Benton brothers spread cheer with music

Published 6:19 pm Friday, June 18, 2010

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.

So does music.

The life philosophy of the Benton Brothers, Alex and Lee, is that music has a healing effect, if not on the body, certainly on the spirit.

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As the brothers sat at the bedside of their ailing grandmother, Enid Benton, plucking on a borrowed guitar and singing those old hymns that she knew and loved, they realized that their music – such as it was – was like a medicine.

“That was two years ago and we had just started playing some. We weren’t all that good but our grandmother liked it,” Alex said. “She would smile and try to clap her hands. The music was like a medicine.”

Perhaps, the music was even better than a medicine. The music did what the medicine couldn’t do. It made the heart merry.

The brothers visited their grandmother almost every day and each day they played and sang for her. “Precious Memories” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken” were among her favorites. Alex and Lee weren’t sure that they were getting all the chords right and maybe they even missed a few words but their grandmother didn’t seem to notice.

“She just loved to hear us play and sing,” Lee said.

The brothers realized that, not only was the music healing for their grandmother’s spirit, it was good for theirs.

“We liked playing but we didn’t really know what we were doing,” Lee said. “We had a book that showed the chords and that’s really all we had to go on.”

They took lessons for a couple of months and then were back on their own to pick and sing. Since they were home schooled, their mom, Patricia, agreed to add Picking and Singing 101 to their curriculum.

Alex and Lee practiced “religiously.” Most of their singing had been limited to church so it was the old gospel hymns that they “picked” on in the beginning.

Then, they got hooked on bluegrass.

“We went over to Rex Locklar’s Bluegrass Festival at Henderson and heard The Rivertown Girls and that’s when we got interested in bluegrass,” Lee said.

Most of the pickers at Henderson were older and they took the Benton brothers under their wings much as they had The Rivertown Girls, who had been regulars at the Henderson Music Park since they were knee high to a grasshopper.

“We got some better,” Alex said, with a smile.

And, they got a little more confident. Their mom works in the beauty shop at Troy Health and Rehabilitation Center and the brothers were invited to sing for the residents. They felt right at home and hoped their music would mean as much to the residents as it had to their grandmother.

The first time they played at the Center, the residents responded in much the same way has their grandmother. Their eyes brighten. They smiled. They clapped and some sang along.

“We sang their favorite hymns and we enjoyed it so much that we wanted to go back and sing for them again,” Alex said.

For the brothers practicing their music was addictive. They loved playing and they loved practicing. The more they practiced, the more they wanted to practice. And, as they got more confident in their abilities, they began to play at more places. They were asked to perform at area churches, then benefits and festivals. And, they became regular performers at Troy Health and Rehab, but no longer limited their playing to the commons area. They began to visit the rooms of the residents who couldn’t join the group and sing, especially for them.

And, when it was time for Rex Locklar’s bluegrass festivals in April and October, they were among the first ones there and the last ones to leave.

“Everybody there is so helpful,” Alex said. “You can hear something you like and say, ‘How’d you do that?’ and they’ll show you and be glad to. They want to see the next generation of bluegrass musicians do good. We’ve learned a lot from being at Rex’s. We wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

Lewis Record was one of the “Henderson” pickers who took up a lot of time with the Benton brothers. And, when he was diagnosed with cancer, Alex and Lee were there for him. They played with Record at the Peanut Butter Festival in Brundidge in October. That was the last time Record played publicly.

When Record became bedridden, Alex and Lee visited him in Ozark and, just as they had done for their grandmother, they sat at his bedside and played and sang for him.

Both brothers write songs. Lee wrote two songs that he dedicated to Record.

“Every time we went to see Lewis, he wanted us to sing, ‘Guardian Angel,’ and another song I wrote called “Beautiful Place Someday,’” Lee said. “It’s about heaven. We sang it for Lewis when we were down there right before he died. Everybody cried and I thought maybe we shouldn’t have sung it. But he liked it.”

The Benton Brothers have gained a measure of celebrity in Southeast Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

They played Depression Era music for the folk life play at the We Piddle Around Theater in Brundidge in the spring and just recently played out of their comfort zone with music from the 1950s at a storytelling event at the We Piddle Around Theater.

“We loved playing for the play,” Alex said. “We liked the music because it was bluegrass, gospel and front porch music. And we really liked the play and being a part of it.”

As for the ’50’s music, the brothers said the chords were much harder but they liked the harmony of the Everly Brothers’ music, especially, “All I Have To Do Is Dream.”

”And, we liked the storytelling,” they said. “Our music is getting us places to go and things to do.”

The Benton Brothers are members of Sweetwater Run, a group of musicians on Florida’s Gulf Coast, so they are on the road a lot these days.

In addition to festivals, benefits and church events, the Benton Brothers appear on Mac Seay’s Gospel Show from time to time and have been featured on WSFA-TV’s “Alabama Alive” and “Making a Difference.”

But, no matter where they play, they are aware that music is like a medicine and that, through music, they can help heal spirits.

“Helping people is what it’s all about,” Lee said. “When you play music, you never know who you touch.”

It is the Benton Brothers’ belief that there is a greater purpose for each and every performance.

“There is someone in every audience that we are meant to sing for,” Alex said. “We might not ever know who it is but there’s always somebody that we’re singing for. Music is like a medicine.”