.
Homer and his band held center stage for about 40 years, keeping feet stomping at Barron Lake and other hot spots. Even during the Depression, the band was on the road. “In those days, we told the caller to just pass the hat, since nobody was working. Sometimes we didn’t get more than $3 or $4 apiece.
In the late 1940s, Homer also played on a weekly radio show in Benton Harbor.
But, as the popularity of square dancing faded, it became harder and harder to find dances to play, and Homer had to hang up his fiddle commercially in the early 1960s.
Although time would have passed by many a man, Homer got a second chance in 1976. He heard and announcement on the radio about a Michigan Fiddlers’ Association Jamboree to be held at Berrien Springs. He called his sons, John of Mishawaka and Jack of Niles, and off they went. John backs up his father on lead guitar and Jack plays the steel.
The trio got together again the next year for the jamboree held at Walker Tavern Historical Complex in Lenawee County, Mich., and played last summer at Paw Paw.
But, it did not end there. Homer has played off and on with his sons, and still does today. John has his own family music group, The Singing Rayburn Family, specializing in religious music. Jack plays with the Whisky River Band and on occasion joins his father and brother. The family also teamed up in 1981 for two one-hour variety shows on Channel 46.
Although Homer boasts a repertoire of some 75 tunes, his warm-up tunes include such old standards as “Turkey in the Straw”, “The Mockingbird”, and “Red River Valley”.
Homer worked at National Standard about 45 years before retiring and moving to a small farm in Howard Township.
He was the only one of nine children to have a musical calling, but he and his wife, Myrtle, who also played the fiddle as a young girl, passed it on to most of their children and grandchildren. Mrs. Rayburn died last December 3 after 66 years of marriage to the man she wed at 17.