For several years, Billy Ingram never asked for a cent to enter his weekly Brooks County Jamboree nestled in Downtown Quitman.
With its brightly painted windows, containing the legend of being country when country wasn’t cool and a cartoon caricature of Billy Ingram, he opened the Jamboree 11 years ago after a music hall closed just across the street. Ingram opened the doors with the promise of country music from a mind that’s estimated to know a thousand country songs, backed by the Waysiders, the band that has been with Ingram for decades in honky tonks, bars, music halls and other venues across south Georgia.
Ingram pays the building costs, the electric bill, the water, all of it. He didn’t start playing music to get rich.
He started because, as an 11-year-old boy whose parents had parted and he found himself far away from his native south Georgia growing up in Kansas and Oklahoma, young Billy heard the high-lonely of a Hank Williams song. He met a fella who played a one-string guitar. Ingram learned to play guitar, wearing down the skin of his fingertips till he had to wrap them in Band-Aids.
Even as a young adult, meeting his wife of 55 years, Connie, Ingram kept playing. They moved back to Georgia the day after their wedding, to Tifton, where Ingram worked in his father’s machine shop and played weekends. William Ingram, the father who’d scold, when Billy sang on the job or took a phone call regarding a music gig, that the shop was no record store; the same father who’d come to the gigs to hear Billy sing and play.
Billy kept playing music as he and Connie moved to Quitman, raised a family, as they opened an antique store, as he bought the “workhorse” Gibson J-45 guitar from a furniture store, while he and Virgil Newbern started the first paying shows, then Ingram and the Hanners formed the Waysiders.
There was a period when Billy Ingram considered music as a route to fame and fortune. He and another musician went to Nashville, Tenn., Music City, to give it a go, but Ingram’s buddy soon left and Ingram soon followed, returning home, done with the dream, but not with music.
So, in his 60s, in July 2003, Ingram opened the Brooks County Jamboree, where he and the Waysiders first played every Friday night before adding Saturday nights.
The people came. They brought covered dishes, pound cakes, and Coca-Colas, but Ingram didn’t charge them a dime to visit and line dance, bell dance, train dance, square dance, while he and the Waysiders played.
A few years back, keeping it all running nearly became too much. Ingram began asking for a $5 donation cover charge. If you got it, and you can spare it, five bucks, come on inside. If you don’t have it, or can’t spare it, well, come on in anyway. Even now, he’ll often take the door collection, add his money, and give away a door prize.
At 75 years old, it’s still about the music.
His dedication to music, his lifelong devotion to playing, his passion for learning songs to a point he once would be certain to learn any request he didn’t know by the next time he played, recently earned Ingram the honor of being inducted into the Georgia Country Music Hall of Fame.
At the Atlanta ceremony, Ingram said, “I’m going to keep singing and playing old country music as long as the good Lord will let me.”
Standing by the framed hall of fame certificate in the Brooks County Jamboree, Ingram says, “I had to get up and give a speech and all that mess.”
Honored to be named to the Atlanta Hall of Fame, Ingram is far more comfortable in his Quitman music hall. Here, he can clomp his black cowboy boots across the dance floor and explain the bell dance.
Always more women than men at the Jamboree, which can draw a crowd of 50-60 mostly 80- to 85-year-olds on Friday nights and smaller crowds come Saturdays because many are still tired from Friday night’s dancing.
A bell with a clapper is attached to one post. “I put the odd woman by the bell then we start playing,” Ingram says, his speaking voice often rising as he goes, like a square-dance caller even in conversation. “That odd woman she rings the bell and everyone’s gotta switch partners. Now, if she knows what she’s doing, she’ll have a partner and another one of the ladies’ll be the odd woman. I have to help some of them with the bell. Some of them don’t understand you have to put some thought into it or they’re gonna stay the odd woman without a dance partner.”
Ingram leads a brief tour of the Jamboree’s walls, decorated with a memorial of musicians and guests who have passed away, with gifts of drawings of him and posters heralding Ingram and the Waysiders, of photographs of a younger, clean-shaven, short-haired Billy Ingram and ones that more closely resemble today’s Billy Ingram, the one whose long hair is pulled back in a salt-and-pepper ponytail under a Waysiders ball cap, the one with the white goatee and the shining eyes set in a lined face.
The Billy Ingram who bears a fleeting resemblance to Willie Nelson but prefers performing Waylon Jennings.
He speaks their names with a reverence reserved in generations past for American presidents. Ingram names his Mount Rushmore of American country music.
“I heard Hanks Williams when I was 11 years old. I believe it was ‘Lovesick Blues,’ and from then on, I knew, I was country for life. ... I liked Elvis, too, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I can do 50-60 of his songs. ... Then there’s Merle (Haggard), who’s just what country’s supposed to be, and I can do 50-60 of his songs. ... Then there’s Waylon.”
He met Waylon once years ago. Ingram tells the story as an example of youth, as a parable for patience. It was in the late 1960s. They spoke about music before the show. Waylon expressed an interest in continuing the conversation after the show, but Waylon kept singing then kept visiting with fans. Ingram got tired of waiting and went home. He’s often wondered what might have been had he waited a little longer.
But Ingram does not seem a man of regret. He’s a purveyor of the country-song stories of heartache and honky tonks, of loss and love.
Speaking of love, Ingram smiles, his voice winding into that swinging, singing auctioneer canter, “Now, there’ve been maybe seven or eight couples that’ve found each other here, dancing, and these’re people who came here a long while before getting together. Now, they’d call this place the love shack. They’d call me Dr. Love. They’d call out for love songs. Then they’d get married and they’d be gone. We’d never see them here again. Marriage can do that to people.”
Though these married folks may slip away, Billy Ingram plans to let the Jamboree continue being while he keeps playing and singing and doing it all over again, with just one more, before saying good night.
The Brooks County Jamboree, with Billy Ingram and the Waysiders, is open Friday and Saturday nights in Downtown Quitman.