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Hubert Carl (Hugh) Ashley lived a life revolving around country and western music and public service. He wrote and recorded some of the earliest known recordings of Ozark folk music, was one of radio’s original “Beverly Hill Billies,” and wrote songs for five members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Hugh Ashley was born on September 27, 1915, near Wiley’s Cove (Searcy County). He was the first of four boys born to Hobart Ashley and Lillie Holstead Ashley. Music was a part of Ashley’s life from an early age. At seven, he rode a mule five miles from Sulphur Springs (Searcy County) to Leslie (Searcy County) for his first piano lesson, and at thirteen, he joined his father’s musical group, the Ashley Melody Men, playing guitar, singing, and yodeling. The Ashley Melody Men played on early radio stations in the Ozarks and made some of the first known recordings of Ozark folk music, with RCA Victor. Ashley wrote most of the music, traveling with the Ashley Melody Men as far as Dallas, Texas, and Memphis, Tennessee, for recording sessions.
Around 1929, talent scouts from The Beverly Hill Billies radio program on KNBC in Los Angeles, California, at the advice of Ashley’s father, discovered the fourteen-year-old Ashley plowing a corn field in Searcy County. After a short audition, Ashley left for Los Angeles and arrived at the airport, where a large crowd, assembled as a result of the promotional activities of KNBC, greeted him. He played the role of Little Hubert Walton for two summer seasons, returning for school in Searcy County. Country Music Hall of Famer Jimmie Rodgers would later thank Ashley for helping to popularize the style of music that would become known as country. When Ashley chose not to return to California for a third summer, he was replaced by a Searcy County classmate, Elton Britt, who would go on to record “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere.”
Ashley graduated from Marshall High School and attended the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), studying vocal techniques and piano. In the early 1930s, Ashley again left for the West Coast to play, write, and record music in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Nevada, for the next decade. During World War II, Ashley was drafted in 1943 and served as a sergeant of entertainment in the Army Special Services. He was stationed at Letterman’s Army Hospital in San Francisco, California, and provided musical entertainment for wounded Pacific-theater soldiers. It was here that Ashley met Helen Restvedt, a Red Cross volunteer, whom he married in Clinton (Van Buren County) after his discharge from the army in 1946.
Ashley and his wife settled in Harrison (Boone County), opening Ashley’s Music Store in 1946. Beginning in the 1950s, Ashley found success in song writing for the growing number of country music recording artists in Nashville, Tennessee. Among those who recorded Ashley’s songs were five members of the Country Music Hall of Fame: Red Foley, Brenda Lee, Bill Monroe, Jim Reeves, and Porter Wagoner. Brenda Lee recorded Ashley’s song “One Step at a Time,” her first hit. Ashley also helped Nashville talent scouts discover the music of Jimmy Driftwood. In 1964, Jim Reeves was scheduled to record a whole album of Ashley’s songs but was killed in a plane crash.
In the late 1960s, Ashley began a long career in public service. He was the mayor of Harrison from 1970 to 1974; served on the Harrison City Council (1968–1970, 1975–1976); and served two terms as state representative (1977–1980). Ashley was awarded the Heritage Award by the Democratic Party of Arkansas for a life of public service in Arkansas.
In his later years, Ashley turned to conservation efforts on his family farm in Searcy County and continued to run his music store. He is the only person ever named Arkansas Tree Farmer of the Year by the Arkansas Forestry Association for two separate tree farms. In addition, he was named Outstanding Tree Farmer for the Southern Region (covering thirteen states) by the American Forestry Association. Ashley was also appointed by Governor Bill Clinton to serve on the Arkansas Forestry Commission.
Ashley died at his home in Harrison on October 31, 2008. He was survived by three daughters.
For additional information: Dewoody, Celia. “Ashley Lives Music” Harrison Daily Times, February 17, 2008. Online at http://harrisondaily.com/ashley-lives-music/article_4720bc0b-1079-5bfb-825c-f9770c20e380.html (accessed February 26, 2013).
McCorkindale, Colter. “In Memoriam: Hugh Ashley, 1915–2008” Arkansas Times, November 20, 2008. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/in-memoriam-hugh-ashley-1915-2008/Content?oid=934054 (accessed February 26, 2013).
Chad CauseyJonesboro, Arkansas
Last Updated 12/13/2013
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