Red Bay FFA Quartet and String Band: The Sound of Success

Sometimes goals and dreams far exceed expectations. The RBHS FFA Quartet & String Band have done just that for three decades.

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The Red Bay High School FFA String Band warms up prior to a performance at the Red Bay School Auditorium in 1994. This photo, originally taken in black-and-white by then News Editor Jason Collum, has been reimagined in color here. News photos/Jason Collum

Finding success is one thing. Sustaining it is another altogether. Being at or near the top of your field for almost three decades? Almost unheard of, unless you’ve paid attention to the Red Bay High School FFA Quartet and String Band. 

The groups, which trace their modern founding to the late 1980s, continue to be among the best at what they do, which is sing and perform at the highest level.

It was a change in leadership in the agriscience department at RBHS that led to the creation of the groups, but it was leadership from early directors, quick success and growth in student interest that built the programs and carried them for the past 28 years.

These weren’t the first musical groups to come out of the RBHS FFA. That ground had been broken back in the 1930s and 1940s by the likes of Rowe Wren and Gerstil Ledbetter, who were part of the early FFA String Band. But those days had long since passed, and there hadn’t been a musical group to perform under the FFA banner in a very long time.

Times, however, were changing.

Imagine

Herbert Trulove assumed the duties of agriscience instructor at Red Bay High School in 1987. This was at a time when fewer people were farming, something he had already seen firsthand as his father had closed up shop at the John Deere dealerships he ran in Red Bay, Hackleburg and Corinth, Miss. This also translated to the waning interests of students in taking the agriscience classes at Red Bay.

 “I took the place of my former Ag teacher, Cecil Pounders. He had an outstanding program; things were going really strong for him. They were more involved in the traditional (focuses of) livestock judging, soil and forestry, things like this,” Trulove said. “But when I got started back in 1987, there was a lack of interest in students participating in these type of events. With my attending district and state conventions in those early years I made mental notes of what was going on and how students were involved in their own local FFA programs. Two things registered with me: the quartet event and the string band event. They were popular among students, and at the conventions they were popular; people would come in and watch these events.”

Trulove was aware of the string bands in years past at Red Bay and knew they were popular then. So, he made the decision to gauge student interest, and decided to start with a quartet.

The interest was there: Carl McNeil, Gary Armstrong, Jason Thrasher and Darrell Underwood each expressed interest in being part of a quartet and became the founding members. McNeil, whose father was then pastor of New Union Missionary Baptist Church in Halltown, and Armstrong, who was also a member of the church, knew just the person to lead them and teach them: Tony Launius, who was the music and youth director at New Union at that time. They recommended him to Trulove and Launius met with Trulove to discuss the program. All of a sudden, the spark was lit.

“Tony was ready,” Trulove said. “He joined in, and you know the results. Tony was very good in working with these young people and getting them to perform at their highest level. It immediately became successful.”

Launius wasn’t the only one ready. Thrasher recalls Trulove discussing the program idea with him in 1988, and it was right up his alley.

“He (Trulove) knew I was active in music with church and he wanted to build a program at Red Bay,” Thrasher said. “The next year, I signed up for Ag class so I could be in the FFA and help start the Quartet. I thought it was an awesome opportunity. Little did I know that this decision would influence my entire career.”

Thrasher serves as a worship leader at Daystar Church in Madison.

Armstrong remembers the tryouts to be part of the program.

“‘Boundless Love’ was one of the songs we sang,” he said. “I was already active in the church choir so the quartet was a natural extension of that, and I think each outlet helped the other.”

Jarod Massey, who joined the Quartet just a few years later, said Launius was driven to succeed and wanted to see the same in the Quartet members, doing whatever it took to help them learn their parts.

“An opening came up in the Quartet, and I auditioned for it,” said Massey, who also was a member at New Union MBC. “With Tony being the music and youth director there at the church, he worked with me there. When I started with the Quartet, I had no idea about singing parts. There would be times he would just have to pound my part out on the piano, and we would start singing as a group and I would lose it and he would just be like, ‘No! No! No! THIS is your part!’ And we would go back and work my part some more. It took a while, and we had to go back and hammer out some of those parts. But I’m so glad I went through that because now I lead music there at church (New Union) and I’m able to sing the different parts and show the choir different parts if they’re having difficulty. A lot of that goes back to my Quartet days, of all of that being pounded out on the piano for me.”

