The Mississippi Delta is renowned for its rich history of agriculture and music. Five self-taught musicians who grew up in Tallahatchie County developed an enduring passion for both, and those shared passions have not only provided them a viable career throughout their lives, but helped them establish a musical legacy as one of the most popular progressive country music bands in the Mid-South.
Mike Ellis, lead singer for Mike Ellis and the Hometown Band, met Billy Ray Kent in the second grade. By the sixth grade, they were swapping guitar riffs and teaching each other how to play. “We watched other players, shared what we learned, and it grew exponentially from there,” says Ellis. “We soon met Thomas Dunavent, who played rhythm guitar and bass, and his brother Chester, who played drums.”
The first time Ellis heard Chester keep a beat on anything was at a service station in Webb, Miss., on two 55-gallon barrel drums using two wooden surveying sticks. “He had pretty good timing, so we asked him to be our drummer,” says Ellis, with a wry smile cutting his eyes at Chester, who is today the manager for Helena Chemical in Glendora, Miss., next to Sturdivant Flying Service.
After the Dunavents’ father passed away in 1959, the family, along with their older brother Bobby who taught Thomas how to play guitar, moved to Sumner, Miss., where Bobby drove a tractor for local farmer Buggs Armistead. “As kids, Chester and I handpicked cotton carrying a tote sack Momma fashioned from a pillow case and a make-shift strap,” says Thomas Dunavent, who was with Ag Chem for six years before taking a sales position with Southern Marketing Affiliates, an ag product wholesaler in Jonesboro, Ark.
The four friends practiced constantly. They entered a talent show at West Tallahatchie High School in the ninth grade and won first place. Mike Ray was in the audience that day, walked up to Ellis and expressed his desire to be in the band. With a keyboard player now onboard, the band was set. “I had two piano lessons at my mother’s insistence, but stopped after six months when my piano teacher told my mother, ‘I can’t teach him, he just memorizes everything’,” remembers Ray, who today is the operations and warehouse manager for Crop Protection Services (CPS) on the outskirts of Charleston, Miss.
Ray grew up on an 80-acre farm in Phillip, Miss., not far from the Tallahatchie River. He farmed in the summer while home from college. By 1988, he was working with Jimmy Sanders in Cleveland, Miss. He made the hour commute from Charleston, Miss., for almost eight years. “I worked at a farm equipment repair shop when I was a kid, and then I started farming,” says Ray. “Thank God I never had to handpick cotton!”
Kent worked at two different ginning operations in the Delta. One afternoon while driving home, he saw a Grumman Ag Cat crop dusting near Drew, Miss. “I was so caught up watching that lumbering old biplane fly back and forth, I never saw that the older gentleman in the car in front of me had stopped. I rear-ended him and tore up my truck,” says Kent.
“I don’t know if I thought flying might be safer than driving, but by the time I was 21, I was flying, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” adds Kent, who today pilots a 602 Air Tractor for Snow Brake Air Service in Webb, Miss. He also plays pedal steel guitar for the Hometown Band.
The Early Years
One of the band’s first venues to play was the VFW in Charleston, Miss. They were so young, they required a chaperon, and Mike’s father obliged. The door took in $3 that first night. Ellis’ father kicked in a dollar so the young musicians would not go home empty handed.
In 1976, between their day jobs in agriculture, they started billing themselves as Mike Ellis and the Hometown Band. Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings were burning up the airwaves with a new sound they called outlaw country. “We fell in love with that progressive country sound and switched from pop to country,” says Thomas Dunavent. “We were able to book more shows playing country music, and the money was definitely better!”
Before long, the band’s popularity spread across the Delta and into neighboring states. Ellis soon heard about a contest being held by Memphis-based WMPS country radio station. The band packed up their gear one night after wrapping up a show at 2 a.m. in Hattiesburg, Miss., drove all night to Memphis to make their 10 a.m. time slot, and won the contest. “We were the WMPS Showcase Band for an entire year,” says Ellis. “They ran some footage on the evening news the next night of our performance at the Orpheum. We looked like we were ‘rode hard and put up wet’ — and we were. We never even changed clothes.”
Late nights and early morning wakeup calls to make their day jobs in agriculture became the norm for the musical prodigies. They once shared a billing with Tanya Tucker, but they packed the house each Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night at The Junction in Marks, Miss., for 10 years.
Grendel Roy owned and operated The Junction. “People would drive from up to 100 miles away to hear the band’s progressive sound. The ages in the crowd were all over the chart — from 18 to 80,” says Roy. “The Junction had a cultural impact few people realized because it attracted folks from the Mississippi hill country down to the Delta. They danced, partied, and many of them fell in love and married.”
Time Marches On
By 1996 the band members were tiring of the dual ag/music lifestyle. They had gotten married and a few of them had started families. Periodically rekindling the musical magic that captivated crowds across the Delta, they still do a few shows each year, and recently played a benefit to raise money for a friend battling cancer.
“While it’s still fun to play music with my lifelong friends, we all like to get in bed at a decent hour these days,” laughs Ellis, who retired from Jimmy Sanders after 30 years as an agronomist and sales rep, but today works as a crop consultant with CPS in Charleston, Miss.
At their peak, the group had over five hours of music on their set list. They have all seen waves of change roll across the music and the agricultural horizons.
“I sold a ton of cultivator sweeps and parts before Roundup Ready hit the market,” says Thomas Dunavent. “Music has followed a similar path of change. Trying to find what I call real country music is difficult today. I’m not sure what genre that is they play on radio stations and award shows these days, but it’s not country.”
When asked what have been the biggest or most impacting changes they have seen in agriculture, they were quick to list global positioning systems. “That technology significantly increased efficiencies across farming’s landscape,” says Kent, who has yet to install a variable rate system on his turbine Air Tractor, but he knows that time is coming.
Logistic channels for ag products have also changed. A once “tiered structure” starting with the manufacturer. Then the products went to the distributor, then the dealer, and ended at the farm gate. “Today, in many cases, the distributors are the dealers,” says Ellis. “Consolidation has impacted the business of ag and that trend seems to be continuing.”
Playing country music has not only been an economic supplement to the bank accounts of the Delta’s fab five, it has opened doors to long-lasting ag business relationships. Many customers with whom Ellis and the other band members deal in their ag-based careers have also been fans of their music through the years.
“Most farmers live out in the country, and most of them like country music,” says Mike Ray, who sings backup vocals in the band. “I’ve always had a pretty voice, I just tore it all to pieces getting it out!”
During a recent hospital visit, Chester Dunavent was chatting with a nurse. The conversation drifted towards music and he mentioned the band’s name. “She told me her parents used to drive to Marks and listen to us years and years ago,” laughs Dunavent. “That put in perspective how time has marched on for sure.”
The band’s decision to change from playing pop to country was a wise one. Over the years they attracted a broader range of people across Mississippi who lived in the country and loved both country music and agriculture — just like Mike Ellis and the Hometown Band.