SPIVEYS CORNER — 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 Carsons 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 Spiveys 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 hollers agricultural roots. Its new name: the Hollerin Heritage Festival.
Change comes slowly, and weve always been cautious, said Tony Peacock, who holds multiple championship titles. Theres not a lot of us who do the old-timey hollerin anymore. Were trying to pass it on to a younger generation. I think its 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 Spiveys 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 didnt 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 theres the heat.
Todd Dudek, a second-place finisher in the early 1980s whos since moved to Maryland, could shrug it off. It was awfully hot, he recalled. But thats 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 youll see butter churning, tobacco tying, plowing with mules and other farm life demonstrations. Theres a barbecue cook-off and an antique tractor show. Thats where hollerin got started, Jackson said. Weve 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 didnt 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 dont mix things up and vary your technique, your holler gets stale.