Stafford: Lifelong country performer adjusts to pandemic, takes show online

Bill Purk has been performing a lifetime and is turning to virtual shows due to the coronavirus. CONTRIBUTED
Bill Purk has been performing a lifetime and is turning to virtual shows due to the coronavirus. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

If you like your music country and your jokes with a high corn yield, Bill Purk’s your man.

He’s my man, too.

To me, his corn is like that addictive casserole I shouldn’t like but that keeps me coming back for seconds.

And he serves it up every time The Muleskinners hit the downbeat.

For decades now, his various bands have been heard downwind from fairgrounds animal barns and frequently when farm organizations of various stripes convene to eat baked steak, mashed potatoes with gravy and a slice of pie.

Now 67 and living, in his words, “between Cable, Urbana, Mutual, Mechanicsburg and Kingscreek,” Purk was 6 and living in Shelby County on a fateful day in 1959.

That was the day “old man brought home a Victrola, as he called it.”

And out came a particular piece of vinyl.

“We got Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso,” Purk recalls, “and Mom said I could sing harmony about as well as I could sing the lead part.”

The McGuire Sisters “always ripped me up with their harmony,” and George Jones, Buck Owens, Johnny Paycheck and Hank the First were to Purk what the Murderer’s Row of the 1927 Yankees were to a kid in love with baseball.

When he turned 7, Paul and Dorothy Purk took their boy to Gentner Music in Piqua, which was on Lois Northeim’s guitar teaching circuit.

It was just what the veterinarian ordered.

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“Talk about hitting the brain stem,” Purk says.

Northeim “would drag us to county fairs,” where kids who could played lead while the others strummed rhythm and Purk covered the lyrics. “I don’t know that I was singing well,” he said, “but I would sing a lot.”

And he loved performing in a way he knew would last a lifetime.

His first paying gig was at a flea market in a converted service station, earning him enough cash for hot dogs and root beer at the B&Ks, mom-and-pop root beer stands in Shelby County.

“They were both orange” – the stands, not the mom-and-pop.

Thereafter, “a lot of Saturday nights would be spent at the local firehouse in Lockington, Ohio,” playing square dances for those who knew the steps and round dances for those who didn’t.

“I played the guitar up until I was about in the fifth grade, and then I tinkered a bit with a four-string banjo, and that’s about the first time I got my mandolin.”

By then, he had teamed up with Tim Musser, now Timmy G, a partnership that lasted about five years.

“Then I kind of graduated into the Corn Cobbers,” which played county fairs, banquets and the like.

Because “we were in high school and Hee Haw was on TV,” he and his bandmates started pickin’ and grinnin’ – at places like the Peanut Parlors of the old L and K restaurants.

From 1971 to 1975, Purk studied education at Urbana University, then “hunkered down at the Burg (Mechanicsburg),” teaching from 1975-93. With a master’s, he then spent 17 years at the Northeastern Local Schools, first as guidance counselor “for the whole shebang”, later focusing on middle-schoolers, for whom his playful personality seems to have been designed.

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And the music never stopped.

From 73-84, he was with Kevin Mabry and Liberty Street, featuring Ed Evilsizor, who went on to play pedal steel for Margo Smith.

Then, “I started Mule Skinner” and slowly expanded his skills.

If the band needed a bass player, he’d be it. He also picked up the harmonica, as so many do. And he isn’t sure how many players have been in and out of the Muleskinners over those years.

He allows that “Nobody never seems to get too concerned … as long as my fat rear is there.”

At present, those performing with said rear are Kenny Hanuska on guitar; Floyd Alexander on bass; and David Perkins on banjo.

It’s the lineup that last year played more gigs and pocketed more walkin’ around money than ever.

And then along came COVID-19.

February was the Muleskinners’ most recent gig.

All the players have since become masked men, “and there’s nothing on the docket for ’20,” Purk said. “It’s not going to happen.”

Well, that’s not quite true.

To keep himself from feeling like a caged animal (presumably a mule), Purk and his neighbor and video talent Pete Floyd have put on a couple of virtual gigs.

They aren’t quite the same for Purk, who prides himself on calling out the song list on stage as he gets to know the live audience.

Aside from the necessary scripting, however, the shows seem to have everything his fans have come to expect. About 2,000 have made it to themuleskinnerband.com to listen in.

If you’re interested, the next stomping will be Oct. 1.

Just in time for the corn harvest.