Singing It Pretty
How the Phelps brothers turned South Norfolk into a musical hotbed that is still celebrated with an annual summer festival
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The Phelps were the patriarchs of the country music scene, but they rode with the changing times. In the mid-’50s, when many held distain for the encroaching rock ‘n’ roll of Elvis Presley and Norfolk’s own Gene Vincent, the Phelps saw opportunities; to keep up, Norman reportedly taught himself to play saxophone in a week’s time. They also sublet their venue to R&B disc jockey Jack Holmes, who transformed it into “Jack’s Barn” for black audiences.
The Phelps recording console was the centerpiece of a museum exhibit sponsored by the Blue Ridge Institute, “Virginia Rocks!,” which traveled throughout Virginia from 2008 to 2010. An accompanying 2-CD set assembled early rock ‘n’ roll songs from across the commonwealth—more than a third of the songs were recorded at Fernwood Farms (disclosure: this writer co-wrote the liner notes for the Virginia Rocks! set and was one of the project’s researchers.)
“My roots in music go back to that studio with the Phelps Brothers,” Jay Chevalier says. The Official State Troubadour of Louisiana recorded his first songs at the studio when he was a marine stationed in Norfolk. The Phelps weren’t just local businessmen, he says, they were role models. “They personified stars, and I had never been around anybody quite like that.”
By the end of the 1950s, the Phelps had created, from scratch, a local music empire. Their studio was making money, their music was in demand, and they had recently renovated their dance hall at great expense. Then, in 1959, the Norfolk County sheriff’s office and the state Alcohol and Beverage Control raided Fernwood Farms.
“It was like it was a set up,” Bobbie Beard, still sore, says. “They claimed these bottles of liquor were there and they weren’t.” The motives for shutting the ranch down are clear to her. “There was property involved that has become a big property... their property was fronting on the inland watery, and you’ve got a lot of waterfront houses there now.”
Fernwood Farms never recovered, and the Phelps were forced to sell. “Probably the thing that hurt Willie the most was that he and the sheriff were good buddies,” says Ed Beard. “Willie and the Phelps Brothers even played campaign events for him. It kind of broke their heart.”
Earl Phelps passed away in 1971, and brother Norman a decade later. Neither lived to see the Phelps Brothers get inducted into the Western Swing Hall of Fame or be a part of the Library of Congress’ local legacies project.
The surviving brother, Willie, was thrilled when a home recording of Elvis Presley singing his “I’m Beginning to Forget You,” was discovered after the King’s death. He never stopped singing, even enlisting Bobbie and Ed as backing musicians. “I picked up a mandolin at a garage sale,” Bobbie says. “I had never played before. When my dad was invited to the Asheville Film Festival In 1993, he took us with him. Eddie was playing the banjo and I played the mandolin. That was the beginning. We resurrected the washboard for that one and called ourselves the the Jaw Haws.” The dashing baritone passed in 2004.
“I never had much to do with Willie when I was playing football, or even when I was dating Bobbie,” Ed Beard says. “When I got out of football, I started hanging out with Willie. Even though I’d was an NFL coach for 10 years after I finished playing, and had been standing in front of groups my entire life, I would never in my wildest dreams had thought I would have gotten up to sing a song.”
“Now you can’t get him off the stage,” Bobbie laughs.
The Beards occasionally perform the Phelps’ old prairie songs as part of a revitalized Virginia Rounders band. It’s one more way of keeping the memories alive. “The people who remember them are dying out,” Bobbie says with a sigh. “It’s a dying generation.”
As for the five acres that once housed the Fernwood Farms complex, it’s surrounded by expensive condos but remains empty and undisturbed. “It’s still sitting there with nothing,” Bobbie says. “It’s got an old fence around it, nothing’s been done there.”
The only reminder of days gone by is a sign for Fernwood Farms Road and—if you listen close enough—a bird whistle and the sound of a fiddle being played in the key of Jaw Haw.
The Phelps Brothers Music Festival is June 9 at Lakeside Park. Free admission. For more on the Phelps Brothers, and to order CDs of radio broadcasts and songs recorded at Fernwood Farms, go to www.phelpsbros.com.