Guitarist to share fondness for old-time country music

Thunder Bay Arts Council will present a music reception featuring guitarist Bill Kelley this Sunday at 1:30 p.m. in the TBAC Gallery in downtown Alpena.

Kelley has been singing country songs since he was a little kid. Hank Snow was one of his early favorite singers, along with Hank Williams.

“‘Loose Talk’ by Hank Snow was the first country song I learned,” Kelley said. “Then I heard Jimmie Rodgers on the radio in the early 1950s. It was when singing his songs I discovered a knack for yodeling.

Known as the Blue Yodeler, Rodgers died in 1933 but the local radio station still played his songs on special occasions.

“His songs grabbed me and I found myself singing them much of the time,” Kelley said, adding that a big part of his summers were spent driving a tractor, and during those long hours he entertained himself by singing and yodeling.

For high school graduation, Kelley’s dad wanted to buy him a guitar, but he wanted a good watch. His folks gave him a Wyler watch, though a short time later he bought a guitar, and has been singing and playing ever since.

During his college days, he picked with various groups only to discover he was not really a guitar picker, so he just played to accompany himself. Today, he still does it that way.

After acquiring a Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology at Central Michigan University, Kelley taught science and biology for Chippewa Valley Schools in Clinton Township. During that time he also earned his Master’s Degree in Teaching and a Specialist’s Certificate in Administration. He retired from teaching in 1997 and eventually returned to his roots in the Alpena area.

Kelley remembers that between World War II and the Korean War, the P-51 Mustangs and the AT-6 fighter planes would practice their dog fights and maneuvers over the family farm southwest of the Alpena airport.

“As a little kid, I was fascinated with the thought of flying like a bird as I watched them,” Kelley said. “It was at that time I made up my mind to fly someday.”

He began pilot training in April 1966, his first year of teaching, and received his pilot certificate on Oct. 1, 1966. Since then, he has flown over most of the United Stated, including three trips to Alaska in small Cessna planes.

“On one particular flight from Ellensburg, Wash., to Grangeville, Idaho, I become bored with just staring at the prairie so I played my banjo as I followed the Columbia River where Lewis and Clark had made their mark many years before,” he said. “These experiences in life have inspired me to do extensive writing, including several songs and a book about my flying experiences.”

Kelley still farms a little, flies his Cessna 140 off the strip on the farm, and plays his guitar and sings at every opportunity.

“Yes, I still work at Jimmie’s yodel,” he also said.

TBAC Gallery is located at 127 W. Chisholm. Seating is limited. The music reception is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.