Forsyth County celebrates the 50th anniversary of Lanierland Music Park this month. The music park was opened in 1971 by C.E. “Crant” Samples and M.L. “Shorty” Hamby to bring music to the north Georgia area.
In 1972, Leon and Robert Jones joined Samples and Hamby as partners of Lanierland. A year later, Tommy Bagwell entered the fray and helped to expand the park’s popularity.
Originally, the park sported what “looked like an old circus tent” with a sawdust floor. A few years into having concerts, the men decided to build a metal building that could withstand more of the natural forces thrown at them, though it still had a sawdust floor and was situated in a bowl-shaped part of the land that was “really good for sound.”
Cindy Jones Mills, chairwoman of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners and daughter of Leon Jones, shared some of her memories growing up working at Lanierland and enjoying the cool tunes.
“People graduated there, people went to concerts there, people got engaged there,” Mills said. “People shared memories there with their mom or their dad, husbands or wives and children. It became such a part of people’s lives.”
Mills said that one of her first jobs at Lanierland was “pumping Cokes” at the concession stand during intermissions at 8 years old. As she grew up, she graduated to selling tickets and ushering, and then finally, becoming general manager of the venue.
She said after the first few years, some of the partners began to drop out of the business due to the increasing workload and costs.
“But until the very end, Tommy Bagwell and my daddy were partners,” Mills said.
Mills said her entire family worked at Lanierland, with her mother doing most of the office work.
“My mom really was the backbone and worked the hardest of any of us,” Mills said. “My dad and Tommy might’ve been the owners, but my mom was the person that held everything together. And she’s the one that’s missed it all more than anybody.”
Mills’ mother, Brenda Jones, said she misses Lanierland “an awful lot” and often wishes that the venue was still open.
“It was a hard life, but I loved the music, the musicians and the atmosphere,” Jones said. “I just loved everything about it, and I still miss it awful bad,” Jones said.
Jones said that she would sometimes work 20-hour days on the weekends making sure that everything was prepared for a show. She worked with her children, husband and Mills’ grandmother, Lois Heard.
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Fond memories of family and fame
“I feel very fortunate that our mom and dad and grandmother — that we all got to grow up and spend our lives at Lanierland,” Mills said. “There couldn’t have been a better childhood that anyone could’ve had, growing up spending all their summers listening to great music. It was just a really cool place.”
Lois, who had a friend by the same name, would work together to cook dinners for many of the artists that played at the venue, preparing traditional southern food like fried chicken, vegetables and meatloaf.
Jones says the Beach Boys had in their contract that “some kind of baked fish” be prepared upon their arrival. She said she managed to find the fish in the store and bake it how they liked it, but no one was interested once they tried her mother’s cooking.
“I told [The Beach Boys], ‘Excuse me, whoever ordered this baked fish, it’s ready for you,’” Jones said. “I told them that twice at different times, but nobody ever ate a bite of that fish. They were so interested in all my mama’s good vegetables and fried chicken and meatloaf. Nobody ever called for that old baked fish.”
Mills added that Wynonna Judd specifically requested Lois to make dinner for her birthday, following a cruise on Tommy Bagwell’s boat.
“[My grandmother] was very well-known,” Mills said. “Artists would always do something sweet for her. And she had a little routine where she’d wave at everyone, and we’d be like, ‘Granny, that’s embarrassing,’ and we’d cringe. But it was sweet.”
Mills also recalled one of her grandmother’s quirks of giving nicknames to the talent at Lanierland. One memory that sticks out involved the band Sawyer Brown, where her grandmother got it in her head that the lead singer’s name was ‘Sawyer.’
“She always called [the lead singer] ‘Little Sawyer,’” Mills said. “And my grandmother would always refer to someone short in statute … as little. And you know, men do not like to be called little.”
Mills said no matter how many they told Lois his name was not Sawyer, she would call him that name.
“She’d say: ‘Well, hey there, Little Sawyer!’” Mills said. “But that was the name of the crew, not the lead singer’s name. His name was Mark.”
Mills said she called Kenny Chesney “the least little fellow [she] ever did see.”
Because Lois’ intentions were born from fondness, her family said that none of the artists seemed to mind her nicknames or antics and that Lois was equally fond of every talent they booked, wanting to make sure they ate good meals before each performance.
“Whenever my mama got the food ready, she would do like she did at home where you come and eat when supper’s ready,” Jones said. “But [the artists] would be doing soundchecks, so I’d say, ‘Mama, you can’t go out there and bother them when they’re busy. They’ll come when they’re ready.’ But that didn’t stop her.”
Jones said her mother would always go outside from backstage and tell the artists, “Supper’s ready whenever y’all can come and eat.”
