An hour before the start of the Magnolia Music and Medicine Show in Eastman, Georgia, Karl Hilliard announces that the Magnolia Players, the show’s regular comedy duo, can’t make it tonight. “Jairus got food poisoning!” Karl broadcasts to folks scrambling about the stage, referring to Jairus Whitley, who works down at the funeral home. It’s decided that J.P. Harris, tonight’s marquee musical act, will plug the program gap by playing a couple more songs. But then it’s reported that Harris is half-naked and soaking wet because someone forgot to put towels in the dressing room. Rachel Hilliard, Karl’s wife, rushes backstage with a stack of Magnolia Music and Medicine Show T-shirts, determined to dry off the up-and-coming Nashville star with souvenir clothing.
Karl, the art teacher at Dodge County High School in Eastman, remains remarkably Zen amid the mayhem, even as Steve Harrison—the show’s master of ceremonies and Eastman’s public defender—races around the room looking for a safety pin to fix a bow tie. “We just roll with it,” Karl says.
Karl dreamed up the Medicine Show nine years ago, and its fusion of small-town idiosyncrasy with star musical talent has made the spectacle an unlikely success. A supremely charming, rough-hewn cross between A Prairie Home Companion and the Grand Ole Opry, the Medicine Show is hosted six times a year by the hospitable citizens of Eastman, a pinprick of a town (population: 5,440) in the flat pinelands of Dodge County, about 140 miles southeast of Atlanta and best known as the birthplace of W.S. Stuckey, founder of Stuckey’s stores.
Since 2008 Karl and a committee of volunteers—poor in funds but rich in charisma—have been persuading some of the nation’s most promising acts in roots, bluegrass, country, Americana, and Cajun music to take the stage at Eastman’s historic Magnolia Theatre, alongside a decidedly less polished assemblage of local performers and personalities. Acts have journeyed from Nashville, New Orleans, Austin, San Francisco, and Portland, and they’ve included Grammy winners like bluegrass musician Tim O’Brien and gospel-blues singer Mike Farris.
Karl, 61, is tall and rangy, with floppy salt-and-pepper hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and a beard and mustache that he’s constantly twisting and stroking. He heads up the show’s surprisingly tight house band, the Medicine Men, a group of locals that includes a carpenter on lead guitar, a retired mailman on banjo, a part-time farmer on accordion, an electrical worker on drums, and an IT guy on bass. On this September evening, as the band members tune their instruments and adjust mic stands, a crowd begins filing in: senior citizens, families with little kids, high schoolers from Karl’s art class.
Karl was born into a musical family in Dodge County; both his grandfather and father sang gospel on the local radio station. As a teenager, Karl was always in a band or three and was heavily influenced by the raw acoustic sound of groups like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Doc Watson, Mother Maybelle Carter, and Jimmy Martin. In 1977 he moved to New York to study painting, but after a couple of years, he found himself in Eastman again. New York had been exciting, but it never felt like home, and Karl couldn’t imagine raising a family that far away from his own. So he came back to Dodge County, where he married Rachel, had two daughters, and became the art teacher at the local high school.
Culturally speaking, the options were limited in Eastman. You had your Friday night high school football game and your occasional ATV race down at the Slopoke Mud Boggin’ off-road park. Karl and Rachel were both passionate music lovers, but about the only concerts they could ever find within 50 miles of Eastman were cover bands playing “Brown Eyed Girl.” “We’d have to travel to Atlanta or beyond to see anything authentic,” he says.
In September 2007, at a restaurant with friends, Karl floated an idea: What if they could assemble a variety show, something old-timey with a master of ceremonies, skits, a house band, local musical talent, and a down-home Southern vibe? What if the local radio station would broadcast it? And, most importantly, what if they could lure well-regarded musical acts to come down to Eastman to perform for the show? Karl wasn’t sure what his friends would make of the idea. He knew that few folks, if any, saw eye-to-eye with them on music, politics, or just about anything else.
“No one around here shares their perspective,” says Stephanie Burton, chairman of the Eastman–Dodge County Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Medicine Show committee. “But that’s okay. In Eastman, we don’t put eccentrics like them in the attic. We parade them around town.” Sure, no one had ever heard of any of the up-and-coming bands that Karl and Rachel dreamed of bringing to town, but if they thought it would be good for the community, why not?
The next challenge: persuading notable musicians to trek to a place most people couldn’t find on a map and then perform for little more than bake sale money. (The show’s primary revenue comes from $10 ticket sales, much of which goes toward the visiting talent. Depending on the turnout, they’ve paid groups anywhere from a few hundred bucks up to $2,000.)
“Our whole approach was, ‘What have we got to lose?’” says Rachel. In lining up the Medicine Show’s first season, she wrote to Nashville-based Tim O’Brien, a two-time Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who tours internationally, contributes to Hollywood movie soundtracks (O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Cold Mountain), and has recorded with notable musicians like Steve Earle and Mark Knopfler. “Aren’t you tired of playing for 20,000 people?” she wrote. “Wouldn’t you love to play for a tiny town in South Georgia?” When O’Brien called her at home to accept the invitation, Rachel nearly fainted. “I felt like a 16-year-old,” she says. “I called Karl and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this!’”
