"My family, we been in music forever. We're eat up with it," says Melvin Sloan, speaking the gospel truth. "We was always making music everywhere: always music, music, music."
Indeed, it would not be hard to make the case that Melvin, his parents and his siblings could lay claim to being Wilson County's First Family of Music.
For starters, for half a century Melvin and his elder brother, the late Ralph Sloan, guided square dancers through more than 2,500 appearances on the world-famous Grand Ole Opry and never missed a show.
But the clan's musical roots reach back to the 1800s, while Melvin's mother infused a love for singing in the hearts of hundreds, more likely thousands, of local schoolchildren in the 1940s, '50s and '60s.
"My mama started teaching music in Norene School in 1947-1948, and she taught school at Norene for 25 years. She taught music, she taught singing and whatever went with music. She had students put on shows. The communities would come to the school and the place would be full of people and her students would entertain," says the all-round musician, whose Melvin Sloan Dancers, aka The Tennessee Travelers, square danced on the Opry from 1980 to 2002.
The dancers' freestyle form was quite different from modern clogging and traditional Western swing square dancing, but more about that later.
Melvin's mother, Leona Adams Sloan, also taught music at the Gladeville school 18 years, at Flat Rock (today's Southside Elementary) for 20 years and helped at Major School. On Sundays she played piano for Hurricane Baptist Church and Rocky Valley Baptist Church.
"No telling how many people my mother touched with her music," reminisces Melvin of his mom, who died in 2008 at the age of 101.
"Our family was eat up with music from both sides. My mother and her sisters, the Adams Sisters, you can't believe how great they were at gospel singing, and my father was a great singer."
Raised in a park
The life-long entertainer describes his childhood home as a loving family where there was hard work and little money but lots of fun and good memories.
Born in a two-room log house in Cedars of Lebanon State Park on March 27, 1940, Melvin is the youngest of five who survived childhood. His siblings are Ralph, Nelda, Joyce and Robbie.
The family lived in the state park most of his boyhood. When he was about 12 years old, he helped his dad dismantle a house and barn. He and his sister's job was to pull the nails out of the lumber, which was used to build a home as they resettled on 75 acres off of Chicken Road.
His father Earl farmed and helped at the state park before going to work at Moser's Super Market on South Maple from 1953 until his death in 1967.
The girls in the family were as musically inclined as the two brothers. Joyce played piano in the Lebanon High Glee Club. Robbie still sings with a gospel trio, and Nelda harmonizes with church groups around the county. (Robbie also helped country singer Mandy Barnett in very early days of her career.)
"We didn't know anything else other than just get up and sing and dance. We got music, music, music," says the man who was leading singing at church when he was 13.
"The first time I was ever on radio was in grade school in the late '40s on WCOR down on the public square off of South Cumberland. My mother taught a chapel program for Major School, and Mama played piano and we sang, and I sang a solo."
Picking his first guitar
At 13 Melvin became ill, and the doctor put him to bed for weeks. It was then that brother Ralph, 15 years Melvin's senior, gave him a life-changing gift.
"Ralph brought me this guitar he had brought back from Germany after the war, and he told me to learn to play it," recalled Melvin.
He obeyed, and a year later at Lebanon High his agriculture teacher Buck Evins encouraged some of the boys to form a band, so Melvin joined forces with Steve Shelton, Charles Johnson and Eldon Stanton, and they began to play at schools and local talent shows.
It was also at Lebanon High where he met his wife to be, Beverly Padgett, in the school band where she played tenor sax and he the trombone.
Beverly remembers how Melvin as a freshman introduced himself to the band class, saying, "My name is Melvin Sloan and I'm talented."
As band members they rode the bus to football games. He'd carry her sax and she'd let him sit beside her on the bus. The two married in the fall of 1957 as Melvin began his senior year. It was a sound decision that has stood strong for 57 years. Their union produced two children, David and Susan Sloan, and their families.
After the agricultural band came to a halt, Melvin and Charles Johnson kept playing. They hired Doug Buhler as a drummer and performed country and rock 'n' roll music across Middle Tennessee. In the 1960s Melvin and his mother teamed to sing gospel music across the county, and later Melvin enlisted with Kenneth Whited, his sister Katherine Comer and Billy Ford to sing with their gospel quartet, the Kingdom Heirs.
