July 6, 1978, was a big day for Paul Jarvis. He got within a couple feet of his idol, Willie Nelson, at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Paul’s country rock band, Broken Arrow, had played on the grounds before Willie’s concert at Mississippi River Festival. Organizers later invited them to come up on stage and kill time after hearing that Willie’s plane was late.
“He walked right in front of me,” said Paul, 63, of Troy. “I was going to say ‘hi’ and shake his hand, but he was talking to someone, so I didn’t interrupt him. I missed my chance.”
Today, Paul often impersonates Willie during shows with his classic country band, Paul Jarvis and the Old Barn Boys.
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“He sounds exactly like Willie Nelson,” said his wife, Sue, who works at the Bassler Electric factory in Highland. “If you close your eyes, you think it is Willie Nelson.”
During a recent performance at Relleke Farm in Pontoon Beach, Paul changed his look after the first set. He used hair extensions to make braids, tied a red bandana around his head and took off his glasses.
“I won’t wear contacts, so when I’m performing as Willie, I can’t see anybody,” he said. “It’s all a blur.”
In 1963, I started playing tuba in the school band. That’s the only instrument that I had formal instruction on.
Paul Jarvis on playing 21 instruments
Paul covered classics ranging from “Whiskey River” to “On the Road Again,” “Good Hearted Woman” to “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
People sitting at picnic tables clapped their hands and tapped their toes. Katelyn Gray, 26, of Trenton, danced in place with her friend’s baby.
“He’s really good,” she said. “He comes to Clinton Manor nursing home in New Baden sometimes. They love him there.”
40 year music career
Paul’s Willie Nelson impersonations are a small part of his 40-year music career. He has played with several bands, written dozens of songs, produced albums and CDs in his home studio and performed throughout the region.
Today, Paul leads the Old Barn Boys and Zydeco Crawdaddys and plays drums in the house band at 501 Blues Club in Highland.
“We call him ‘Big Chief,” said Jim Duey, 65, of Edwardsville, bass player for the Barn Boys and Crawdaddys, noting it’s a term used for Mardi Gras krewe leaders.
If I could sum up Paul, I’d say he was probably born 150 years too late. He belongs somewhere on the frontier.
Bass player Jim Duey on Paul Jarvis
Paul’s musical roots go back to childhood, singing in the church choir and listening to his mother and grandmother play piano. His father wasn’t a strong influence but later inspired one of his country songs, “Mama Kicked Him Out for Drinking Too Much Beer.”
“In 1963, I started playing tuba in the school band,” he said. “That’s the only instrument that I had formal instruction on.”
Today, Paul plays 20 other instruments, including drums, dulcimer, guitar, bass guitar, five-string banjo, tenor banjo, mandolin, fiddle, dobro, lap steel, piano accordion, French accordion, concertina, trumpet, trombone, Indian flute, harmonica, ukelele, jaw harp and washboard.
Before Broken Arrow, Paul played in a heavy metal band called Medusa. By the mid-’80s, he had switched to Boulderdash, a country rock band that released an album with the 45 “Lotto Dream.”
“That was around the time Illinois started its lottery, and we thought we’d make a big hit, but we didn’t,” he said.
Paul also played Top 40 country with James R and the Neon Cactus, the Sunset Inn house band and Terry Roberson and the High Horse Band before forming Zydeco Crawdaddys in 1996.
The latter is a party band that provides shakers (soda cans filled with popcorn kernels) and a washboard for audience members to play.
“The washboard is a key instrument for zydeco music in southern Louisiana,” Jim said. “Bands will have a full-time washboard player. It’s very percussive and rhythmic. It works with the drums to drive the beat.”
New ‘barngrass’ CD
Paul just released a CD called “Old Barngrass: The Songs of Paul Jarvis,” which has received air play on KDHX. He also wrote the theme song for the station’s “Howzit Bayou” show.
“They play it at 4 p.m. every Tuesday,” he said. “I feel lucky. Not too many people get their song on the radio once a week.”
Beyond music, Paul is a part-time taxidermist, a hunter and flint knapper who makes his own bows and arrows, as well as leather belts.
“If I could sum up Paul, I’d say he was probably born 150 years too late,” Jim said. “He belongs somewhere on the frontier. He knows how to hunt and make his own clothes and grow vegetables. He’s very self-reliant. He reminds me of a Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone.”
Paul and Sue have three grown children — Amanda, Adam and Abbie — and three grandchildren. Adam has followed in his father’s footsteps as a drummer in three heavy metal bands and toured 33 countries.
“I was a rock ‘n’ roll girl when I met (Paul),” Sue said. “My parents watched ‘Hee Haw,” but I wasn’t into it. Now I’ve converted to country.”
Paul was in Boulderdash when he learned his first Willie Nelson song, “Uncloudy Day.” His repertoire now includes 158 of the 83-year-old legend’s songs.
Paul started impersonating Willie about eight years ago. He plays a 1972 Martin N-20 guitar with nylon strings, similar to Willie’s 1969 version.
“He’s my favorite singer, and he’s my favorite guitar player,” Paul said. “A lot of people don’t know how good a guitar player he is until they see him live. He really burns it up.”
Paul has gone to about a dozen Willie concerts, including last April, when he paid $600 for he and Sue to sit on the 12th row at Peabody Opera House.
During the last song, Paul bolted for the front, laid his guitar on stage and got the thrill of his life when Willie signed it.
“I just buckled,” Paul said. “I couldn’t believe it. He’s such an iconic figure.”
Where to hear Paul
- 7 to 9 a.m. Nov. 4 on Fox2 News, Channel 2; he will be part of a broadcast from Who Dat’s in Troy
- 4 p.m. Tuesdays on KDHX-FM’s show “Howzit Bayou;” he wrote the theme song
- 7 to 11 p.m. Wednesdays at Who Dat’s in Troy; he runs open-mic night
- 8 to 11 p.m. Thursdays at 501 Blues Club in Highland; he plays drums in the house band for open mic
- Performances of Paul Jarvis and the Old Barn Boys and Zydeco Crawdaddy’s at various venues