High hopes for retooled hollerin' at Spivey's Corner

jshaffer@newsobserver.comSeptember 12, 2013 

  • Listen to some hollerin'

    Hear Tony Peacock's traditional, Sampson County holler at the National Hollerin' Contest in Spivey's Corner.

  • Shout it out The Hollerin’ Heritage Festival begins at 11 a.m. Saturday, 8200 Newton Grove Highway, Spivey’s Corner. The contest begins at 6 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults. Children under 12 admitted free.

— In times past, the National Hollerin’ Contest could draw 10,000 fans into asphalt-melting heat, enjoying wide notoriety for its straw hats, overalls and shrill country yodeling.

People crossed oceans to hear the competitors howl. The most talented tongue-flapper was guaranteed a chance to holler on Johnny Carson’s TV stage. President Richard Nixon once wrote a letter congratulating the winner for his warbling rendition of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

But fame is fickle, and in recent years, attendance for the Spivey’s Corner ritual has dipped into the hundreds – forcing its organizers to tinker with tradition.

For the first time in 44 years, the hollerin’ will commence on this Saturday instead of the traditional third Saturday in June.

Bigger still, the contest will be absorbed into a broader event aimed at explaining the holler’s agricultural roots. Its new name: the Hollerin’ Heritage Festival.

“Change comes slowly, and we’ve always been cautious,” said Tony Peacock, who holds multiple championship titles. “There’s not a lot of us who do the old-timey hollerin’ anymore. We’re trying to pass it on to a younger generation. I think it’s being done with the best intentions.”

Hollerin’ harkens to a pre-telephone farming culture, when the surest way to communicate across large fields was to let loose a screeching caterwaul, mixing up natural and falsetto tones. Hollers varied according to message conveyed, from “howdy” to “help.” Former Agriculture Secretary Jim Graham, a staple at the contest, was known to holler his imitation of a mule.

The contest was born of a joking suggestion to revive the lost art through an annual competition, the proceeds of which would benefit the Volunteer Fire Department in Spivey’s Corner, then boasting a population of 48. The first event featured a watermelon roll and a biggest bell pepper pageant, and it only grew in eccentricity. In the early 1980s, both President Ronald Reagan and the Shah of Iran received invitations.

But in the early days, Peacock noted, Interstate 40 didn’t cut through Sampson County. Beachgoers would stop over via U.S. 421.

Also, the festival had little competition. It moved from the fourth Saturday in June to the third Saturday in deference to the Benson gospel singing convention, but other than that, it was pretty much the only game in town. Now the blueberry festival in Burgaw sucks away hollerin’ fans.

Then there’s the heat.

Todd Dudek, a second-place finisher in the early 1980s who’s since moved to Maryland, could shrug it off. “It was awfully hot,” he recalled. “But that’s what made it good, because you could drink more beer.”

With the hollerin’ contest decidedly a family event, and alcohol-free, cooler temperatures beckoned. In recent years, the contest drew fewer than 1,000 attendees, bringing in roughly $5,000 for the fire department – enough to outfit one firefighter.

Set in September, the hollerin’ serves as a kickoff for the fall festival season, previewing the State Fair, said Aaron Jackson, volunteer firefighter and committee chair.

Come and you’ll see butter churning, tobacco tying, plowing with mules and other farm life demonstrations. There’s a barbecue cook-off and an antique tractor show. “That’s where hollerin’ got started,” Jackson said. “We’ve made it more of a heritage festival.”

Hollerin’ is still the main event, but this year, the contestants will have a chance to explain and even teach their art without worrying about losing seconds off the time-clock.

In the past, Peacock said, “If you try to explain where your hollers came from, you didn’t get as long to holler.”

All acknowledge that messing with a good thing can be a bit of a gamble. But they agree that if you don’t mix things up and vary your technique, your holler gets stale.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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