Over time, Rachel perfected her pitch—a mix of enthusiasm, warmth, and sincerity, delivered with a cobbler-sweet accent. A slew of great musicians have been unable to resist. “She left this amazing message on my phone,” says Caleb Klauder, a country singer-songwriter based in Portland, Oregon, who tours around the world. “There was this great Southern drawl. It sounded so exotic to a Northwesterner. And she had so much enthusiasm. She loved our music. It felt so personal. Usually this stuff happens through booking agents, and it’s very impersonal.” Klauder played the theater last year and was moved by the experience. “It felt grounded and honest,” he says. “It was so different than the places that you typically play as a touring musician. When a small town can get that going on, that’s super special. It’s inspiring.”
Tonight’s show will play to a nearly full house (the theater holds 275 people). There’s a sizable contingent from the First Baptist Eastman, here in support of vocalist Macy Pruitt, 13, tonight’s local musical talent who often performs at the church and at sporting events; she’s crooned the national anthem across South Georgia and at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. A blond-haired, blue-eyed pixie, Pruitt caused a stir at sound check earlier this afternoon when she belted out a version of “At Last” that was nearly as soulful as the Etta James rendition. “I [haven’t] experienced a hard life,” she conceded. “But I like the sound of the music, and I get into it that way.”
When the lights dim, Karl and the Medicine Men open the show with the classic pop ballad “You Belong to Me,” as Harrison, the MC, begins his introduction. “That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, tonight you’ll belong to the Magnolia Music and Medicine Show, broadcast to you by Wolf Country Radio 97.5 FM, recorded live from the beautiful Magnolia Theatre in the heart of downtown Eastman, Georgia.”
Onstage is a horse-drawn wagon, a replica of those used in traveling medicine shows during the 1920s, and hanging above are colorful handmade banners, each bearing the name of a local sponsor: the Eastman Garden Club, the Eastman Chamber of Commerce, the local McDonald’s. Karl sings a bit more, and then Harrison adds, “At the Magnolia Music and Medicine Show, we’ll give you a healthy dose of entertainment and songs, a cure for what ails you tonight.”
Harrison then moves on to a litany of bad jokes before introducing Pruitt, who’s decked out in a bright red dress with glittery silver trim. Backed by the Medicine Men, she elicits whoops and cheers with her performances of “Lean on Me” and “Proud Mary.” The audience is a dense forest of arms, holding up cell phones to snap photos of their eighth-grade phenom.
Next Harrison segues into the “Moment of Reflection,” a regular segment on the show usually presented by a local pastor. Rachel urges guest clergy to steer clear of overtly religious language in favor of the merely uplifting. Of course, one person’s overtly religious is another person’s merely uplifting, so you never know what you’re going to get. Tonight’s “Moment” is presented by Macy Pruitt’s older sister, Madelyn, who has become something of a motivational speaker around town ever since she placed second in the Dodge County High School Miss Chieftain Pageant in 2014, based largely on the strength of an inspirational personal statement. Onstage she talks about her church’s recent mission trip to Istanbul, where she shared the Lord with Syrian refugees. “It meant something to me to meet people who don’t enjoy our freedom of worship,” she says solemnly.
Madelyn is followed by the overtly sinful Harris and his band the Tough Choices, who launch into a smoking set of songs about honky-tonks, “red-hot lovin’,” and heavy drinking. Karl, sitting onstage behind the Tough Choices, becomes so enraptured by the rollicking sound that when Harris closes out the set with a high-octane version of the Mickey Newbury classic “Why You Been Gone So Long,” Karl lets out a “Yeeeooowww!” and joins in, uninvited, on his guitar. Soon the entire stage erupts into one big jam, with both bands burning it up.
During intermission Karl admits, somewhat sheepishly, that he couldn’t help himself. “It got too exciting to just sit there,” he says. “I had to do something.”
Rachel stands next to the refreshment stand as audience members line up for soft drinks and popcorn, her face betraying both excitement and trepidation. She’s wondering what the Baptists make of Harris’s lyrical content. “If there’s a problem, I’m sure I’ll hear about it on Monday,” she says. “My sister goes to that church.”
But by the end of Harris’s second set, judging from the prodigious applause, everyone seems happy. Harris no doubt endeared himself when he addressed the crowd in his smoky bass voice, reminiscent of Johnny Cash: “I never knew where Eastman, Georgia, was before this afternoon, but I’m sure glad I know about it now.” As a finale, Karl leads the Medicine Men, the Tough Choices, and the entire audience in a rendition of “Goodnight Irene,” while Harrison thanks sponsors, plugs the next show, and reminds everyone of the upcoming 5K in support of the local arts guild.
Afterward, as the audience files out and the bands break down their gear, Karl seems as amazed as anyone that they’ve pulled it off yet again. “I can’t overstate how hard our volunteers work to put this on,” he says. “And now we get a chance to hang out with great-ass musicians and schmooze. There are so many little riches to this.”
He’s referring to the show’s after-party tradition, held tonight at the home of Ken and Debra Hall. An hour after the show ends, some 50 people, including Harris and his band, mill about a table laden with a huge spread. Later a jam session breaks out in the game room, where Harris and Karl sit beside each other on folding chairs, furiously picking their guitars. They play some Stanley Brothers, some Riley Puckett, some Hank Williams. For a guy in little Eastman, Georgia, who grew up dreaming of being a musician, Karl is in heaven.
This article originally appeared in our January 2016 issue under the headline “Showtime in Eastman.”