Brother kicks up his heels
Two decades earlier brother Ralph had taken a musical path. In his early teens Ralph took up admission from those attending the Saturday night square dances at Cedars of Lebanon State Park. Soon he was playing rhythm guitar in the band and then he began calling the square dances.
In the late 1940s, Ralph put on square dances at Cream Land, a skating rink on Sparta Pike, and soon afterward compiled a square dance group to perform at fairs and contests. At one of these events, Ralph became acquainted with John McDonald, the WSM Radio Farm Director, who hosted "Noontime Neighbor," an agricultural program.
Via McDonald, Ralph and his group was invited to be on the Opry just as one of the square dance teams was leaving.
"They asked Ralph to come and fill in. When he first started they had two square dance teams, one group did the early show and the other group did the late show," explained Melvin.
Thus, on July 5, 1952, Ralph Sloan and his Tennessee Travelers tapped their feet on the boards of old Ryman Auditorium, a gig Ralph would not relinquish until he was felled by cancer 28 years later.
"Ralph's last performance was a taping for the Hee Haw TV show. He got up from the hospital and went and performed with the team and did an excellent job. A few days after that the cancer eat into his back and he collapsed and was not able to stand," said Melvin. "But he did get to see his final act on Hee Haw.
"The square dance is now the state dance of Tennessee because of Ralph," noted Melvin, who, along with his late brother was inducted into America's Clogging Hall of Fame in 1997.
Ralph passes torch to Melvin
"Before Ralph died we was as close as you could get. He took care of me like I was his son, and I took care of him like he was my big, big brother. Ralph and I talked about the dancing during his sickness.
"When he died, I called Hal Durham [manager of the Opry] and talked to him and told him I would lead the group now and that we would continue to dance if that was OK."
Ralph died March 12, 1980, and Melvin, who had never square danced professionally, made his Opry debut about eight days later. His learning curve was short but not sweet. He describes it as "very difficult."
"I only had days to learn. I had the rhythm. Learning the patterns was the thing. Each pattern had a name to it such as 'Bridle Old John,' 'Ocean Wave' or 'Lady Round the Lady.' We could practice backstage, and we'd walk through things, and they'd help me," Melvin says of the other performers in the eight-person dance troupe.
Talk about a crash course. He was fast footing it in front of thousands in his white, size 9½ shoes with two jingle taps on each shoe, and the crowds had no idea he was a novice.
Dancing from the heart
Melvin, who affectionately refers to their style as "dancing from the heart," says it is actually Appalachian-style square dance.
"That means each dancer does the footwork as he wants to as long as he is in rhythm. There are eight people out there and each one of them does different steps, but they all do the same square-dance pattern to end the dance. Each couple would go to the front of stage and dance their own little routine and bow and leave the stage.
"In them days the word 'clogging' wasn't known in Middle Tennessee. Each person learned their own steps as they wanted to. They weren't taught to dance. When you teach somebody to dance, they are more than apt to use the same style and footwork."
In 1980 another square dance group swapped every other weekend with the Sloan dancers on the Opry. Melvin recalls that in 1990 after Ben Smathers died, his group, Ben Smathers and the Stoney Mountain Cloggers stopped performing. From then on the Melvin Sloan Dancers were on the Opry every Saturday night.
While many of the Opry stars made Melvin fill right at home, he says, "Roy Acuff took me under his arms. Acuff was just there for me."
And when Acuff was invited by President Ronald Reagan to perform at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on May 3, 1983, Melvin and his group were also asked to perform. Others on the bill for this "Salute to Roy Acuff" were Minnie Pearl, the Charlie Daniels Band, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride and Tammy Wynette.
While he danced in front of the nation on such TV shows as Hee Haw, The Today Show and Nashville Now, Melvin considers himself first and foremost a singer and an entertainer.
"I done a lot more singing than I done square dancing," he says. "I enjoyed the square dancing very much."
