They don’t do it for pay. They don’t do it for drinks or smokes. They don’t do it for free food or for the attention of girls. None of them have delusions of grandeur that might tempt them to become rock stars, and most of them have day jobs.
They play in the Mullet Band. They gather for fish fries at the Gold Plate several times a year. They do it solely for the pleasure of getting together for the love of music.
They come out in singles, twos and threes, from their families and careers (unless they’re retired, or their families join them at the show), and the staff of the Gold Plate welcomes them with open arms. They remove a wall to create an open venue, and the band sets up in the back of the restaurant to play their music.
A tradition of more than 80 years, the Mullet Band grew out of a unique brand of fraternity among a small group of fishing enthusiasts. It began as a group of Lowndes County men coming together to fry the fish they caught and play a little music for entertainment.
The band is one of the biggest in Valdosta, with more than a dozen musicians in the line-up, but not all of them play at once. Like a ball team, the musicians will trade out during certain songs to give everyone a chance to play.
The group boasts of two drummers, three keyboardists, a couple of guitarists, a pedal-steel guitarist, a few vocalists and a bass guitarist. One of the members, Jack Blanton, plays an electronic machine called an Omnichord.
“Most of them play with a regular band somewhere,” said Mike Dame, vocalist and organizer for the Mullet Band.
Mullet Band members work for many different groups, including the 1960s cover band Jukebox Oldies, the classic rock group the Creeksiders, the mixed-genre group Too North and the Highway 41 South Bluegrass Band. But in spite of their participation in these other groups, they come by simply to enjoy being a part of a local tradition.
“We have people that play some times and people that don’t play other times,” Dame said. “But the big event is the fish fry itself. That has been around 80 to 85 years.”
While the band used to meet at several places around Lowndes County, including the Jaycee Shack, the McMullen Estates clubhouse, Pike Pond, Twin Lakes, and an assortment of private lodges, nowadays they stick to a regular schedule at the Gold Plate in south Valdosta.
“It used to be, we got together and caught fish, but it was a lot of trouble to catch the fish and fry them,” said band
administrator William Dame, Mike Dame’s father, who has been a part of the tradition for 34 years. “We bought groceries, cooking equipment. We carried sound equipment. We had someone cook the fish. We called people. It wasn’t an easy job.”
To make things a little more fluid, the band chose to settle at a single venue and to commit to eight fries a year, William Dame said. In the past few years, the group and the tradition have changed in other ways.
The fish fries began in the 1930s as a boys and men-only sort of event, with women invited just once a year. But in the last few years, women have been invited as regulars to watch, dance and have dinner. This change has added a family element to the fries.
Of the boys-club atmosphere, William Dame said, “It just originated that way.”
However, in spite of the new relative openness of the events, the fries are not public venues. Because the dinner and music is presented in a no-drink, no-smoke atmosphere, those in attendance are often there by invitation only.
“It’s a private affair,” Mike Dame said. “It’s not open to just anybody.”
Most of the music, what the Dames agree is “old country,” carries religious themes, and since its inception, the band has played the hymn “I’ll Fly Away” as the last song of every show, getting the crowd involved in the singing.
In many ways, the event sounds like a class reunion without the booze, but for the Dames, it is a family tradition. Because William Dame has organized the shows for 34 years, Mike Dame decided he was next in line.
“For me, my dad did it for so long, I felt the familial obligation to make sure to continue it on,” Mike Dame said.
At the photo shoot for The Valdosta Daily Times, the members of the band were excited to bring out their instruments to showcase their talents and equipment. There were a couple of Fender Telecasters in the arms of the guitarists and a drum kit set up in the corner beside a piano, and the pedal steel lay off to the left.
All the men agreed that they would rather pay for their meals than play for them because they considered spending their time to further the tradition and remain part of the fish fries more valuable.
“We work for mullet,” Mike Dame joked.
Current Mullet Band members include Wendy Colson, Jack Conyer, Ken Fox, Mike Dame, Don Corbett, Graham Fiveash, Randall C. McClellan, Stan McClellan, Tim Teasley, Jack Blanton, Rodney McClellan.