“Autumn leaves were falling
Down in Adams Park
We sat and watched the river
‘Til it was almost dark
And there were children playing
They never noticed you and me
Down in Adams Park
Where time was always free.”
------cDon Byers (used by permission)
Recently Union County’s Don Byers received a letter notifying him of a signal honor coming his way on November 27, 2010. The letter read, in part:
“In recognition of your contributions and achievements in the Music Industry, the Awards Committee and the Executive Board of the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame have selected you to be honored at the 29th Annual Awards Celebration to be held at the Holiday Inn Select-Perimeter, 4386 Chamblee-Dunwoody Road, Atlanta, GA 30341 on Saturday, November 27, 2010.”Established in 1982 by John L. (Johnny) Carson (1933-2010) and Phyllis A. Cole, the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame seeks yearly to recognize outstanding persons in the field of country music composition and performance. It is a distinct honor to be tapped for inclusion into the Hall of Fame. Awards have for twenty-nine years been given to many in Georgia who have contributed to this genre and have helped in perpetuation of our country folk ways and culture.
Our hats are off in salute and congratulations to Don Byers who is being recognized for his artistry, talent and dedication to country music. He hails from a long line of Union County people who have contributed much to the upbuilding of our county from early days to the present, and we’re sure, even into the future. He was born in 1943 in Murphy, North Carolina, son of Ralph C. Byers and Alice Mauney Byers. His parents brought Don up in the Ivy Log Community of Union County. Early on, he showed interest in and propensity for playing the guitar. He says of his legacy:
“One of my grandfathers was a fiddler and the other was a banjo player. My neighbor, Billy Burnette, taught me my first guitar chords about 1952 when I was nine. I began writing songs when I was about ten years of age. My country music heroes back then were Hank Williams and Chet Atkins.”By the time Don Byers was in high school, he was playing for school events and teaming up with classmates to play and sing. He also wrote songs during his school years, but he says the words to most of them have been lost or otherwise not kept for posterity. When he graduated from Union County High School in 1960, he had been named by his peers, “Most Talented Male Student.”
He recalls that he played solo for school events and back-up for various singing groups. He and Patsy Colwell (Davenport Phillips) did duets—Don on guitar and Patsy on piano. His friend, Wendell Patterson and Don, with whom he still plays, were often paired with their stringed instruments arrangements. He remembers that he and Wendell provided musical accompaniment for a vocal group composed of singers Gwen Brown, Anita Collins and Kathleen Garrett. One of the most famous of the high school groups as they entered that momentous year of 1960 was “The Trio” with singers JoNeal Collins, Jackie Lance and Sandra Richards. In 1959, they won first place in the school-wide talent show. Little did those schoolmates/classmates or Don Byers himself realize that the honor would one day be extended to recognize him as a productive and notable member of the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame.
Straight out of High School, Don joined the Army. He soon found his niche in service as an entertainer.
Don Byers, US Army, 1961 in Zama, Japan
"The Strangers" Music Group - Japan, 1961
(l-r) Ray Lambright; Don Byers (kneeling); Tom Zawlock (drums); Tom Montgomery
In 1961 he became a member of the rock-and-roll instrumental group known as “The Strangers.” Don is quick to emphasize that his Army group was not the same as the later “Strangers” which featured the Merle Haggard band. At the tender age of 17, and in his army time, he was soon conducting interviews, playing in stage shows, providing music for dances, and otherwise taking his artistry in country music to wherever he happened to be stationed. He was in Japan for a stretch of time and noted that American country music was very popular there. He remembers that wherever “The Strangers” were booked, he often had to sign autographs for fans. That popularity was somewhat foreign to a shy, country-bred lad on his first major thrust out into the vast world of entertainment and meeting people of different cultures. His work in service was with the US Army Security Agency. He did classified work with the Navy and Air Force.
He states that the members of “The Strangers” —(Rockin’) Ray Lambright (Army), Tom (Monty) Montgomery (Navy), Thomas (Ski) Zawlocki (Navy) and himself, Don Byers (Army), who played for military and civilian clubs in the Tokyo and Yokohama area of Japan, were reunited about five years ago by internet. Ski from Washington state unfortunately died about two years after their internet reunion. Ray and Monty returned to their native state of Texas and both became ordained ministers of the gospel. Monty attended one of Don’s Old Courthouse on the Square concerts in 2008. These Army/Navy buddies like to say “we will always be friends, and will also always be “Strangers.”
[Next: Stay tuned for more on the life and career of Don Byers, Music Hall of Fame Awardee]
c2010 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Nov. 18, 2010 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.