June 10, 2004—Mix five parts Harmony & Grits with four parts Heavenly Heritage and four parts Pearl Quartet. Blend in two of the Smiths—Wayne and Amanda. Add crowd to taste. Place in the Pearl Community Room right beside the Pearl City Hall. Be sure to start at 6:30 p.m. on June 12. Throw in $7.50 for the adults. Now you're ready for the Mississippi Gospel and Bluegrass Opry.
Co-founder of the Dawg Band along with Tim Avalon, Wayne, 49, and his 18-year-old daughter Amanda have been getting ready since she was 14 months old, playing her plastic Mickey Mouse fiddle along with her dad on the mandolin and mother, Jenelle, on the violin, at dances in the old Riverside Park clubhouse. A little over a year later, Amanda spied a 16th size violin at Mississippi Music and wouldn't leave without it, Jenelle, 45, said. Amanda soon informed her mother that she wanted to play the harmony, not the melody, in a new piece. That's when Jenelle took Amanda to the piano, turned her away from it, and touching key after key—Amanda correctly identified each note—discovered that Amanda had perfect pitch. Amanda's violin lessons continue today.
Justin, 15, turned out to be more interested in sports and beating on the pots and pans. A snare drum and brushes soon came his way. While in Tuscaloosa, Ala., with his mom and sister—Amanda's classical violin teacher was at the University of Alabama—the jazz drum professor told Jenelle that Justin, then 12, had an inner clock that you cannot teach. Now he's learning the guitar, studying with Barry Leach, widening his horizons from metal bands to jazz, rock and blues style guitar. His dad happily reports he'll even play acoustic with the family.
Amanda told me that her 10-year-old brother, Nathaniel—known as Nat—naturally grew up listening to more music than she and Justin—"we were all playing by then." Nat started on the violin, too, but had settled on the cello by the time he was 5. In Tuscaloosa he's been tutored for the past five years, but he first studied for almost a year in Jackson with long-time cello teacher Nadine Derby. She offered to let the 5-year-old Nat use her just-his-size cello for $5 a month if she could teach him, telling his parents that he was the only natural-born cellist she'd seen in over 65 years of teaching.
Jenelle home-schools all three Smith children to make time for their music lessons and the guys' swim team—they're part of the Makos. Amanda, home for the summer, has completed her first year of violin at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Every chance the family gets, they're performing in public—Nat playing the cello at weddings or Amanda and Wayne or all four of them playing bluegrass, mountain jazz or songs like "Blue Bossa," a tune Justin brought home from Leach, around Jackson. Those eclectic tastes are what makes Wayne Smith most happy about his children's musical talents. "They appreciate good music no matter the style," he said.
Bluegrass, that's the style Wayne and Amanda will play at the Mississippi Opry, along with Harmony & Grits, who'll dish out about 50-50 bluegrass and gospel. Heavenly Heritage and the Pearl Quartet's offerings of gospel will round out the evening's entertainment. The Opry returns to Pearl July 1 and Aug. 14.