The music bug bit Leon "Scrub’’ Walton early.
As with many country music luminaries, his talent was noticed and nurtured in church, and by the time he was age 9, the farm boy from Mansfield was performing on a radio station in Covington.
His music would ultimately take him far from home, all the way to the top of the country music charts in the 1960s. He would make a name for himself, though it would be a different name, as he performed under the name Leon Ashley.
He would know and love as neighbors, colleagues and friends the likes of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, and George Jones and Tammy Wynette. He would see performers such as Kenny Rogers and Marty Robbins record songs he wrote.
And when singer/songwriter and guitarist Leon Ashley died last month at the age of 77, says his son, Leon Walton Jr., he left a rich legacy. Ashley was an innovator who took control of his music and his career long before the days of MP3s and Spotify made that the norm for musical artists.
"He didn’t get the credit he deserved,’’ Walton said of his father, though he adds that Ashley was well-known and beloved in music circles and in the Covington area. "He was an integral part of the old Nashville sound.’’
Even before he began his music career, Walton says, Ashley was a successful businessman who at one time owned seven radio stations in Louisiana.
But his love of music and the stage pulled him to the performing side of the music business, and, in 1960, he released his first record.
Just seven years later, in 1967, his single "Laura (What He’s Got That I Ain’t Got)" reached the top of the country music charts.
"In those days,’’ Walton says, "that really meant something. You made a lot of money.’’
His father’s accomplishment wasn’t just a musical milestone. Leon Ashley wrote, recorded, released, distributed and published the single, all on his own. An album, also titled "Laura," climbed to No. 10 on the Top County Albums charts.
He continued to record in the following years, including many duets with well-known country singer Margie Singleton, whom Ashley married after his divorce from Walton’s mother. Another single, "While Your Lover Sleeps,’’ reached No. 1 on the Canadian country music charts.
But the music business wasn’t all hit records and accolades, says Walton, who vividly recalls the period he spent on tour with his father. The constant travel from town to town was grueling, Walton said. He believes that a traveling troubadour life is a calling for men and women who spend decades (in Ashley’s case it was 40 years) on the road.
While fans sees glitz and glamour, they don’t see what performers like his father sacrifice. It’s not a "family-conducive business,’’ Walton says.
After a year on the road with his father, in fact, Leon Walton Jr., then in his early 20s, knew it wasn’t the life for him. One night in Dixon, Ill., as his father was about to "settle up’’ and pay his son for his previous month’s work helping to run the tour, Ashley told his son where the next month’s itinerary would take them.
"I said, ‘Nah, Daddy, I’m going to back to Newton County, Ga,’ Walton recalls. And when Walton, with his wife and young son in tow, got back to Newton County, "I was the happiest man on earth,’’ he said.
Leon Ashley continued to perform until about eight years ago, when health issues began to take their toll. Among the things in which he took the most pride, says his son, were the shows that were part of his Country Music Spectacular tour. Many of those dates took performers to venues such as nursing homes, where there were very appreciative audiences.
"It was like Daddy had come full circle,’’ said his son. Older people remembered the old country songs that Ashley sang. They loved "the old Nashville sound,’’ and Ashley saw how the music moved them.
"It’s something that I can’t explain,’’ Walton said. "He (Daddy) didn’t have to do it.’’ His father had been financially savvy and successful; he could have decided to just take it easy. Instead, "he put his heart into it.’’
He might not be able to explain it, but Walton says he does understand it. He sings and plays the guitar himself and has performed around the Covington area in churches and at other venues. He’s learned, he says, that when people in an audience or congregation tell him that a performance has helped them, that the lyrics to a song lifted a sagging spirit, "it means something that can’t be bought.’’