At 72, lifelong Greenfield resident Bill Powell can recount the part he played in the heady days of a bustling local country music scene from the 1950s through the ‘70s.
He said his favorite memories of the time are of playing guitar with well-known country star Johnny Paycheck in the Greenfield basement studio of Paul Angel, who owned the 28 Club and helped kick-start Paycheck’s career.
Powell met Paycheck, who was born Donnie Lytle and lived one street over, when Powell’s father repaired Lytle’s guitar. The two became childhood friends.
Powell became fascinated with music in his youth by listening to a talented local fiddle player named Frank Adams, who lived down the railroad tracks from him. “When playing his fiddle on his front porch, you could hear it all up and down the railroad tracks,” said Powell. “The sound was beautiful — like a siren’s call. We would run down and sit on the porch rail for as long as he would play, even through mom’s call for dinner.”
With this inspiration, Powell began to teach himself to play the guitar at the age of 14 or 15 by watching players on television. Eventually, Powell learned to play the steel guitar with help from lessons from his friend, John Call, who was the steel guitar player for the Pure Prairie League.
Powell proudly watched throughout the years as Paycheck’s musical success grew, and he was especially excited when Paycheck told him Tammy Wynette was going to record “Apartment #9” that he had written.
“Johnny’s first big fancy car, a black Lincoln Continental, made him feel like he had won record of the year,” said Powell. “I was a big fan of Johnny’s, and we were best friends. I was honored to know him. Johnny Paycheck was a personal influence in my life.”
After a lot of practice, Powell started playing guitars with his friend, John Hudnell, and the two honed their skills enough to play at area bars and other venues. During this time, Waylon Jennings came into a bar in Jamestown where they were playing. Jennings listened to the set and was impressed enough to ask them to back him up during his set.
“That put us on the spot,” said Powell. “He talked us through his music sheets. We looked at each other and did what we knew to do — play it by ear.”
After the show, Jennings asked them if they would be interested in going to Nashville. “Our excitement didn’t last long,” said Powell. “We were both still living with our parents. They would not give either of us permission to leave.”
During his years of playing area shows, Powell happened upon a slew of famed country performers including Kenny Price, George Jones, Merle Haggard and Vince Gill.
Upon meeting Price at a local bar that he thinks was Dave and Erma’s, Powell and Hudnell jammed with Price. “Before he left, Kenny asked us to play with him on the Midwestern Hayride, a popular local country and western show produced in Cincinnati,” said Powell. Introduced as the Coon Skinners, Powell and Hudnell wore bib overalls and patterned shirts.
“Kenny was great, and after the show he gave us a compliment, and our heads stretched the rim of our hats,” he said. “He said he was glad that he had the opportunity to play with us, but man, we were the ones that enjoyed meeting and playing with him.”
Powell was introduced to George Jones when Jones’ tour bus visited the home of the Greenfield Christian group the Adams Family, who lived in Powell’s neighborhood. “The Adams family graciously bragged about my guitar playing,” said Powell.
Jones invited Powell to go to a show in Fairborn, Ohio. “As you may have guessed, I wore a lot of bibs back then,” said Powell. “That’s all I had. Of course, that wardrobe wouldn’t do. George gave me a real nice coat and Don Adams [of the Adams Family] gave me a pair of boots.”
Powell said that during the show he was asked to restring Jones’ guitar. “He strummed so hard he kept me busy all night long,” Powell said. “It was a great experience I will never forget. George even came to my house and met my mother.”
Powell met Merle Haggard when Haggard recorded his hit “The Fugitive” in Angel’s basement studio that was known as “The Pit.” Powell said musicians from all over would come to “The Pit” to play. “I can’t remember all of the names of future country stars I jammed with in ‘The Pit,’” said Powell. “It was a well-known spot to have fun and play until the tips of your fingers ached.”
More than just a musician, Powell can be considered a master of many splintered talents. During a gap in his musical life, he worked on Roy Roger’s ranch as a member of the “Legends of Cowboy Stars” show where he was a look-a-like for Pat Buttrum, who was known for playing the sidekick of Gene Autry.
He owned a music store in Greenfield and later put together a Johnny Paycheck Museum. He was also a member of the Civil War re-enactors of the 22nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Company Z formed in Greenfield.
Skilled with his hands, Powell has repaired guitars for Wynonna Judd, Hank Williams Jr. and Paul Angel along with many other high-dollar guitars from the Dayton area. He has built custom guitars for Johnny Paycheck and Gary Adams of the Adams Family singers.
As another pastime, Powell enjoys crafting Cherokee head dresses and clothing and crafting and collecting Civil War rifles and replicas.
“I guess I am what is known as an ‘historian’ collector,” said Powell.
He has an 1880s Harley-Davidson bicycle, and his garage is the home of a 1917 Ford pickup truck in the early phase of being rebuilt. “My wife and I plan to drive the truck to car and antique shows in the area,” he said.
A friend of Powell’s, Greenfield resident Dennis Orner, said that during the ’50s through the ’70s, Greenfield attracted many young Nashville-based, rising country music stars.
“While on tour near Greenfield, singers and players would detour through to play with local talent,” Orner said. “After a full night of combined music and exhaustion, some crashed in the motel on West Jefferson Street. Or they piled up in their station wagon or some van/bus configuration. George Jones bought his own crash house in Greenfield. The location of the house depends on who is telling the story.”
Reach John Hackley at 937-402-2571.