PARAGOULD While their careers in music led them to Nashville and other far-flung locations to sing with the likes of Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Marie Osmond and Isaac Hayes, the Northeast Arkansas roots of Paragould residents Craig Morris and Donna Rhodes are the ties that bind them to the area.
Rhodes was born into show business. Her father, Dusty Rhodes, started playing fiddle music in the streets of Pocahontas for tips in 1932. That led to a radio show and later a TV variety show out of Memphis, Tenn.
The Rhodes family's show ran for 28 years and was No. 1 on the Nielson Ratings for 18 years, according to The Fulton County History Book. The show featured guests such as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich.
While living in Memphis as a teenager, Donna and her sister, Sandra, decided they wanted to try singing harmony with some of the R&B artists who were recording there.
"People knew that we could sing," Donna said. "Luckily, we sang on some hits that came out of Memphis back in the late 60s and early 70s."
Rhodes sang harmony on several songs by artists like Al Green and Isaac Hayes. She even recorded with the king himself.
"Elvis came back to Memphis to do an album that we got to sing on," Rhodes said. "He had some big hits on that album."
Rhodes' work on that album led to her doing some background singing on the 1969 B.J. Thomas hit "Hooked on a Feeling." Rhodes even recorded a solo album with Sam Philips at Sun Records. She said she and Sandra would get to work on their album at night after other artists finished their session work.
"Sam was usually there at night and he would hang out with us," Rhodes said. "His sons were both engineers, so they would engineer our demo sessions. They loved the way we sang. So they started giving us background work. It just kind of spawned from doing demo work there at Sun."
From there, the Rhodes sisters began doing background work in Muscle Shoals, Ala. There they worked with artists like Mac Davis, Liza Minnelli and Paul Anka.
Rhodes eventually moved to Nashville, Tenn., and immediately got into the music scene there. The Nashville Network was getting ready to launch a show called "Nashville Now." Rhodes was hired to head the backup vocal group for the show. While working with this show, she met Morris.
"After five years, our bass singer decided he was going to do other things, so we had to replace him," Rhodes said. "That's when we found Craig Morris. He auditioned and got the job."
"It was the best job you could ever have," Morris said. "I think the fact that I was born and raised in Piggott, Arkansas, was the reason I got that job. There's a lot of talented people in Nashville. People far better than me. Donna's Aunt Bea lived in Piggott and my father owned a grocery store there and I used to carry her groceries for her. It was a good thing to be from Piggott."
At the time, Morris had just left a job playing piano for Marie Osmond and the Osmond Family.
Morris grew up in Piggott and moved to Paragould his sophomore year of high school. Morris said he was heavily involved in music, drama and student government during his school years.
"I was that weird nerdy guy who just thrived in high school," he said.
Morris began writing songs at 16 and said he talked to anybody who had any kind of connection at all to the music business. During college, Morris began playing piano in clubs and restaurants around Little Rock. His talents eventually caught the attention of a producer for Opryland, who hired Morris to play a show at the theme park. Later, Morris was hired to tour with Ronnie McDowell, which led to a job touring with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.
"I got to be around a lot of my heroes," Morris said. "I loved it. I had a great time."
Morris wound up writing a song for McDowell called "Step Back," which climbed up to No. 2 on the charts in 1982.
"I thought 'Man, this song-writing thing is a piece of cake.' But it's not a piece of cake. I haven't had a song that high up on the charts since then. I've had (songs) on the charts, but never got to No. 2."
Since then, many famous artists have recorded Morris' songs, including the Oak Ridge Boys, John Conlee, Gene Watson, Ray Charles and Reba McEntire.
McEntire recorded a song Morris wrote called "If I Had Only Known," as a tribute to band members who died in a plane crash. Morris said she wouldn't release the song as a single, but the song did appear during the final credits of the movie "8 Seconds."
Morris also had a record deal himself when he was a member of a band called "4 Runner." During that time, he toured with artists like Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Kenny Rogers. The group also appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno.
"I had tried to get a record deal for years," Morris said. "I kind of got over it. I thought 'I'm not supposed to have a record deal.' But we pitched the music we recorded around and a couple people took interest in it."
Currently, Morris and Rhodes still do work in the music business when they are not busy managing Morris Properties and being parents to their two children, Savannah and Sam. Morris still plays piano for Loretta Lynn in Nashville every other weekend, he said. His group, 4 Runner, still plays the Loose Caboose Festival and Morris recently composed the music score for an upcoming film called "The River."
For more information see Monday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.