Frank Hamsley was the oldest of fifteen children born to Melvin and Alice Hamsley of Unadilla, Georgia. There were a dozen boys and three girls. Twelve of them were older than me and three were younger. They grew up working hard. They ran chainsaws, helped their daddy with his sawmill, and pitched in on the chores of a household bursting at the seams. But they played hard too. Their natural musical talents and laid-back humor blended nicely into a unique style of rural southern charm.
Those 15 children were all gifted in music. Roy Hamsley says that some were better than others, but everybody played something. They loved country music, good times, and family. Mr. Frank was the lead guitarist in their popular band, The Tradewinds. He played his share of honky-tonks until God put some new songs in his heart, songs for churches, nursing homes, and gospel singings. He left the dance halls behind for a straight and narrow path, a path that he humbly walked with a quiet passion.
Mr. Frank and his wife, Miss Florence, raised three beautiful daughters, Patsy, Bonnie, and Donna. Donna and I started first grade together at Pinehurst Elementary in the fall of 1958. Her family lived in town and my family lived in the country, so I didn’t know Mr. Frank very well in my childhood.
In the mid-1980s Fullington Academy started hosting an annual Hee Haw fundraiser, its format based on the long running television show. It was mostly country music with a few gospel songs, plus clean and simple comedic skits. Mr. Frank played lead guitar and Charles Jones played the bass. Three of Mr. Frank’s brothers, Benny, Terry, and Herman helped with guitars, drums, and singing. John Penney and a very young Monty Milikin often joined in. Mr. Horace Jones fiddled old numbers like “Boil Them Cabbage Down Boys.” Mr. J. D. Williford took a deep breath and played “Red River Valley” on his harmonica. Another twenty or so folks sang or performed humorous routines. I played the piano.
We practiced twice a week for a month or so before each program, sometimes staying for several hours. Mr. Frank preferred traditional country songs like those of Hank Williams or Johnny Cash. But when youngsters like Natalie Godfrey and Vickie Hamsley wanted to sing a current hit, he just smiled and kept picking. He would glance my way at the piano, wink slyly and say, “Maybe we can figure it out.” He quickly mastered songs that he had never heard before. Mr. Frank was the clear but unassuming leader of our band. We were all delighted to follow him.
I’m decent at reading sheet music, but I struggle when playing by ear. Mr. Frank quickly sorted out what I was capable of. If he saw that I was comfortable with a song, he would nod his head slightly at the end of a verse, letting me know to take the turnaround. If I stumbled, I knew that he would throw me a lifeline. He was generous in sharing the stage and always gracious with his help.
Playing in that band left me with some wonderful memories of Mr. Frank. He was a superb guitarist and became a dear friend. But the memory I value most is not from his music. It’s from seeing him with his black leather-bound Bible going into the old Dooly County Sheriff’s Department.
Our local jail was just across from where I worked at Bank of Dooly. My office window had a clear view of Cotton Street, a view that regularly included Mr. Frank getting out of his white Ford Ranger with his Bible. I once asked him how many inmates attended Bible Study. He told me that sometimes there were several and other times only one or two. Then he smiled in that easy way of his and said, “If it’s just one person, that’s okay. That may be the one that needs to hear something from God’s word.”
Sometimes I focus too much on applause and too little on purpose. But that memory of Mr. Frank helps remind me of a man who had his priorities in order. He took his Bible to a small stage. He wasn’t concerned about the size of the crowd, even a one-man audience was fine. He quietly worked for the one compliment that he knew mattered, “Well done thy good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21) I don’t know how many inmates he may have helped, but I know that he helped me.
I’m thankful I had a good view of Cotton Street through my office window, and I hope Mr. Frank knows that. If any of you see him before I do, please tell him what I said. He never chased applause, but I’m pretty sure that on August 1, 2004, Mr. Frank Hamsley got a standing ovation.