A month ago Russell Easter, the elder member of the Easter Brothers gospel trio passed away.
Now, some of the group’s friends and fans are leading a push to have a mural painted downtown like some others already seen or in the works locally.
Russell Easter was 90 when he died on Sept. 29. His baby brother Edd was 84 when he died Jan. 30, 2019. That just leaves James, 88, who still operates Mayberry’s Music Center, at 117 N. Main St. downtown, which he opened 20 years ago.
Tammy Miller and Grant Welch recently discussed the mural project. They said they had spoken to Causey Ayers, the owner of the building that houses the Mayberry Trading Post.
The idea is to put a 16’x16’ mural on the alcove side where the restrooms and picnic tables are located, painted on the wall next to the space where there is a plaque honoring former Mayor Jack Loftis.
Miller said the Easter family has a nice photo of the brothers dressed up, holding instruments, standing just outside the passenger door of their tour bus. That will be the basis of the painting to be done by artist Tim White of Blountville, Tennessee, who has done similar work in Nashville.
Lizzie Morrison, the Main Street coordinator for Mount Airy Downtown, said Miller and Welch had reached out to her back before Russell passed. They were looking into the organization’s annual mural program grant.
Morrison said the group budgets up to $4,000 a year for such downtown beautification work, but for the 2020-21 fiscal year, MAD already picked two projects to fund: refurbishing a mural on Franklin Street with a floral design and the new Melva Houston mural to be painted soon.
If the friends and fans of the Easter Brothers want to do a mural, the organizers can submit a project design and application for the 2021-22 fiscal year, said Morrison. The grant could be up to $2,000 and requires that the organizers come up with $500 in a matching fund to cover supplies for the artist.
Morrison said she heard the artist Tim White was offering to do the work at a reduced rate, reportedly quoting a price of $4,500.
With a $2,000 grant, that would leave organizers to raise $2,500 for the artist and $500 for supplies for a total of $3,000.
Miller said the work would also include pressure washing the building wall and then putting on a sealing coat before the artist would begin any work.
The first design isn’t usually the final design, noted Morrison. The artist tends to submit a potential design, and then MAD has some back-and-forth discussion and suggestions before a final design is turned in.
By the time all this planning is done, it will be closer to the time to apply for the $2,000 grant, she said.
Hopefully, the organizers have raised the needed donations to handle the rest of the expenses by then, too.
James Easter said he appreciates the idea of a mural dedicated to him and his brothers.
He wishes his brother Russell and Edd were still alive to see it come to pass, but he knows it will be there for their children and grandchildren to appreciate, as well as all their fans who visit Mount Airy.
He also knows that as humble as the brothers always were, Russell and Edd might have been embarrassed at having all that attention paid to them.
Speaking from his shop this week, James talked about his beginnings.
“I was playing music when I was 8,” he recalled. “My brother (Russell) was 10. We were playing Flat Rock School when I was probably 12 years old. I’d turn my back to the audience, I was that bashful.”
After some years as a juvenile delinquent (including being expelled from the third grade for being drunk in class), James found himself in prison for such offenses as unauthorized use of a vehicle.
He said he and a couple of friends, ages 12 to 14, didn’t have a car to learn how to drive, so they would borrow someone else’s car at night to practice.
“Back in ’48, ’49, ’50, there wasn’t hardly no locks on the cars. And they’d leave the keys in the cars.”
He said they weren’t stealing it; they brought it back when they were done. But, the court didn’t see it so innocently.
After three years of hard labor in prison, he said he had matured a great deal. “It made a man out of me.”
Then came a fortunate break.
“They heard me singing and wanted me to get a prison band. I did Johnny Jack, the Everly Brothers, stuff like that. They even got me a radio program in the nearest town in Halifax County. They had a 30-minute radio program every Saturday morning.”
James turned his life around in his early 20s, saying he made a promise to God that if he survived all that he had done to himself, he would make things right in his life.
After getting out early on good behavior, he joined Russell and Edd, who were part of a group called the Green Valley Quartet at the time. After a few years, they dropped that name and simply went by the Easter Brothers.
After some record label scouts heard the siblings’ three-part harmony, the group got record deal offers — provided they would perform country music because it would sell more albums.
“I love country music,” said James. “George Jones autographed me a guitar and sent it to me before he died. He had my music and I had his.”
However, he said, “We told the Lord if He would take all the taste away from us, we wouldn’t drink no more, that we’d just sing gospel music.”
Country and bluegrass artists such as Ricky Skaggs are dear friends, but while the brothers loved the music, they didn’t record it.
The band earned many awards over the years including back-to-back awards in 1986 and 1987 as the Traditional Bluegrass Band of the Year.
In 2001 the band’s CD “Heart and Soul” was nominated for a Dove Award from the Gospel Music Academy. In 2002 the band won Bluegrass Song of the Year for “Thank You Lord for Your Blessings on Me.”
The Easter Brothers were inducted as gospel artists in the Class of 2018 for the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame.
Those interested in making a donation to the mural project can send checks to Miracle Waters Worship Center (or MWWC), P.O. Box 1744, Mount Airy, NC 27030
For more information, contact Rodger Easter at 336-429-9827; Tammy Miller at 336-326-6766; or Phil Marsh, of the Downtown Business Association, at firstname.lastname@example.org.