The deep-seeded roots of countless bands and musical acts can be traced back to the University of Southern Mississippi and the Piney Woods that surround it.
From Omar and the Howlers and Webb Wilder to Jimmy Buffett, Jeff “Fingers” Taylor, and Tom “Bones” Malone, the Southern Miss community has long served as a breeding ground for musical talent – including Hattiesburg’s own, Pinebelt Pickers.
The band first formed in early 2011 when Jonny Williams, his sister Jamie Russell Rettig, and Ben Steadman disbanded their local band, Brickhouse Hero, to embark on a new musical journey into the world of folk, bluegrass, and americana.
“We had the same rock setlist as every other cover band in town and we wanted to do something different,” said Williams. “I met Dan (Cornett) at a Christmas party we ended up jamming together.”
After word about an impromptu rehearsal began to spread, Petal native Kyle Baughman heard about the band and knew he wanted to be a part of it.
“I grabbed my mandolin and said, ‘Count me in’.”
Williams convinced Cornett to trade in his guitar for a banjo and once the new band recruited local standup bassist Rosemary Biglin, they began learning new songs and made plans to take over the world.
“We all loved bluegrass music, although I sure wouldn’t call us a bluegrass band,” said Williams with a laugh. “That would probably offend real musicians. I guess we’re more of a hybrid. In the beginning, we wanted to play acoustic folky stuff – the type of music that reminded people of where they came from. Roots music, I guess.”
For Jonny and Jamie, music was always present while they growing up. Their father played the guitar. Their grandmother played the piano.
“We grew up listening to all sorts of music,” said Jamie. “Our dad introduced to bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and other classic rock bands as well as classic country artists like Merle Haggard and Don Williams.”
Cornett began playing the guitar when he was 14. Baughman picked up the mandolin after a near-death fall from a ladder a number of years ago.
Despite their best efforts to try other things, music has followed all of the members of the band their entire lives.
As adults, the Williams siblings, who both graduated from Oak Grove High School, rekindled their passion for music and began playing gigs around town – eventually teaming up with Steadman to play in the cover band.
“We sorta gave birth to the idea, I suppose,” said Williams, “but the addition of all these other incredible musicians is what really took us to the next level.
Although the lineup has changed some over the years – including somewhat of a revolving door of bassists (including Biglin, David Breland, Darrell Havard, Galen Martin, and most recently Kenny Paul Mann) – a recent unexpected merger between the Pickers and their acoustic partners in crime Galen Martin & the Crutches has solidified the lineup to also include Martin as the band’s new vocalist and lead guitarist and fiddle player extraordinaire Katrina Miller.
Collectively, the two bands were nominated for a number of awards and ended up winning three different categories in Signature Magazine’s 2017 Best of the Pine Belt Awards including Martin as this year’s Best Emerging Artist. His song, “Eatonville” was chosen as Song of the Year and The Pinebelt Pickers were voted “Best Live Musical Act.”
The idea of merging the two talented bands is something that has been discussed numerous times in the past. In fact, Martin has played bass for the Pickers and Baughman and Williams play mandolin and dobro for the Crutches.
For Martin, the decision was a no brainer.
“I've always been more of a singer than a player,” he said. “When my second daughter was born there just weren't enough hours in the day for family, work, two bands, and all the solo shows I do – so the very hard decision was made a few months ago to leave the Pickers altogether.
“However, when I saw them on stage without me for the first time, it was painful – like an amicable divorce that I really wanted no part of.”
So when Williams called up and formally proposed a “merger,” Martin said he jumped at the opportunity as soon as he had a chance to extend the same invitation to Miller.
“Now I get the best of both worlds,” he said. “(Katrina) is such an amazing talent and I'm so honored that someone who is as incredibly talented as she is would choose us when she would be a welcome addition to any band. It really makes me count my lucky stars. Now that the whole thing has come together I couldn't ask for anything more.”
“We have the whole package now,” he said. “We have all the string instruments covered and there’s so much talent in this group that it’s going to be a lot of fun to see what happens.”
Each member of the band is an accomplished songwriter in their own right, which Baughman says makes the creative process a little crazy sometimes, but also keep things lively.
“We all bring something to the table,” he said. “Often times, I’ll bring a song to the group and say, ‘Hey, this is a Pickers song. You guys need to do what you do’ and then we collectively play the music to go with the lyrics I have written.”
“All the songs we write could be performed a lot of different ways or styles,” said Williams. “We can take Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and slow it down and make it a swing tune or we can speed it up and turn it into straight bluegrass.”
With their first (and only) album, “Magnolia State of Mind,” originally hitting the streets in 2012, the band has been on a steady course of writing and playing new material that they often sprinkle into their energetic live shows along with some memorable covers.
“We like to pick well-known, but random off-the-wall songs to cover,” said Williams. “A lot of the times, we mix it up so much that the audience is scratching their heads trying to figure out why they recognize that song they’re singing along to.”
For Kenny Paul Mann, the band’s current upright bass player, that funky originality is what drew him to the band – originally as a fan and now as a member.
“As an outsider of sorts, I had been a fan for a long time,” he said. “I love these guys because everyone is so different. We all bring something to the table and have contributions to make. It’s a real collaborative effort and it’s exciting to be a part of something like that.”
Cornett, who began playing the guitar when he was 14 years old, didn’t actually pick up a banjo until he joined the Pickers. He has since created a name for himself as one of the Pine Belt’s best banjo players.
Although Martin is the band’s only Southern Miss graduate (USM Class of 2010), most of his bandmates have one connection or another to the Golden Eagles.
Mann’s two 18-year-old children are currently enrolled as freshmen; both Williams and Rettig attended classes there; Cornett grew up attending football and baseball games at Southern Miss and later performed with the USM Symphony Orchestra when they presented a Celtic/Irish-themed show several years ago.
In addition, the entire band has been a longtime supporter of WUSM, the university’s student-run radio station.
For fiddler Katrina Miller, Southern Miss has always held a special place in her heart.
“As a teenager, I attended all of the strings camps and orchestras that they offered to junior high and high school students and in recent years, our family has also gained life changing guidance and therapy for our special needs children through the university’s School of Psychology.
Most weekends, you can find members of the band cheering on Southern Miss’ athletic teams. In March 2012, the band performed a memorable rendition of the Star Spangled Banner prior to a Golden Eagle baseball game at Pete Taylor Park.
As work on their sophomore album begins to gear up, the band is busy sorting through dozens of original songs as they determine the track list for the record.
“We have enough songs to fill a number of albums,” said Baughman. “And who knows? We just might have some surprises up our sleeves. That’s one thing for sure about the Pinebelt Pickers. We always have a few surprises up our sleeves.”
When: 12-7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017
Where: Keg & Barrel
The Scoop: Music from Pine Belt Pickers, Cole “Pickin” Pipkins, Royal Horses, and Sound Wagon.
Tickets are $5 at the door. Pre-order the new album for $10. Limited-edition t-shirts available for $15.
For more information on the band’s forthcoming album or to learn how you can support their efforts, visit the Pinebelt Pickers Facebook page or check out their website at: www.pinebeltpickers.com
Note: Galen Martin photo by BCE Photography/Chad Edwards. Jamie Russell Rettig photo by Photo by Jules Csaszar. All other photos by David Gustafson.