DeFord Bailey was the most influential harmonica player in the first half of the 20th century. He was the first African American to join the Grand Ole Opry and was one of its biggest stars. Despite such acclaim, he died quietly in 1982 without recognition of his place in music history. Things started to change in 2005, though. Nashville Public Television produced the documentary DEFORD BAILEY: A LEGEND LOST. The program went national and to this day is still broadcast on PBS stations nationwide. The word was getting out. Later that same year, Bailey was inducted posthumously in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Now, almost 25 years to day of his passing, Bailey is receiving another honor. On Wednesday, June 27 at 11 a.m. EarthMatters Tennessee in association with LifeWorks Foundation will dedicate the DeFord Bailey Tribute Garden. The garden is located in George W. Carver Food Park at the corner of Lealand (10th Avenue South) and Gale Lane in the Sunnyside Community, and the public is invited to the dedication.
The garden will house nearly a dozen different varieties of miniature and tea roses named for country music singers and songs including Barbara Mandrell, Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Lynn Anderson, Elvis, Pam Tillis, Minnie Pearl and songs “Ring of Fire,” “Tennessee Waltz” and “Rocky Top.” The flowers are just a sampling from the Nashville Music Collection, which consists of approximately 20 different varieties of flora including flowers named after “Everlasting Love,” “Passionate Kisses,” Patsy Cline, Amy Grant and “Blue Bayou,” to name a few. This is the first time the country music roses will ever be housed together in one location but it is not the last appearance these roses will make in the Nashville area.
“There is no more fitting a tribute to the man who helped make the Grand Ole Opry a household name than for Nashville to honor DeFord Bailey with a living tribute of a garden populated by flowers named after the singers and songs in country music,” explained Pat Bullard of LifeWorks in the release announcing the dedication. “Just as DeFord’s amazing talent helped bring attention to this community, the community can now bring attention to a man who contributed in making ‘Music City’ what it is today.”
Members of the Bailey family and biographer and manager David Morton, whose book DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music was published by The University of Tennessee Press in 1991, will join descendants of fellow Opry performers and other special guests whose lives have been touched by Bailey for the dedication. Other participants will include representatives from EarthMatters and Lifeworks, special guests and Dr. Louis Mishu (local rosarian and project consultant).