Bill Yearwood has been strumming the guitar for twice as long as he’s been a city employee.
And he’s been with Bartlett since 1985.
“I started when I was just a little kid,” said Yearwood, who plays in three local bands and is now the director of the public works department. “I’ve been interested in music since the Beatles. I learned how to play in school in the first grade.”
Yearwood, who will be 60 in June, has been part of the Bartlett scene since 1970. That’s when his family — including his four sisters and brother — moved here from Greenwood, Miss. And although he’s never had much formal music training, he’s well-known in the Memphis music circuit and has played in 12 countries during his lifetime.
On Friday, Yearwood will be one of several musicians who will perform at Pickin’ Picnic, a yearly bluegrass festival sponsored by the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center. He’ll be onstage with one of the three bands in which he plays guitar: 2 Mule Plow. Bands Blues Grass and Grassfire also will perform at the 6 p.m. festival on the grounds of the performing arts center.
At one time, Yearwood thought he’d be a full-time professional musician. He even tried that for several years after earning his degree in civil engineering from the University of Memphis. But he followed the second passion in his life when he took his job with the city 28 years ago, splitting his time back then between the public works and codes enforcement departments.
“Looking back on my 60 years, I like the way I did it,” Yearwood said.
The way he did it was fairly a unique. He first learned guitar by listening to his maternal grandfather play and picking up some chords. He then played throughout school, taking formal piano lessons briefly when he was in the sixth grade.
“We spent the first 10 to 15 minutes tuning the guitar to the piano,” he said of his experience, which didn’t last long.
But formal training or not, Yearwood was in a band by the time he was in junior high.
“I got to play at some kind of show at school. This was back in the 1960s,” he said. “It was a song by the Rolling Stones. And they thought I was pretty good.”
By the time Yearwood was in ninth grade, his family relocated to Florida. He joined the only band in town, and soon was playing with them at Hotels in the Naples area.
“Music probably was one thing that helped me to become more popular in school,” he said. “All of the other members of the band were older than I was.”
In fact, Yearwood decided by the time he was 17 that he had outgrown high school. He started college that year at what was, at that time, Memphis State.
That’s when his second influence kicked in. Yearwood had an uncle who was a successful engineer, and he decided it would be a good trade for him.
But in college, Yearwood studied more than just engineering. A bit of an athlete, the multi-talented man decided to audit a badminton course because he thought it would be a good way to meet girls. The problem was, his professor didn’t have him down as an audit.
“She said, ‘I’ll just grade you on the way you play the other players,’” he said.
He aced that class, and he excelled in tennis, racquetball, baseball and basketball. Still, it was music that remained his true love. After graduation, he decided to pursue a career strumming the guitar instead of building bridges.
He played in bands around the Memphis area. But his career took him abroad to places in Europe and Asia.
And as much as he loved his nontraditional job, by the mid-1980s he decided to find a 9 to 5 after about a decade of being a music pro.
“I was playing music for a living, but I wanted to do something with my brain,” he said.
That’s when he came to the City of Bartlett. After working in both codes and public works, he decided to stay with public works because he felt it was a more important job when the mayor at the time decided to separate the positions.
He also settled down a bit. He married his wife, Lorie, 27 years ago. Together, they have two children: a daughter, who is 21, and a son, who will be 20 the day after Bill Yearwood turns 60.
Despite his day job, the musician in him never stopped. He joined The Settlers and was a founding member of The River Bluff Clan and 2 Mule Plow. The latter is essentially members from The River Bluff Clan with a couple of other guys who sometimes join them, he said.
Today, he plays either electric or acoustic guitar in all three bands. Yearwood also owns several instruments that he keeps in the music room of his home. There, his favorite is a guitar he rarely plays: a rare Brazilian Rosewood acoustic six-string that used to belong to an influential band co-member who passed away several years ago.
The bands have been somewhat a City of Bartlett employee affair. A retired city construction inspector and Ronnie Caldwell, the manager of the city’s waste division, both are members of The Settlers. Other members of the band have family that work for the city, too, he said.
Yearwood said he tries to set a good example as a musician. He doesn’t drink or do drugs and he encourages that message at the venues where he plays. He also makes his job in public works his first priority. That’s a point he was sure to make when he was up for the appointment for his current position.
“The mayor asked me if something was going on and I had an event, what would I do,” he said. “I told him that I already had missed dates with the bands because of something that was going on at work, so that wasn’t a problem.
“I liken music to other people’s hobbies, like playing golf,” Yearwood said. “When I look back I realize a lot of guys retire first before they enjoy life and have that much fun. And here I did it for 10 years before I started working and I still do it.”
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Pickin’ Picnic, a bluegrass festival
WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday, May 3
WHERE: On the grounds of the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center, 3663 Appling Road
EVENTS: Music by bands Blues Grass, 2 Mule Plow and Grassfire; food from vendors on site
BRING: Lawn chairs and blankets, food if desired (or purchase from vendors onsite)
DETAILS: Call the box office at 901-385-6440