Estes Store Boys

The Estes Store Boys were (from left) Donnie Johnston, Randolph Woodward, Jackie Myers, Bubba Mills and Tom Kitty Mills. Jerry Lee Mills is in front.

These days, I pass by Estes Store about once a week, and each time, my mind goes back almost 50 years.

The old store closed some 20 years ago when its owners, Jim and Edna Mills, died. Their three sons, involved in other businesses at the time, had little interest in keeping it open.

That is understandable, because by the mid-1990s, small country stores were not profitable. In fact, most days were so slow during the last 10 years of the store’s operation that Edna spent much of her time reupholstering and refinishing furniture, something she was really good at, in the back of the building.

There was a time, however, when Estes Store, sitting along the Richmond Road, was the center of entertainment in that part of picturesque Rappahannock County.

I’m not sure how it all began, but I think the music got started when Randolph Woodward got a banjo and learned to play it. Bubba Mills learned to play the guitar well enough to accompany Randolph, and hearing the two of them one night prompted me to put my rock ’n’ roll guitar aside momentarily and take up the mandolin. Then, Jackie Myers got a guitar and started playing.

We’d play around in the evenings, much to the delight of customers. But we really got patrons’ attention when Randolph perfected “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” the old Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ bluegrass tune. Then, we were bona-fidy.

It wasn’t long before the other two Mills brothers, Tom Kitty and 13-year-old Jerry Lee (the Mills were my second cousins), got guitars and joined in the nightly sessions. Jerry Lee, impressed by groups like the New Christy Minstrels, even persuaded his father to buy him a 12-string guitar, the first one we had ever seen. Man, was that cool!

I suppose Jim figured the investment in that expensive 12-string was worth it, because the music was bringing in more and more customers as the word spread. Pretty soon, we were playing to a packed house (maybe 30 people) almost every night.

But even if a crowd didn’t materialize, we did our thing, because we loved the music. Before rock ’n’ roll came along, we had all grown up on bluegrass and down-home hillbilly music, so country was in our blood. Now we were in hog heaven.

To broaden the band’s horizons, I learned to play the harmonica so we could do “The Orange Blossom Special.” I can still hear Randolph doing that “ding ding” on the banjo to imitate a locomotive bell.

Arley Estes, who was almost 20 years our senior, would occasionally drop in with his mandolin and do a rendition of “Under the Double Eagle,” a favorite bluegrass tune from his youth. Sean Kilpatrick, son of the syndicated columnist, would even “jug” a little on occasion.

Randolph, who was without question the best musician among us, would switch to the electric guitar when we did Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

And we always had to play Edna’s favorite bluegrass tune, “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which even Elvis Presley had recorded during his early rockabilly days.

We’d sit around, playing music and eating chunks of thick bologna on crackers, until Edna got tired around 10 or so (Jim would head for the house and go to bed whenever he felt like it) and then we’d disperse.

Occasionally, we’d get invited to perform at some high-class event like the Miss Rappahannock Beauty Pageant, in great part because we all had girlfriends who had or were now attending the high school where the contest was held.

Mostly, however, we were content to play our music at Estes Store and entertain whoever might drop by.

Over time, the Estes Store Boys went the same way as Bryan Adams’ band in his rock hit, “The Summer of 69” (ironically, the year we started playing.) Jackie Myers got drafted, Randolph got married and I started working nights as a newspaper reporter.

The group lasted only a couple of years, but it was one of the most fun times of my life. And though we have all gone our separate ways, we are still bound together by the music we played during that magical period. And I can never pass that old store without hearing the ring of Randolph’s banjo.

Sometimes things just fall into place and create lasting memories.

It happened for me at Estes Store.

You can read more Estes Store stories in my new book, “Down on the Farm.”

Donnie Johnston:

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