Celebrating a Life Filled With the Love of Music

Thursday, April 30, 2015
Dees performs with friends during a concert held in his honor Saturday, April 25, in front of the courthouse in Piggott.(TD photo/Jessica Rainwater)

Lifetime Piggott resident Leland Dees has lived a life filled with love of music.

His first musical instrument was an old guitar someone had smashed. He was six-years-old when he found the guitar, replaced the neck and took wires out of an old screen door, which he used to restring the guitar. He tuned it to the key of open E by ear, which he didn't even know existed, "but I could strum it and sing along," Dees said.

Soon after his parents bought him a guitar out of Montgomery Ward and he was playing rhythm at Piggott school dances by the age of six.

Leland Dees

Dees, 85, remembers his childhood fondly, hunting, fishing, camping and swimming with his friends. He even recalls Ernest Hemingway bird hunting near his home. "We just thought he was some bum that never cut his hair, we had no idea," Dees said.

As time went on his love for music grew and, at the age of 12, his uncle Osco Vancil gave him his first fiddle. He also played the mandolin, which he said was basically like the fiddle, and drums. He was self-taught, and everything has been by ear.

"I played the drums in the Piggott High School band and I made all A's but I never read a piece of sheet music," Dees said.

In 1946, Dees' mother went to see a traveling fortune teller who had stopped in Piggott. The man said he was not a fortune teller, but he could see in the short, upcoming future. His mother told him the fortune teller said her son would be in broadcasting. Dees said the news befuddled him and his mother, but the next day Dees was walking toward Piggott and a black Cadillac whizzed by. Upon passing him the car came to a screeching stop and backed up. The man driving rolled down the window and asked, "Are you Leland Dees?" Dees replied that he was and the man said, "I'm Ray Van and I've been looking for you. I want you to come try out for my new hillbilly band."

Dees played his fiddle that evening for Van, who knew immediately Dees was exactly what he was looking for; thus began Dees' career in music with Ray Van and the Arkansas Travelers. They could be heard every morning from 5:30 to 6 a.m. at KLCN in Blytheville, the first radio station in Arkansas.

Dees continued to go to school at Piggott, playing drums in the band and performing with different bands around the area. He would go on tour for a few months and then return to school. One particular evening he tried out with Butterball and the River Boys at Greenway High School where his future wife was ushering the event. The next morning he was walking past the school steps and there were two girls, one was his girlfriend at the time, and the other was Katherine. "From the first time I spoke with Katherine I knew she was what I wanted in my life," Dees said.

It wasn't long before Katherine and Dees were inseparable, and the two married in 1949. Dees was 20 and Katherine was two days from being 17, but they were very much in love. "God's greatest gift is the love of a good woman," Dees said. "And Katherine had a lot of it." Katherine became a nurse and thoroughly enjoyed it. She would pick up extra shifts while Dees was off playing bluegrass. "She always said if you don't absolutely love what you're doing, then don't do it," he said. "Then she would tell me don't you ever quit playing that fiddle."

Dees played with many of the great bluegrass bands throughout the country, including Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Ralph Stanley, Frank Munser, Doug Dillard, Ernie Ashworth, Stormy Cooper, John Hartford, Bill Rice, Mac Wiseman, Lester Flatts, the Dowdy Brothers, and he played twin fiddles with Dusty Rhodes and Dale Potter. "The song Time Changes Everything was very popular back then," Dees said.

In the 1970s and 80s Dees spent a lot of time with Tim Crouch. They sold Electrolux vacuums during the day and played competitions everywhere from Jonesboro to Salem in the evening. "Usually Tim won first and I won second, but finally in 1980 at Salem I got first," Dees said.

He also played with several bands including Shady Hill Bluegrass, the Bootheel Jamboree, Clay County Bluegrass and The Darlings. "Andy Griffith was one of the hardest people I ever played with," he said. "And Doug Dillard was hard to keep up with too; he could burn it up."

One of the most memorable things he saw traveling was in Nashville, Ind. He was eating at a rest stop when he noticed a 1930 Ford Model A across the street. He approached the car and inside was a hat and a picture of John Dillinger. Turned out he was at the site of Dillinger's old home. The house had been torn down and the car was left there as a memorial.

Another memorable moment for him was when he met Doc Watson and his son Merle. "I had always wanted to see them as Watson was blind," he said. "And wouldn't you know a couple days later Merle was digging a hole with a tractor and it fell on top of him, killing him."

Dees and Katherine celebrated 65 years of marriage only days before she passed away in October of 2014. Dees and Katherine had one son Terry Dees, who plays drums. He has recorded with Rex Allen Jr. and played with bands such as Black Stone Cherry, Kentucky Headhunters and Hinder. Dees also has one grandchild, Autumn Turner of Piggott, and two great-grandchildren Charlie and Ally.

Now Dees spends his days at home repairing vacuum cleaners, taking care of his pets and playing music with his friends. "We get together often, play and have a good time," Dees said.

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