Launius took his music very serious, and made sure the members of the Quartet did, too. That meant teaching them the fundamentals, including teaching his students things such as learning to read shape notes.

“I had to learn how to listen, not just hear,” Armstrong said. “You can’t get the right pitch without listening to the other parts.”

This attention to detail was one of the keys to launching the RBHS FFA Quartet to quick success.

Red Bay High School Agribusiness instructor Jarod Massey sorts this year’s crop of award banners his students have earned and has run out of space in his classroom to display them all.

With a Little Help From My Friends

The speed at which the program caught on and began to grow may very well have caught Trulove by surprise, but when the right people are in place, the unexpected can happen. In the Quartet’s first year they didn’t place first in district competition (now called Career Development Events), but they did place high enough to go on to compete at the state level. This success spurred other students to begin taking notice of the program, and for the Quartet to want to reach higher.

Trulove wanted more, too – he wanted to develop a string band. Once again, a group of students showed interest, and Trulove had someone in mind who he thought would be a good fit to lead them.

“I immediately thought of Paul Winchester,” Trulove said. “He had played music basically all of his life and he loved it.”

Winchester had a studio on Hospital Road. Trulove met with him at the studio and asked if he would be interested in helping to organize and launch the program. Winchester immediately and enthusiastically agreed.

Some of the students recruited for that first String Band included Mark Carnes, Eric Hubbard, Shawn Burgett, Chris Davis, Torrey Lewey, Massey and Underwood. 

Again, Trulove had the right people in place to get the program off on the right foot. With hard work, practice and strong leadership, it wasn’t long before awards and recognition began to come in for the String Band as well. In its first year, the RBHS FFA String Band placed second in district competition and went on to place third at State.

The mold had been cast. From that point, Trulove said, the program mushroomed into success, and that had a way of building interest from others in the school.

Long, Long Way From Home

It wasn’t long before the quality and name of the RBHS Quartet and String Band were known outside Alabama. By 1991, the strength and success of the programs led them to an invitation to perform in Kansas City at the FFA National Convention.

“The National FFA Organization contacted us about auditioning for a special song to be performed at a Lee Greenwood concert in front of him before he came on stage,” Trulove said. The song the RBHS String Band was to audition was “Some Gave All” by Billy Ray Cyrus. “This group practiced this song and got it right. We went to the audition in Kansas City, and guess what? The Red Bay String Band got that performance.”

Trulove can’t recall how many thousands of people were in the arena, but it was full.

“Before they finished the last lyrics of that song, those thousands of people were standing, cheering and applauding that Red Bay group,” Trulove said. “By that time I had already made my way out of the stands to the back of the stage, and there stood mister Lee Greenwood. When Red Bay’s group walked off that stage, he shook each one’s hands and said, ‘I cannot top that.’ Yours truly just melted with joy and excitement for my Red Bay students, to have this big star congratulate these students.”

The Quartet also performed at the National Convention in Kansas City, and that opportunity immediately came to mind for both Armstrong and Thrasher when asked about some of the most memorable events from their tenure as the founding members of the Quartet. 

“Not many folks from a small Alabama town get to say they’ve been on stage in front of 35,000 people,” Armstrong said.

Thrasher agreed that going to Kansas City was a thrill, but also said all of the travel and exposure was enjoyable.

“I so remember that first road trip to Kansas City,” he said. “Never would I have thought that we (the Quartet) would be invited to sing so many places. Through my four years with the Quartet, we sang for numerous conventions, senators, civic and state meetings, and too many churches and all-day singings to count.”

Trulove recalled another national convention, this one in Indianapolis, where the national FFA organization put out an invitation to quartets that placed high in state competitions throughout the country to audition for a chance to perform the National Anthem prior to an Indianapolis Colts/Washington Redskins football game. Once again, Red Bay’s Quartet, which by this time was under the leadership of Joy Berry, won the audition. Trulove vividly recalls the students standing at the 50-yard line, in front of a stadium full of probably 60,000 people, singing the anthem. The students had tickets to attend the game and after they returned to their seats, Trulove said there were many people who left their seats in the stands to come to the group and congratulate them on a great performance.

