UPDATE: Easterling, beloved music store owner, musician, remembered by many dies at 88

Published 4:21 pm Tuesday, June 6, 2023

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VIDALIA, La. — The long-time owner of Easterling Music Co. in Vidalia, who was beloved by many in the music industry and throughout the Miss-Lou, died late Saturday.

James Gordon Easterling Sr., whom most knew as “Jim,” was 88 years old and diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma, according to his son Greg Easterling. The business has served the Miss-Lou music community for over 50 years, beginning in 1966.

In addition to owning the business, Jim was a talented musician with a wealth of knowledge in many things. He worked and played music at his store until early April when he couldn’t anymore.

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His granddaughter Erin Gaspard Easterling said she recorded a video of Jim Easterling playing his last song on his favorite guitar at Easterling Music.

“He said then that when a man is weak, he comes across as weak when he sings and wouldn’t sing anymore after that,” she said.

Throughout his life, he had run-ins with famous artists, including Marty Robbins and Jerry Lee Lewis, who played at a nearby club called “The Windmill.”

Greg said a chance meeting Jim had with Robbins’ guitarist while Robbins played in Natchez led to his dad writing songs for Robbins.

“One day the phone rings. The caller said, ‘Hello, this is Marty Robbins … I would like you to write songs for me,’” Greg said. “My dad questioned him at first and thought it was a prank. He wound up writing two hit songs for him.”

One called, “Hello Daily News,” played on the Johnny Cash show and the other, “You Don’t Really Know,” was rated the top song on its album, Greg said.

“He was going to do two more songs for him before Marty died and never could remember what those two songs were,” Greg said. “He’s probably asking Marty about those songs now.”

Greg said Jim Easterling picked up his first instrument, a mandolin, at age 13 and “couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.” Everything else he learned from then on, he was self-taught.

Author Greg Iles said he and many other local musicians were encouraged and had been helped on many occasions by Easterling beyond the typical retailer-customer relationship.

“He did a lot for myself and Bobby Hensley, who formed the band, Frankly Scarlet,” Iles said. “But Jim did so much more than that. He was enormously well-read and knew a great deal about the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. He also knew a lot about the years of deep corruption in Concordia Parish.

“It was Jim Easterling who introduced me to Stanley Nelson by setting up a fateful lunch at the Eola Hotel. That meeting ultimately led to me writing the Natchez Burning trilogy. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Jim Easterling, there would only be three Penn Cage novels, not seven. Or if there were, they would not have dealt with such dark and important themes as the Silver Dollar murders.”

Iles added that he just completed his seventh Penn Cage novel that will be published in May 2024. Iles said Easterling had a “Will Rogers” wisdom about him but would offer corrective advice gently in a way that people might take it. He also cared about his customers enough that he often took them to lunch and talked with them in depth about their lives, hopes and dreams and offered good advice.

“I think he just loved it so much,” said Amanda Easterling Stark, another of Jim Easterling’s granddaughters. She grew up in Hattiesburg but holds onto many childhood memories spent at her grandfather’s music store in Vidalia.

“We (the grandchildren) had sort of a camp back there (in his shop) and would play with the instruments while they were working,” she said.

To his grandchildren, Jim Easterling was called “Main Man,” a nickname coined by his eldest grandchild, Stark’s oldest brother, Jay.

She added, “Main Man” could play almost any instrument that was “put in front of him.”

“There’s a great love for music in our family, whether we can play an instrument or not, and I’m pretty sure that resonated from Main Man,” Stark said.

“I wouldn’t have been involved in music if it weren’t for him,” Erin added. “Since third grade, I was dropped off the bus here for daycare and I saw him every day. They were good memories. … That’s how I wound up in music. I was saturated in it.”

Erin started out playing flute and played the first chair. Her sister Angela played the first chair on the saxophone.

Jim Easterling was in a band called, “The Mississippians,” which played at local venues and festivals throughout the south for over 40 years with various members coming and going, Greg said. The family plans to have some who knew and played with Jim Easterling perform at the funeral service on Friday at Colonial Funeral Home in Columbia, Mississippi.

“With that amount of talent there, we should give him a decent send-off,” Greg said.

Jim Easterling grew up in Morgantown, a small Mississippi community outside of Columbia, and moved to Natchez to work at International Paper, later opening the music store.

When he wasn’t at the store, Easterling enjoyed being outdoors fishing or on long walks by the river, on the bluff or in the woods, Stark said.

Greg added that Jim Easterling loved to read and if he hadn’t played music, he probably would have been a history professor.

Easterling Music continues to be run by Jim Easterling’s wife Rhelda and Greg.

Jim and Rhelda have been married for 70 years and together since they were in high school, Starks said.

Easterling has another son, James Gordon Easterling Jr.; two sisters, Jean Fortenberry and Joan Gartman; a brother, Jeff Easterling; six grandchildren; 14 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren with two on the way.

There will be a visitation at Colonial Funeral Home in Columbia on Thursday, June 8, from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. and a funeral service Friday at 11 a.m., officiated by Reverend Cory Odom.