Jan Masters said she thinks playing at the Monroe County Fair is more stressful than playing at the Grand Ole Opry.
“You might think you have your chops down and you have all your lyrics down, but then you’ll see a face you know and you’ll think, ‘Man, I should know him,’” Masters said. “That’s what playing in your hometown is like.”
Masters, 54, and her husband, Joe Edwards, 75, a Grand Ole Opry veteran of 48 years, travel the country together. Last year, they were on the road for 305 days.
“He does 1,000 pushups a day,” said Edwards’ cousin Bud Powell. “That’s what keeps him going.”
Edwards began playing at the Opry in 1955 and, at the same time, he was touring with a group of musicians, The Carter Family and Elvis included.
“People would boo him,” Edwards said of Elvis.
But their manager, Colonel Thomas Parker, had a plan to stop all of that.
“Young girls would come around and want to get in, but they couldn’t pay,” Edwards said. “He said they’d let them in for free if they’d stand in the front and scream for him.
He’d call all the major airports in the United States and have them page Elvis even
though he knew Elvis wasn’t there.”
After working at the Opry through ’55 and ’56, Edwards moved back to Bloomington and received a physics degree from IU, but he still worked at the Opry during the summers and whenever he could find time during the school year.
“When I looked at how much I’d make in physics, I realized I’d make five times that much playing music,” he said.
Edwards returned to the Opry in 1960 after IU and continued to tour across the states and 15 other countries. He began his recording career in 1968, and in 1987 he had a No. 8 song on the charts in New Zealand.
“For awhile I was doing two to four recording sessions a week,” he said. “I just didn’t turn anything down. Anything that made me a little money I was going to do.”
During his stint, Edwards played with groups such as Grandpa Jones, Bobby Helms, Cowboy Copas, Faron Young, Ray Price, The Country Gentleman and
Martha Carson, whom he toured with on and off again until she passed away.
“When I went there in 1955, a lot of them had already made it, and they just adopted me,” Edwards said. “It was the golden years. I’d do it all again.”
In 1993, Jan Masters stepped onto the Opry stage singing with the Grand Ole Gospel.
Joe heard her sing and invited her to travel to Bloomington, her hometown as well, to perform with him.
“It was such an honor to play with Joe Edwards and come home to my hometown and play with him,” Masters said. “He kept asking me to do concerts with him over and over again. A couple years later, we came home for Thanksgiving with his family, and on the way home to Nashville he proposed. So I married a 64-year-old bachelor.”
THE EARLY YEARS
Edwards’ career started long before the Opry. He used to play the fiddle while his dad played guitar, and then they’d switch, Edwards told the fair crowd Tuesday afternoon.
Edwards and his pal Phil Spaulding performed together throughout high school, playing on the local radio station and local TV programs including “Hayloft Frolic” and “The Happy Valley Show.” Spaulding played the keyboard, and Edwards played the guitar and violin.
After high school, the two split up. When Edwards left for Nashville, Tenn., Spaulding headed to California and focused on western swing bands.
“He comes back up here about three or four times a year,” Spaulding said. “We might perform together, but a lot of times when he’s here I’m on tour somewhere else. We ran into each other in 1955 on the same show, but we didn’t even know we were out there together. He said he was surprised to see us within 2,000 miles of each other.”
Just like Edwards, Spaulding still tours. Though he was at the fair Tuesday, he said he’d be performing Wednesday in Sullivan, Ind., and he often averages three shows a week at the age of 76.
“It’s a fond memory,” Spaulding said. “If we were both retired and stopped playing, I’m sure we’d miss it, but I don’t see that ever happening. We both pretty much had the idea that this is what we’d do the rest of our life. We carried out our teenage dreams.”
Edwards has pre-recorded digital audio tapes of himself playing various instruments that he plays while strumming along on the fiddle or guitar during current shows.
Everything the audience hears – from the guitar to the drums, banjo, mandolin, bass and fiddle – is all Edwards’ work.
As well as performing, Masters sets up a booth with clothes and jewelry at many of their performance locations – a business she started several years ago to make a little extra money.
“I got a job to support Joe and the lifestyle he’s accustomed to,” Masters said with a laugh. “We do everything together. We work together, we play together.”
Though Masters said she and Edwards don’t plan to be as busy as last year, they still have a full schedule. After the fair, the couple will take two days off then head to New
Orleans for a week before having August off.
“My goal is to still be playing on stage when I’m 100,” Edwards said. “If the next 25 years go as fast as the last 25, I think I’ll make it.”