Hanging up his shoes
After 50 years of Sloan boys dancing up a storm on the Opry boards, in 2002 Melvin decided to call it a night.
"I was 62 years old. My back was in terrible bad shape, and I had a knee about worn out. We'd been there 50 years with my time and Ralph's time. It was time to slow down with all that I had going," he said.
At that point the Opry took over management of the group and dubbed them with a new name, the Opry Square Dancers. Today, seven of Melvin's dancers continue to dance their hearts out on the world's longest running radio show: Eddie Oliver, Jessica Parton Fain, Clyde Richardson, Heather Curry, Sarah Twilley Harris, Marcia Campbell and Michelle Butler Rogers.
And Melvin points out that "Eddie Oliver is the last one of Ralph's group that is still dancing at the Opry."
Oliver, who began dancing on the stage of Ryman Auditorium at the age of 13 in 1966, will notch his 49th anniversary of performing on the Opry in May.
"Ralph had a lot of rhythm in his feet and, depending on how fast or how slow the music, could stay with the beat and get busy," recalled Oliver of his first square dance master. "Melvin had never danced prior to Ralph's death. We kind of had to teach Melvin how to dance, and he done a good job after he got started.
"The thing Melvin always stressed was professionalism. People came to the Opry to see a show, and he wanted us to do our part and be professional about it. He wanted our clothes looking nice and our demeanor onstage to be nice. Melvin was a lot about professionalism. One of his traits was that the dancers looked good."
As for their friendship, Oliver says, "I could call Melvin anytime time or night and tell him I needed him to come to me, and he'd be there. We have a very special relationship that has developed over the years since he quit dancing. Prior to that he was the boss, the leader of the group."
Mates work side by side
Melvin, never a slacker, couldn't sit around the house and do nothing. After all, he had started sacking groceries at Moser's when he was 13 before following a succession of jobs in Lebanon at Hughes Service and Supplies, Ralph Sloan Feed Supplies and Dallas Jones Electric Supply. He later co-owned Tri-City Electric Supply, operated Lebanon Porter Paints for five or six years; owned Sloan Monument Company for 10 years, flipped houses with his better half, built commercial buildings and had a rental business.
Beverly, his mate, says she knew what she was getting into when she married the music man.
"I knew it would be music because that's all he ever did know. After his brother died, I knew we would be in it full time. Practically everything we did was together," said Beverly, and that included designing the square dancers' color-coordinated outfits.
"We just had a big time and it was fun as well as work. It was really something special," she says, confessing that she never was a square dancer.
However, she had her own talents, which kept her husband's affairs running smooth.
"You have to have a business person to keep up with all of this, and Beverly was the business person. She was my secretary and a lot of times my roadie," Melvin said.
Fiddlers Grove Opry takes off
Three years after retiring from the Opry, Melvin decided to start a country music show at the Wilson County Fair. He selected a location for the entertainment tent and paid the $500 for that spot for the first year. (There was no fee after the first year.) Denver Bates and Howard Riggin furnished me money for a big tent at no charge for four years.
The second year Myron Browning from Home Depot and Lee Pettross from Lebanon Distributing were instrumental in providing materials to build the Fiddlers Grove Opry building.
And over the past years Melvin brought in such Opry pals to entertain as Jim Ed Brown, Little Jimmy Dickens, Jeannie Seeley, Billy Walker and others. Along the way the raised floor in the Fiddlers Grove Opry was named the Leona A. Sloan Family Stage.
After coordinating the fair's country music shows for five years, Melvin selected Tom and Beverly Grant to take charge of the Fiddlers Grove Opry, and he says, "They do a good job."
Melvin is also proud that the annual Christmas party for special-challenged children, an event brother Ralph and other Shriners initiated in the mid-1960s, is still going strong as it presents the kids with food and music and entertainment by Shriner clowns.
Summarizing his life of 70-plus years of making music, Melvin Sloan says, "There's been a lot of great memories and enjoyment. We met some of the finest people and made life-long friends. The main thing we think about is our home and family, the dancers and musicians, and all the people of Wilson County that has been so good to us. It has been an adventure."
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.