“Once again, I was just in awe of it,” he said.

Simply Irresistible

A byproduct of the creation and success of the Quartet and String Band – and possibly even something Trulove didn’t quite anticipate – was the dramatic impact on his agriscience program overall. 

By increasing the number of students interested in the agriscience program, this brought more talent into the classroom, which resulted in growth in participation of the traditional programs, such as soil testing, forestry, livestock judging, floriculture, small gas engines, tractor driving and public speaking, to name a few. It also led to an explosion of interest in the program by female students. In his first year in the classroom, Trulove had two female students. By the time he finished his career at Red Bay, approximately half of his students were female.

Enrollment in his program also increased, to the point he averaged 136 students in his classes each year. And success bred success. In Trulove’s time over the program, his students garnered 17 banners – first, second, third and fourth-place awards – at the State level.

An aged cassette tape cover from 1994 is part of Jarod Massey’s collection of photos and memorabilia from the RBHS FFA Quartet and String Band. Shown on the cover are then-members Sarah Johnson (Thigpen), Director Tony Launius, Massey (seated), Torey Boyd (standing) and LaShay Johnson (Blansett).

Something to Believe In

“One thing I observed is not all students are athletic,” Trulove said. “Sure, I’m a sports person, but I like to see students perform in other areas and increase their talent and ability and grow into responsible adults. The Quartet and the String Band were an outlet for these students to come in and join these groups and enjoy their personal musical talent.”

Trulove remembers a few students who had been labeled as problems by other students and teachers. He remembers them because he saw many who wound up being positively influenced by the music programs.

“It turned those students to (have) a positive attitude, and they graduated. And that’s what our job is at Red Bay School and in education, to get them graduated,” Trulove said. “It happened on several occasions with these students, in particular in the String Band area. They loved to make music. It gave them a positive outlet. That was a great blessing.”

Look Into The Future

The sign of a strong foundation for any organization is whether key people can come and go and the group not falter. Launius and Winchester were able to teach and train students and, even with attrition through graduation, the talent pipeline and interest at the school kept the programs from suffering a decline. It was, in fact, as much the tireless leadership, teaching traits and desire to be the best by Launius and Winchester – characteristics they passed along to their students – that kept the programs from experiencing burnout.

“I had 10 great years with Paul. The students loved him,” Trulove said. “The students loved Tony; I forget how many years I got to work with him.”

Eventually, leadership in both programs changed. A career move to Tupelo left Launius unable to dedicate the needed attention to the Quartet. Neither Launius nor Winchester were able to see the long-term impact of their work, however. Winchester passed away unexpectedly in 2005. Launius died a year earlier in an automobile accident near New Albany, Miss.

Just as with the students, though, talent runs deep in the community and new leaders stepped in to continue the programs’ success.

Berry agreed to direct the Quartet following Launius’ departure. Injuries from an accident later sidelined her from being able to play piano, at which time Daphne Murrell assumed the duties, a position she still holds today. Berry has also assisted with leading the String Band, which is now guided by Massey. Chris Wright, who himself was one of the early members of the String Band, has also helped teach and train the group.

Berry became involved with the Quartet around 1998. Berry’s daughter, Deana, was a part of the Quartet by then, and she agreed with Trulove to lead the program while her daughter was part of it. That four-year pledge turned into a multi-year commitment, but one which Berry doesn’t regret at all.

“I have become a better musician having to keep my skills sharp,” she said. Additionally, seeing the development in the students is rewarding. “I see kids grow and learn music – they learn to sing parts and get along with each other.”

When Trulove had the opportunity to become the Career Tech director of Franklin County Schools, he didn’t have to wonder if his work would fade away. His replacement was Massey, a 1994 RBHS graduate who was Trulove’s first American FFA Degree recipient. He was also part of state champion Quartets in his sophomore and senior years.

Listen to the Music

Trulove is the first to say the success of the Quartet and String Band, and the additional success they fostered in the entire RBHS FFA program, exceeded his goals and dreams.

“I am just in awe of what happened with those two groups, with how they progressed and how they were successful,” Trulove said. “I had the goal to somewhat achieve this. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. I was truly blessed to be in the position I was in, to be a part of this. I can’t thank Tony and Joy and Paul and the Red Bay community enough for all their support.”