It was little more than a bit of whimsy, a Mount Airy resident putting on paper the feelings she had for her adopted home town — especially at this time of year, with the Autumn Leaves Festival in town.
Little did Susan Hiatt know she was putting together what would become a 38-year, and counting, tradition: That of her song, “Autumn Leaves Festival Time,” would become an October staple on the venerated WPAQ radio station.
”It came out in 1980,” said Kelly Epperson, owner and manager of WPAQ, the station founded by his father, Ralph Epperson. “I remember that Susan visited the radio station and brought a copy of the record, I think my dad interviewed her and they debuted it … before the 1980 Autumn Leaves Festival. That was the first year it was played.
“We’ve not missed a year since,” he said, recalling how his late father, once he had turned over the reigns of the station to his son, still called each year to remind him to play the song. The station’s listeners have kept that tradition alive, too, the younger Epperson said.
“Every year, people will call and remind us they have not heard it yet,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “Tim Frye told me he’s already played it today. We’ll play it several more times this week.”
The song, which was penned by Hiatt, produced and sung by the Kentucky-based band Steve Maddox with Rock Band Dreamer, and recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, extols the virtues of Mount Airy, of its people who are always willing to help their neighbors, and of the natural beauty of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.
It also includes a happy refrain telling everyone it’s time for the Autumn Leaves Festival, and that there’s no other place to be at that time of year.
For Hiatt, she said the piece is one of more than 300 poems and songs she’s written over the years, but it’s a special one that is close to her heart, recalling a time when she moved to and fell in love with Mount Airy.
“I had just moved from Memphis, Tenn., to Mount Airy, where my husband Ed, lived. He had been in the Navy for 21 years and he wanted to return to Mount Airy, his hometown. I was sitting on my patio, and knew it was time for the Autumn Leaves Festival. I had never heard of it before moving here, but it was a beautiful day, I saw the blue skies and I just thought ‘I’m going to write a song,’ and I wrote the song there on my patio. It just came to me.”
Epperson said his station has several copies of the original 45 rpm record, with the song recorded on both sides. “Every once in a while we come across another copy,” he said, and they put that aside for safe keeping, though they continue to play from the original copy they used 38 years ago.
“It’s in good shape, it doesm’t have a scratch on it. You can tell it’s been played, the grooves are kind of warn,” he said, explaining that while his station has digitized the song for long-term keeping, his staff still uses the vinyl recording. “The best way to hear it, to enjoy it, is to play it right off the record. It gets played two or three times a year, then we put it away.”
Hiatt tried to make sure everyone could hear the song, any time of year, shortly after having it recorded.
“I remember she had a little booth set up and was selling 45 rpm copies of that song,” he recalled with a chuckle. “There were stacks of them there, she was in this little booth, had a couple of loud speakers mounted on top, and this song played over and over and over again that entire weekend. She was in there, clapping her hands, moving to the beat of the music.”
“I charged $1,” said Hiatt, who is quick to point out she has not made any money from the song. In addition to fronting the cost of producing the record, she said any money that came in from sales went to local charities.
“I’ve never made a penny off of it, it was a gift to Mount Airy.”
While the song is definitely festive in nature, it holds a wistful, almost sad quality as well, a longing expressed in the words, a desire to be at home. Hiatt, who is 88, became emotional when talking about Mount Airy and her desire to visit the city again.
“I live in Greenville, with my daughter,” she said Thursday. While she still owns a house on Crossingham Road in Mount Airy, she moved to her daughter’s several years ago to help her daughter with her kids. Shortly thereafter, health problems prevented her from returning to her home.
“If I’m ever remembered for anything, it will be for that song, I hope,” she said tearfully this week before breaking into the first verse of the song, her voice still clear and strong.
“There’s a place I want to be
When the autumn sends her breeze
And paints the mountains red and gold
When the sun is in the sky
It’s just a little town
Nestled down around
In the heart of the Blue Ridge mountains
We’re a peaceful loving kind,
Help our neighbor every time
Love America and in God we will trust
So hurry down and don’t be late
It’s Mount Airy, Mount Airy
The greatest town you’ll find
She pauses for a few moments after singing the verse, electing not to finish the three-minute song. “I just dream and want to come back to my hometown of Mount Airy,” she said.
For Susan Hiatt, though, a little piece of her — in the form of “Autumn Leaves Festival Time” — always will be home, in Mount Airy.