Best of the Pine Belt Hall of Fame

We have a bit of an embarrassment of riches going on here in the Pine Belt. There’s a sense of community and belongingness here that encompasses those from all walks of life, simply because of where we live. It’s a feeling that extends to lifelong members of our community, to students living here while in college, to those from other cities and towns who, for various reasons, decide to make Hattiesburg, Mississippi, their home, and then contribute fully to improving our collective quality of life.

The recent Best of the Pine Belt contest and awards show presented by FestivalSouth and Signature Magazine is a prime example of what’s right and good in our community. It was my privilege to attend the VIP Hall of Fame induction ceremony dinner before the awards show at the Saenger Theater on June 3. Each one of the inductees absolutely brings a different A-game to the table, and the Pine Belt is a better place because of it.

Inductee Cary Hudson is a personal friend, a Mississippi treasure and one of the best musicians alive today – and that’s not just my opinion. He is one of those rare fully-authentic musicians that lacks pretense, but delivers a soulful punch with a sound that is 100 percent Mississippi. His guitar, harmonica, and foot drum/tambourine blend with a clear voice that drives home a message of appreciation for our way of life. His professional career as a songwriter and musician is validated- if not by national recognition, by fans and friends all throughout the Deep South.

I only recently had the pleasure of meeting Terry Jordan, but had heard about him for some time. The openness and sincerity he exuded when I finally met him made sense. People know about good people, and they love them here. He’s one of those, and he’s at the top of his craft as a bartender – both in mixology and people skills. Mixology can be learned, but the type of people skills Terry Jordan possesses are innate – you either have them or you don’t, and Terry has them in spades. Terry recently removed himself from the Best Bartender category after five consecutive wins. It was a truly selfless gesture motivated by the desire to allow someone else to win the award.

Inductee Sarah Marshall Newton has tirelessly worked with her husband, Brad Newton, (owner of downtown watering spot and music venue The Thirsty Hippo), to bring Hattiesburg the community music event Life at Five, hosted in downtown Hattiesburg’s Town Square Park throughout the fall and spring months, as well as a new Summer Tunes series. She does it well, and brings life to the heart of downtown through the magical medium of music – that great connector, inspirer and soul-soother. The event elevates Hattiesburg to a level of other successful smaller cities who exponentially increase their value by embracing and encouraging the arts. When you speak to Sarah, you realize she cares – the Newtons don’t profit from the work they do to put on Live at Five, it's a service – a labor of love and a tremendous gift to our city.

When I faced a life choice about moving back to Mississippi in 2010, I was hesitant (frankly, I was sorely disappointed that it was necessary), but I realized it was the smart decision, so I did it. I had left the Pine Belt after my 7th-grade year, and I was happy to do so. I relished certain Mississippi childhood memories, but felt I was much more “cosmopolitan” in the larger Tennessee city to which we’d relocated. Upon returning, it was music venues like The Thirsty Hippo and events like Live at Five that made me feel that I had made the right choice; Hattiesburg quickly became home – a place in which I knew I could raise my son, and work alongside so many others in putting feet to a dialogue about how to make our home the best it can be.

I’m a people watcher – an introverted extrovert who works in a field mostly populated by extra-extroverts. I’ve found through the years that you can tell when someone is comfortable, and you can sense when they are authentic. Excitement about what someone does cannot be falsely manufactured and delivered, and it’s something people can sense. As I watched the awards ceremony, I was struck by the genuineness of all of the VIP inductees and award-show winners, and by the genuine interest and care that radiated from those who were attending the awards show. It’s a beautiful thing – people here are fully invested in the Hattiesburg story.

The embarrassment of riches found here lives in the hearts of all who make the Pine Belt home. The supporters of local businesses. Those who volunteer at every opportunity. Civic and religious leaders, public servants, and business owners who invest time and money in communities. Those people who reach out across cultural, economic and political divides to bridge those gaps with positivity and collaboration. Professionals, students and families who enjoy all that Hattiesburg have to offer. Therein lie the gems, truly the Best of the Pine Belt.

I’m proud and happy to call Hattiesburg home. I’ll be watching and supporting our local music scene.  I’ll find myself astonished by the culinary prowess found in restaurants across our city. I’ll delight in the latest Hattiesburg Zoo events and exhibits. I’ll appreciate my local artists, craftsmen and farmers at places like the Downtown Hattiesburg Farmers Market. I’ll cheer on the Golden Eagles, and I’ll be watching with eyes wide open to see what’s next. It’s a surefire Mississippi bet that it’s going to be awesome.

Cathy Eaker works for New South Restaurant Group and is involved in all aspects of the Hub City. As former director of the Downtown Farmer’s Market, she’s experienced the bountiful harvest that is Hattiesburg.