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Just Picking and Playing and Singing

November 05, 1997

By KATE COLEMAN

Staff Writer

On Thursday evenings far from the glitter of Nashville, musicians gather at Woodmen of the World lodge in Fairplay.

There are guitars, sometimes a mandolin.

It's an informal scene - folks just picking and playing and singing.

One in their number, a fellow named Sam Garrett, might sing a song called "Little Ole Wine Drinker Me," which was once recorded by actor Robert Mitchum. Dean Martin later had a hit with the tune that became his trademark.

Sam Garrett, under the pen name "Hank Mills," composed that song and many others.

"I can't read music. I can't write notes," says Garrett, who lives in Hagerstown.

Despite that, he claims to have authored more than 5,000 songs.

In his 1970 book, "The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music," journalist Paul Hemphill wrote that a tradition of country music is that the

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songs were written by the people who sang them. Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers are examples.

"Pop" influences changed this in the late '60s, according to Hemphill. The writing was turned over to a group of professional songwriters, and Hemphill cites Hank Mills as one of them.

In 1970, Garrett was under exclusive contract with Moss Rose publishing house in Nashville, and 130 Hank Mills songs were recorded.

Garrett recorded a song called "City Woman," backed by the Jordanaires. Yes, the group that backed Elvis. This song was from a movie in which Garrett played a deputy sheriff," Cotton Pickin Chicken Pickers."

Garrett's fortunes changed a few years later when, just after being signed to a new eight-year contract, the owner of the company died and the business was sold.

"For the last 20 years, there's been almost 700 of Hank Mills' songs sitting on a shelf in New York somewhere, collecting dust, being of no value to me or anyone else," Garrett says.

In his 61 years, Garrett has worked as a photoengraver, baker, dock worker, telegraph operator and stainless steel cookware salesman. As a young man, he spent some time in Hagerstown, and he's lived in Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri, Arizona and Illinois.

He came back to Hagerstown a couple of years ago, and composes in the living room of his West End apartment.

He says he hates to call songwriting work, but calls the room "The Song Factory."

There's a chair, a table with a microphone, tape players and recorders. Garrett says he tapes his songs as he composes, writing the words by hand, picking out the tunes on his guitar.

The melody and lyrics will come together if they are going to be a song.

"They get married or get divorced along the way," Garrett says.

Garrett was in the recording studio earlier this week - not in Nashville, but in the Fairfield, Pa., basement of Richard Hamer, a retired NASA

engineer. Garrett wants to get some of the more than 200 songs written in the last couple of years down on the triple CD he has planned.

But the new songs are not written or sung by Sam Garrett or Hank Mills.

"Hank Mills is passing into oblivion, and the new entity emerging has the name of Lam A trillion," Garrett says.

He has a business card with that name handwritten, and he will let you know that he doesn't dot his i's or cross his t's.

Garrett jams with the other musicians at Woodmen of the World lodge on Reichard Road most Thursday nights. He sometimes joins in the sessions at the Friday night Old Tyme Jam at Beck and Benedict Hardware at 86 W. Main St. in Waynesboro, Pa. Both are open to the public.

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