One of the most famous songs in the world was born in LaGrange: “You Are My Sunshine.” Country superstar George Jones once called it the most perfect song ever written and it’s considered to be one of the best-known songs of all time, right up there with “Happy Birthday.”
The LaGrange genius responsible for this classic is probably someone you’ve never heard of though. Oliver Hood was a soft-spoken man who worked in the local cotton mill before becoming a music teacher in the 1950s and the host of a radio show on WLAG. His home on McGhee Street was affectionately known as the community center. Every Sunday afternoon, musicians would gather with him on the front porch to play. Hood wrote the words to “You Are My Sunshine” on a paper bag, which his children reportedly still have. He first performed the song in LaGrange in 1933, singing it through a megaphone out of a hotel window at a VFW convention.
Neighbors remember him as someone who wouldn’t hesitate to share what little he had. Hood was generous to a fault and it cost him dearly. He never even thought to copyright his creation – which is why Wikipedia gives songwriting credit to Jimmie Davis, a country singer and former governor of Louisiana. Mind you, Davis never actually said he wrote the song. Rumor is that he bought it for $35 from Paul Rice, another Georgia artist who moved to Shreveport.
Perhaps no one has left a mark on more musical genres than the late Chips Moman, the LaGrange-bred guitarist, songwriter, engineer and producer who shaped music from the early 1960s to the mid ‘90s. Born Lincoln Wayne Moman, he got the nickname Chips for his casino and cards prowess. After hitchhiking to Memphis in the ‘60s, Moman worked as a session guitarist before opening a recording studio. He quickly gained a reputation for turning songs into hits for legends such as Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin. He named his studio American Sound, which was quite appropriate because the songs that came out of there from 1967 to 1972 could be heard all over the radio. More than 120 hits from Moman’s direction flooded the American Top 40 charts in just four years. He is probably best known for producing the 1969 album From Elvis in Memphis, which contained “Suspicious Minds” and “In The Ghetto.”
After his huge success with Elvis, artists flocked to work with Moman, including Neil Diamond, who recorded “Sweet Caroline” at his studio, as well as Dusty Springfield (“Son of a Preacher Man”) and The Box Tops (“The Letter”). That’s Moman you hear playing lead guitar on Aretha’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” And, you can hear the words he penned for Aretha in “Do Right Woman.” Moman also wrote the B.J. Thomas hit, “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” which won a Grammy for Best Country Song in 1975. He continued in the country vein after that, producing the classic “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Moman also produced Willie’s award-winning smash, “Always on My Mind.” In 1985, he produced another iconic, Grammy-winning album, Class of ’55, featuring the greats Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. In the ‘90s, Moman retired to his native LaGrange, where he lived until his passing in 2016. The city honored his achievements by renaming Pegasus Parkway as the Chips Moman Highway.
Pat Alger is one of the most successful country songwriters of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Although he was born in Queens, New York, he was raised in LaGrange and still considers it his hometown. Alger taught himself to play guitar as a teen. He went on to study architecture at Georgia Tech but would perform folk songs at night in local clubs. In the ‘80s, he followed his dream to Nashville and was chosen to open for the Everly Brothers on their tour. Another early success was writing “Once in a Very Blue Moon” for Nanci Griffith. Alger has well over 20 hit songs to his credit, including eight that reached number one. His songs have been recorded by Dolly Parton, Crystal Gayle and Peter, Paul and Mary, among others. However, Alger is best known for the number-one hits he co-wrote with Garth Brooks: “Unanswered Prayers” and “The Thunder Rolls.” He also wrote “Small Town Saturday Night” for Hal Ketchum. In 1991, Alger was voted Songwriter of the Year by the Nashville Songwriters Association. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010.
LaGrange continues to turn out gifted artists. The early 2000s saw the rise of Bubba Sparxxx, a hip hop artist who helped to spawn a new genre of country rap that has influenced many on the charts today. He’s best known for the songs “Ms. New Booty” and “Heat It Up.” He has also collaborated with the famous producer Timbaland as well as many hip hop favorites including Big Boi, Missy Elliott, Justin Timberlake and more. After a self-imposed early retirement where Sparxxx took up farming, he is back to releasing music and touring. Now living in Nashville, Sparxxx is a country songwriter.
Sparxxx credits the diversity of LaGrange, both racially and musically, for his inspiration. Born Andy Mathis, he fell in love with hip hop at a young age and started rhyming at 14. Playing tight end and linebacker for Troup County High School, he helped his team to a regional championship and earned all-region honors as a senior. Sparxx remains true to his West Georgia roots. He even named his 2014 album “Made on McCosh Mill Road” after the place where he grew up. (It’s northwest of LaGrange, starting at West Point Lake and heading towards Glenn).
Another promising LaGrange star is the R&B-infused jazz singer and songwriter Ashleigh Smith. Raised in a musical household, Smith’s father is a former school band director and accomplished pianist. Her grandfather played jazz saxophone and her grandmother played classical piano. She earned a full-ride scholarship to study classical music at Columbus State University and transferred to the esteemed jazz institution, University of North Texas. Then in 2014, Smith won the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition and a recording contract. Her 2016 debut album was entitled Sunkissed, which perfectly describes her sultry sound.