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The year 1968 was a fascinating time to be in Conway County. Winthrop Rockefeller was in his second year as governor and had, in essence, moved the governor's office to his ranch atop Petit Jean Mountain, just across the Arkansas River from Morrilton. Rockefeller, the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, spent as little time as possible in Little Rock. He preferred to govern from his mountain retreat. The best-known county official in the state was Conway County Sheriff Marlin Hawkins, a Democrat who was doing what he could to ensure that Rockefeller wouldn't be re-elected in the fall of 1968.

Hawkins served 28 years as sheriff beginning in 1951. His entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture notes that "his ability to deliver votes to statewide and national candidates gave Hawkins a profile in state politics that was rare for a county official. His political machine is an important part of Arkansas' political lore."

Rockefeller was re-elected that fall, defeating Democratic nominee Marion Crank. In Morrilton, meanwhile, a group of young men was far more interested in rock 'n' roll than in politics. They grew up within walking distance of each other and went on to attend college at what's now the University of Central Arkansas at Conway. They formed a band known as the St. James Group, which would perform professionally until 1978. The band played on college campuses from Chicago to New Orleans and wound up with recording projects for Mercury Records and United Artists. The group reunited in 2003 but quit performing following the unexpected death of keyboard player Chuck Gordon. Several members, however, went on to form the Remnants of Rock.

Earlier this month, the Remnants showed up at the old Rialto Theater in downtown Morrilton to play a concert for the Morrilton High School class of 1968. The band, which includes four former members of the St. James Group, also released its newest CD, Homecoming Dance. It's a collection of songs from the 1960s. Little Rock investment banker Rick Calhoun, a guitarist and vocalist, plays for the Remnants, was the founder of the St. James Group, and still performs in former Gov. Mike Huckabee's band that goes by the name Capitol Offense.

"It's an interesting story about a unique period when it seemed that everyone wanted to play in a band," Calhoun says. "Some made it, and some didn't. But the music defined a generation. The St. James Group performed many times at the youth center in Hope in the late 1960s. That's where I first met Mike Huckabee, who became a fan. He served as the master of ceremonies when we had the band's reunion concert in 2003."

The St. James Group evolved from a dance band into a concert act. A group that had started out playing at colleges in Arkansas ended up performing with the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker, Jim Croce, Melissa Manchester, Wet Willie, Jimmy Buffett, Olivia Newton-John, Badfinger and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The St. James Group was even represented by famed entertainment attorney Bill Carter, who did work for the Rolling Stones, Tanya Tucker and others.

The group recorded in Nashville and Memphis. Members of the band from 1973-78 were Rick Calhoun on guitar, Mark Calhoun on bass, Johnny Bradley on drums, Andy Fullerton on banjo and fiddle, Mark Hays on acoustic and pedal steel guitar, and Gordon on keyboards.

The band disbanded due to increased family obligations and what Rick Calhoun describes as "road stress." A couple of former members moved to Nashville and became studio musicians. When Hays moved back to Arkansas, friendships were rekindled and the reunion concert was planned for Nov. 9, 2003. The band took the stage for the first time in 25 years. It played a 21-song set and two encores. A review in this newspaper called the reunion concert "a truly transcendent moment."

In a written history of the band, Rick Calhoun noted that the St. James Group "is only a small part of a bigger story about rock 'n' roll's golden era, an era that leaves its imprint on contemporary music. Today's recording artists, and especially those in contemporary country music, owe their musical heritage to the pioneers of early rock. Both then and now, it's almost impossible for a group to survive without a hit record and a record company pushing the group's career. But the St. James Group defied the odds and for 10 years contributed to today's rich musical heritage. Its brand of country-rock was ahead of its time. The St. James Group is part of the story of an era that influenced an entire generation. The band was Southern rock 'n' roll and American country music rolled into one. The St. James Group continues to live in the memories of the lives they touched."

Calhoun says that when the band was touring, Gordon's favorite question was: "What state are we in?"

"For more than 10 years, we traveled together, shared rooms, ate, slept and played together," Calhoun says. "On the road, the countryside flew by, leaving no time to sightsee and explore. We were always rushing to make the next sound check on time. The highlight of a tour was often found in simple things like finding a good local restaurant instead of the usual truck stop along the interstate. In spite of constantly being together, we quarreled very little and were quick to defend each other. The band was like family, but the life of a traveling musician was exhausting and stressful."

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 06/16/2018

Print Headline: The St. James sound

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