Sunny Martindale closed her eyes and randomly placed her finger on a Georgia map. Flying over the Peach State in a commercial jet, she decided to move her family where her finger landed and, upon opening her eyes, discovered Dodge County. A year later she was director of the Eastman-Dodge County Chamber of Commerce.
Things have a way of finding the tiny town of Eastman, in Central Georgia. From the meteorites that fell from the sky 34 million years ago to the people all over the world journeying there to search for tektites, the rocks formed by the impact, Dodge County is a journey’s end for many. Now there’s yet another reason to find Eastman. The brainchild of artist and musician Karl Hilliard, the Magnolia Music and Medicine Show now is bringing thousands to the Magnolia Theater.
For years Hilliard tried different formats and musical ideas with mixed results. But in 2008 he found the alchemy he’d searched for: A live radio show with quality Americana music, skits, comedy, cooking and other offerings. The key was a crackerjack house band that could play the music Hilliard heard in his head. When the curtain opened at the first Magnolia Music and Medicine Show, the band, dubbed the Medicine Men by guitarist Cliff Lee, had to regain its composure after being astounded by the packed house.
Along with the regular entertainment, the Medicine Show brings in touring acoustic and alternative country acts, which have proved to be a hit both with audiences and musicians.
Close to home
Up until now, for a quality production, music lovers have had to travel to Atlanta, or at least Macon, hours away. Most music fans went to local honky-tonks situated in country settings where, as one local says, “they check you at the door for a gun or knife. If you don’t have one, they give you one.” Magnolia provides an alternative. Right now the momentum is on the upswing, with crowds flocking into the theater every other month. So far, neither bad weather nor a stormy economy has kept the loyal flocks from their bimonthly pilgrimage.
And at each show there are new fans. “I never knew this kind of show could exist here,” says Chester’s Earl Cannon. Professor and filmmaker Roger McLeod sat in with the Medicine Men recently and became a convert as well. Featured artists on the show include alternative country acts like Shannon Whitworth, Redline Express and master musician Will Kimbrough. All music, acting and performances are done live. As musician Danny Howard comments, “Musicians are daredevils.”
Every featured guest has commented on the show’s unique atmosphere. “We do everything we can to make them feel welcome,” Hilliard says, “including an invitation to our after-show party, where the music and hospitality continue late into the evening.”
Back to the future
The Medicine Men also were born from the mind of Hilliard, who’d been performing in an acoustic duo with his friend Josh Sheffield. The show needed musicians who could play music ranging from Leadbelly to the Jayhawks, from Ry Cooder to Dylan. These were songs that all musicians wanted to play but until now there was no venue for such genres in a rural town. This writer was recruited from Rocky Creek and singer-songwriter Lee Jessup’s band, and Cliff Lee was borrowed from Deepwell. Rounding out the group is keyboard veteran Ronnie Cadwell and harmony vocalist Cindy Shelton. Since the show’s success, demand for the Medicine Men has taken them all over the state.
One performer describes the Magnolia Music and Medicine Show as a hybrid of A Prairie Home Companion and the Grand Ole Opry, where the action never stops. Steve Harrison, a local attorney, emcees the show in the style of a 19th-century medicine-show entrepreneur. After all, it’s probably safe to say that middle Georgia hasn’t seen the likes of this in 150 years.
“I think the Medicine Show is a success for a number of reasons,” Karl Hilliard says. “We provide quality entertainment in a variety show format at a very reasonable price. This is a combination that works really well together for a two-hour show. No single aspect of the night’s entertainment commands the stage for a long period of time and this plays well with our audience. They like the fact that if one thing doesn’t suit their fancy, there’s something else coming almost immediately afterwards that keeps the pace of the show moving. The Medicine Show theme is one that works really well because it lends itself to great visual interpretation and gives people a feeling of happy, simpler times.”
That, along with great music, has proved a winning combination.
Shows are scheduled at the Magnolia Theater in downtown Eastman on the last Saturday evenings of July, September, November, January, March and May at 6 p.m. Admission is $10. For more information, call (478) 374-4614 or visit magnoliamusicandmedicineshow.com.