Ray Charles and Willie Nelson both sang famously about the Peach State on their recordings of the old standard “Georgia On My Mind.”
Local singer/songwriter Dwight Sanford had a specific Georgia town on his mind when putting together the new CD “Welcome To Ellijay.”
“A lot of living went into these songs and everything that’s sung about (on this album) is real. These are things I did, saw, or lived through all in this little town,” said the 59-year-old musician, who was raised about six miles west of Ellijay in the community of Punkin Center.
The album’s songs include references to Ellijay’s rivers, apples, and other attractions that both newcomers and longtime residents will pick up on. There are also nods to now-bygone people and places that will be of most significance to those who were here in the 1970s and ’80s.
“I started writing the song “Welcome to Ellijay” a long time ago,” said Sanford. “Henry Gartrell, who was the mayor at one time, used to drive a red ’62 Corvette that he’d run in parades and that kind of thing. That’s in there. Slim Hughes, who was the police chief, actually drove a 1968 Ford LTD with a 428 police interceptor Cobra Jet (engine) in it. Boy, was it strong.”
The parking lot of the Red Dot Supermarket was where locals gathered to show off – and squeal – their wheels. Muscle cars that, today, are high-dollar collector’s pieces were commonplace back then.
“It was where Holden’s Foods was at one time and O’Reilly’s was at one point,” said Sanford. “The Red Dot parking lot is where everybody hung out with their cars – Dodge Super Bees with 440 (engines) and souped-up Chevelles. You cruised the Red Dot just to see who was hanging out there.”
Another bygone hangout, the downtown Ellijay Pool Room, gets a mention in the song “Southern City Lights.”
“Me and my buddies would come to town on Friday nights and go to the Pool Room. We’d sit in those benches around the walls and watch our friends shoot pool. You’d bring your girlfriend, hang out there and eat those hot dogs,” he said. “I really had a ’55 Ford I’d wash and get the grill all shiny, like in the song. ‘My grill is clean, I got an 8-track in the dash of my machine.’ That’s what we did on Friday nights.”
Several songs began taking shape years ago when Sanford worked for the Ellijay Police Department. He kept up with the lyrics over time and has long wanted to put them to use.
“I wrote just about all of them looking through the windshield of a police cruiser on the night shift. I started to write 10,000 songs and this is how much I got out of it,” said Sanford, who achieved the rank of lieutenant while working for the Ellijay PD from 1984 to 2000.
“Some of them took a while and some of them happened just like that,” he continued. “I wrote “Jesus Called (A Fine One Home),” which is more of a gospel song, the day we buried my mom in 2003. I wrote the melody and everything in 10 minutes because it all happened at once. I couldn’t write it fast enough.”
Some of the experiences Sanford recounts have undoubtedly been shared by other Ellijay residents.
“Up on Skyline Drive, it was really, really cold one night. You could see all over the city of Ellijay up there, so I just stopped for a while and looked down. ‘Looking down from a hilltop at the lights of my hometown’ – it all just fell in place,” he said about what inspired another lyric in “Southern City Lights.”
The railroad tracks that run across River Street once carried Sanford’s father off to war.
“On Oct. 8 in 1943 my dad really went to the depot, got on a train and went to World War II,” he said about a passage from the song “Baby Blue.”
The new disc is a fitting complement to Sanford’s five previous releases and a return to original material that follows the 2011 disc “A Tribute To Hank Williams.” Sanford, whose roots-style country sound incorporates an undercurrent of old-school rock ‘n’ roll, credits The Beatles, Badfinger, and Merle Haggard as three of his favorite groups or singers.
“It’s real raw – just me, myself, and I, along with a few guests. We’ve got Tim Hamilton, a great musician from up around Blairsville, on steel guitar and Johnathon Thompson, from around Blue Ridge, on piano. Our own Craig Schlenke plays harmonica and Astrid Hayes, from south Florida, is on harmony vocals,” said Sanford, who recorded the album at his own Oakleaf Studio.
“I’ve been playing music since I was 5 years old. My mother showed me a few things (on guitar) and I’ve just gone from there,” he added.
“Where I Dream,” the only song on the album Sanford didn’t write, was penned by Randy Bell, a close friend of Sanford’s and onetime Gilmer County Commissioner who passed away in 2013. Sanford said he included the whimsical song as a tribute to his late friend.
“Randy brought that song into the pawn shop one day on CD and said ‘I did this. Check it out. Do what you want to with it.” After what happened, I decided I for sure would do (something with) it,” Sanford said.
“Welcome to Ellijay” is available for purchase at several local outlets, including Sanford’s own business, Ellijay Pawn Shop.
“They’re available all around town and around the square. The North Star Emporium, Diane’s Country Store, the NAPA store and the Fleet (Citgo) station all have them. They can also get one here at the pawn shop,” he confirmed.
by Michael Andrews (Times-Courier in Ellijay, GA on Wednesday, Oct. 14th, 2015)
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