Ramblin' Rhodes: 'Hands of the Spirit' tells story of unlikely artist J.B. Murray

Editor's Note: Performances of Hands of the Spirit originally scheduled for July 26-27 and Aug.2-3 at the Augusta Kroc Center have been rescheduled  to February 2014. The column has been corrected.



Many rural folk artists are inspired to create their unique works because of some religious experience, and that happened to John Bunion Murray, who lived near Mitchell, Ga., about an hour from Augusta.

His life story has been turned into the gospel-flavored musical Hands of the Spirit, which will be performed in February at the Augusta Kroc Center, 1833 Broad St. Dates will be announced later.

Murray, who died in 1988, lived in a shack without electricity or plumbing that he built near the Ogeechee River.

At age 70, he was watering his potato patch one day when an eagle crossed his line of sight.

He interpreted it as the Holy Spirit telling him to make paintings of “them ones in hell” and to write some stories even though he had no art training and couldn’t read.

Murray, who was very poor, found paint cans discarded outside a paint store and began painting his visions on wood, rocks, sticks, cast-off paper, brown paper grocery bags and other items he could find.

He told people in nearby Sandersville about his spiritual revelation and showed them some of his creations. Some of his family were embarrassed by his talk and actions and told him to stop, but he didn’t.

William Rawlings, a young Sandersville doctor Murray was seeing, found Murray’s work interesting and bought him some pastel colored pencils and good paper.

Within a short time, Murray created more than a dozen works that he took back to Rawlings, who took them to the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens for the opinion of learned art professors.

Murray’s fame grew from there with an art show in Atlanta followed by exhibitions in England, Japan, Switzerland, France and such American museums as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Rawlings still practices in Sandersville and still champions Murray’s creations.

He once recalled, “J.B. truly was a spiritual fellow, almost a mystical fellow. He got it in his mind I was one to bring his story of good and bad and truth and light to the world. … I was going through a bad time in life. I was going through a divorce and was questioning everything. I was sort of searching. J.B. gave me faith in life. I certainly believe in the goodness of mankind and individuals. An individual like J.B. Murray is a shining light.”

Also championing Murray’s unique life is a Georgia painter named Mary Padgelek who came across Murray in 1993 while taking a University of Georgia course titled Spiritually in Art.

She was amazed to learn how little had been written about Murray and began doing research for a dissertation. That paper was turned into her book, In the Hand of the Holy Spirit: The Visionary Art of J.B. Murray, that Mercer University Press in Macon, Ga., published in 2000.

And just like Murray had his visions, Padgelek had the vision to turn Murray’s story into a musical for which she wrote 25 songs. She caught the attention of Tom Coleman III, then the director of Athens Creative Theatre, who took on the project.

Hands of the Spirit had its debut in Athens in 2004.
Coleman has since become the founder and director of the Savannah Community Theatre and has produced the musical in Savannah.

The script for the current musical was co-written by Padgelek and Coleman. Music and lyrics for the 14 songs are by Padgelek, Coleman, Chris Chandler, Teresa Ruiz and Bryan Shaw.

The Kroc Center production will feature pastor C.D. Roberts and the R.L. Boyd Gospel Choir from Elim Baptist Church in Augusta directed by Gale LeVon. Other Augusta performers include Brandi Pittman.

Padgelek has noted of Murray’s life, “To me, it’s the story of following who you are. J.B. Murray was a very real person with no pretense about him. Someone else might have gotten a vision like that and talked themselves out of it. He didn’t.”

Visit handsofthespirit.wordpress.com for more information about Murray, Padgelek’s book and the musical.


GOODBYE JIM FOGLESONG: Jim Foglesong, who was president of Dot, Capitol and MCA Records in Nashville, Tenn., died at age 90 on July 9.

He signed to his labels Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, The Oak Ridge Boys, Barbara Mandrell, George Strait and a bunch of other major stars.

Foglesong told me repeatedly over the years how much he loved Augusta and that he sang at the USO Club in Augusta during World War II when he was stationed at Fort Gordon.

Sure enough, The Chronicle on Feb. 7, 1944, reported that Foglesong would perform at the USO Club on Ellis Street in a program celebrating the third birthday of USO clubs in America.

Foglesong sang God Bless America with everyone in the cast; Songs of the Gay Nineties with John McMahon and Joe Trucalli; Love? Love? Love? with Katherine Battle; When I Grow Too Old To Dream with Betty Marriott; and Ah Sweet Mystery of Life with Agnes Harper.

In late 1979, Foglesong, in his role as head of MCA Records Nashville Division, was back in Augusta to hear a young female singer in the lounge of the Steak and Ale restaurant on Washington Road across from Augusta National.

He liked what he heard, and that’s how Terri Gibbs, of Grovetown, got signed to MCA Records in February of 1980. Foglesong confirmed her contract signing to me in March, which I reported in this column.

Once again, Foglesong made another music star when MCA released Gibbs’ blockbuster single Somebody’s Knockin’. That earned her the first-ever Horizon Award presented by the Country Music Association.



• Gerald Smith, the author of several hit songs, will perform at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 27, at the Hephzibah Opry at 4391 Saxon Drive in a Masonic Lodge building. Admission is free with a love offering taken.

• Bluegrass music legend Ralph Stanley, 86, says he is making his final tour of festivals, theaters, etc., beginning Oct. 16 and running through December 2014.

• The life and career of Reba McEntire will be the subject of a special exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville beginning Aug. 10. The exhibit, “All the Women I Am,” will stay on display until June 8, 2014.