Originally created 05/20/04

Okefenokee Joe was once songwriter Dick Flood



It is a toss-up of which is stranger: the life of Dick Flood or that of Okefenokee Joe.

The two are intertwined, because Mr. Flood, who got his start in the country music business in the 1950s as half of the Country Lads duo, is now better known as Okefenokee Joe, who teaches lessons on ecology through his ballads and wildlife demonstrations.

He's part of the entertainment at the 15th annual Cookin' for Kids barbecue and wild game cook-off, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Daniel Field, off Wrightsboro Road.

The event is a fund-raiser for the Child Enrichment Child Advocacy Center for Abused Children.

In the mid-1950s, Mr. Flood and a friend, Billy Graves, appeared as The Country Lads on Jimmy Dean's morning TV show on CBS.

Through that show Mr. Flood came to know Patsy Cline, another show regular, who tried to help the Country Lads get on Decca Records.

"She was a very sincere and a very good person," Mr. Flood recalls. "She was a good friend to us. I had written a song called Out of Sight, Out of Mind, and I was trying to get it to her right before she died."

The duo broke up (Mr. Graves now sells jewelry in Lakeland, Fla.), but Mr. Flood continued to write songs and often performed as a guest on the Grand Ole Opry.

He and his band, The Pathfinders, even found their way to the Far East, including Vietnam in 1966, to entertain American soldiers.

For more than a year, future country superstar Dottie West was part of Mr. Flood's touring band.

As a songwriter, his greatest success was Trouble's Back In Town, which was a hit for the Opry duo The Wilburn Brothers. It also was used for years as the theme song for Teddy and Doyle Wilburn's syndicated television show.

In 1962, Mr. Flood was named the "Most Up and Coming Male Vocalist in Country Music" by the music industry magazine Cashbox.

During the next 10 years, though, he experienced many disappointments of promises made and broken and recordings that failed to become hits.

In 1973, Mr. Flood's life was falling apart with the breakup of his second marriage.

Although born and reared in Philadelphia, Mr. Flood always liked the outdoors, and that pointed him into a new identity as Okefenokee Joe.

"I ended up camping four months in the Florida Everglades and deciding what to do with the rest of my life," he said. "My second wife wanted to divorce me, and I wanted to get away from it all. I was burned out.

"I knew Jimmy Walker, manager of the Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia, and he offered me a job as the animal curator. He only could pay me $60 a week, and that was before taxes. So I asked him to let me live in this broken-down shack on an island in the swamp."

For eight years, Mr. Flood lived on the northern edge of Cowhouse Island. He was the only human resident of the 700-square-mile swamp until he met Cindy Yeomans, who became his third wife in 1976. They soon moved to a house near Odum, Ga.

Mr. Flood became an expert on wildlife; speaking often at schools and other functions throughout the Southeast and conducting wildlife seminars at his Bear Grass Natural History Center in the Okefenokee.

He has been the subject of numerous media profiles on outlets ranging from CNN to The Wall Street Journal.

Unfortunately, not all is happy in Okefenokee Joe's world as he faces more personal problems.

Still, he never plans to get away from his loves of wildlife and songwriting, even though he still doesn't expect to get rich off either.

"It's hard for me to explain my life because what I'm doing now is what I've always been trained to do all these years," he said. "I call it God's work.

"But, if you're going to do what I do, you've got to be prepared to be poor, even though I'm still rich in other ways."

Don Rhodes has been writing about country music for 33 years. He can be reached at (706) 823-3214 or don.rhodes@morris.com.