She said that most of the artists would just continue with their soundchecks and preparing the show, but others would “hurry up and come down to eat because she told them to.”
A childhood well spent
While mother and daughter share many of the same stories, Mills had many memories of her own.
“To have music be part of your life every month, it was fabulous,” Mills said. “I got just so many stories and so many memories of being around it all the time.”
When Mills was a freshman at North Georgia University, she said that her father and Bagwell hosted “some kind of benefit” with Charlie Daniels for President Jimmy Carter. At the time, Carter was leaving the White House and was having a going-away celebration. Because of the benefit, the Joneses were asked to go, so Mills went on behalf of her family.
“Here I was, a freshman in college, and I remember telling my professor that I was going to need to miss class. He was not happy about it at all, and he asked me where I was going,” Mills said. “’The White House,’ I told him, and he didn’t believe me at all.”
Mills said that she ended up missing two days of class because it was so cold in Washington, D.C. that planes couldn’t fly them back home.
“It was quite a thrill to be 18 years old and getting to do that,” Mills said.
She said that her father was nervous for her to attend the dinner because “it was just such a formal event, and we … grew up not having much,” but it ended up being an “incredible experience.”
She also remembered when the Oak Ridge Boys were at Lanierland and joking with some of her friends in the concession stands that they could beat the band at softball. Apparently, Mills said that the band heard them gossiping and challenged them to a game.
“The Oak Ridge Boys turned right around and said, ‘We’ll play. We’ll challenge you,’” Mills said. “So, on [that] Friday night, we all went out there and played softball with them at midnight.”
She said there was a field above the music park where she, her friends and the Oak Ridge Boys would play softball for a few years after that whenever the band came to town.
“I don’t think we ever kept score,” Mills said. “But it was so fun. It was so many memories made.”
The band still has fond memories of their time at Lanierland, as bass singer Richard Sterban told the Forsyth County News in 2014 ahead of their show at the Cumming Country Fair and Festival.
“Over the years we have played Cumming, and we played Lanierland,” Sterban said. “For many, many years that was one of our regular stops, so we’re familiar with the area.”
When Mills was 15, she was riding with her dad leading Kenny Rogers to the nearest gas station, because his car was running close to empty.
“I remember I loved Kenny Rogers,” Mills said. “I just thought he was the coolest thing in the world. I thought he was so cute.”
Since Ga. 400 had not been developed in north Forsyth, Jones had to take Rogers and his crew to the closest gas station which was at the intersection of Hwys. 306 and 9.
Mills said that when she got to the gas station, she noticed Kenny Rogers was driving himself and the whole crew, and that he jumped out to pump his gas.
“I remember my daddy asking him, ‘Son, you couldn’t get anyone to drive you?’” Mills said. “And Kenny said, ‘I’m not letting any of these guys drive me. They’ve been drinking all night.’ I didn’t blame him, but I remember thinking, ‘Who would’ve thought that Kenny Rogers would pump his own gas?’”
Through all her interactions with talent, between picking up artists at the Gainesville airport, cooking meals for them and hanging out backstage at Lanierland, Mills said that she and her family made many “lifelong friends.”
“When you’re young, you take things for granted more,” Mills said. “But when you’re older, you look back and you think that those were such special times. They take on more meaning when you get older.”
While Lanierland hosted big names such as Jimmy Buffett, Dolly Parton, Wayne Newton and more, Mills said that what made the venue so special was the personal touch that it had between the artists, audience and her family.
“Lanierland was sort of refreshing,” Mills said. “It was so out in the country and it was so close to the audience. Most … [concerts] have a cold feeling to them, but this was like really personal. The audience always felt part of the show.”
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Creating new memories, preserving the old ones
Through the years, Mills said that it became harder to book talent after Forsyth County became part of the Atlanta metropolitan area.
“Though we’re not there anymore, I think working at Lanierland actually helped me a lot in my job today,” Mills said. “It helped me learn not to overreact to criticism and has helped me in negotiations.”
Last year, crews refurbished and re-installed the historic “Concerts in the Country” sign near the entrance of the park, which formerly featured the names of bands and performers and will now advertise upcoming athletic and community events.
While Lanierland Park will be the new home of the Miracle League and multiple baseball fields, Mills said that she hopes someday to donate all of the memorabilia that she and her family have collected to the park.
“We’ve had offers from … music halls of fame and other places,” Mills said. “But I think all the photos and schedules — everything should go back to where it came from. It needs to be at Lanierland [Park].”
Mills said while she is sad that the music park is gone, she’s excited to see how the land will evolve in the future and hear about peoples’ new memories there.
“I think that land there will still bring people great enjoyment,” she said. “Even if it’s not a music park, it’ll bring everyone enjoyment for many [years] to come.”