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At 90, singer-songwriter Harold Pope still going strong

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SMITHFIELD — Although Harold Pope has been farming all his life, his real love is writing and performing country music.

He also just turned 90 years old, yet shows no signs of slowing down.

Pope was born in 1929 and has always lived in or around Johnston County’s Cleveland community.

One of 11 children, Pope and his five brothers and five sisters were raised by their parents, Raymond and Callie Pope.

“We were a farming family and didn’t have much money,” said Pope. “Raising us was hard to do, but somehow they did it. I don’t ever remember being hungry. We had the best parents you could have and there was always love in our house. There was never the first cross word spoken among any of the children.”

“I remember taking my sausage biscuit to school sometimes and trading it with some of the children who lived in town for one of their peanut butter and crackers,” Pope said. “We did not have peanut butter because that was something you had to buy, but we did have sausage because we always killed hogs on the farm.”

Pope said one of his favorite childhood games was pushing a wheel around in the yard with a stick.

Pope attended school in Smithfield and made it through the ninth grade before he had to quit school to work on the farm.

He always enjoyed singing and his music career began early.

“The first guitar I ever played was one I borrowed when I was 9-10 years old that was made out of plywood,” Pope recalled. “I remember walking down a dirt road singing and acting like I was playing the guitar.”

Pope said when he was about 17, he and his three cousins, Bud, Jim and Durwood Jones, entered a talent contest at the Johnston County Courthouse and they took first place performing a song written by Pope titled “Let’s Pray There Won’t be Another War.”

It was shortly after World War I had ended.

Throughout the 1960s and into the 1990s, Pope continued farming while also performing his music.

Among the places he performed over the years were at the Opry House in Raleigh and Club 64 outside Raleigh along with gigs in Wilson, Goldsboro, Clayton, Garner, various radio stations and places all over Johnston County and the state of North Carolina.

He performed both individually and with a number of groups including The Custom Three, Pope Brothers and the Sunny Valley Boys and many others that didn’t have a name.

Pope said although his wife, Margie, was not a fan of country music, she never said a word to him about his always being gone and performing with the band. Gigs often meant not getting home until 3 a.m. or later.

The couple was married for 54 years until Margie Pope’s death in 2004.

Pope said he cared for Margie the last three years of her life and put his music career on hold during that time to care for her.

After Margie’s death, he continued to farm and began playing his music again.

Pope said he had tried to retire from farming in the early 1990s, but after a few days, he knew it wasn’t working.

“I could not stand it,” said Pope. “I wanted to be on a tractor.”

He took a job at Hilltop Farms near Four Oaks where he still works five days a week driving a tractor and said he enjoys every minute of it.

Pope, who has written an estimated 200-300 songs, said one of his goals has always been to have someone perform one of his songs on the Grand Ole Opry stage in Nashville.

Although that hasn’t yet occurred, Pope thought it might happen following a CD he made in 1998 titled “Pretty Day For Memories” that Pope called the high point of his musical career.

Pope said noted music critic Jack Bernhart of The New York Times called it “the best traditional country music album he had heard in 10 years.”

The CD sold thousands of copies nationwide, according to Pope, and was the subject of a 2005 documentary that played on PBS stations all over the world.

Pope said about six months ago, he drove to church one Sunday morning at Smithfield Advent Church and parked beside another car driven by Nelda Norris, who lives near Booker Dairy Road in Smithfield.

Pope said although he and Norris had never met or spoken, they recognized each other from Pope having performed gospel music a few years ago at a place in Smithfield known as Tom’s Barn.

Norris, whose husband had died 6-7 years ago, often went to the place with family and friends and she knew who Pope was but no more than that.

“We walked in the church together and sat together,” said Pope. “She invited me to her house for lunch and I went.”

Pope said afterward, the two of them came back to his house just off N.C. 210 near Smithfield and “started talking about old times and a little bit of everything.”

They struck up a relationship that has continued.

“We go to church together and she brings me supper almost every night,” said Pope. “She is one of the best cooks you will find.”

Pope calls Norris a smart lady with lots of common sense and one of the nicest people he’s ever met.

“She has family and she has to look after them, and she loves country music,” said Pope. “I guess in the eyes of the Lord, we are just about married.”

Pope said although it was long ago, he still often thinks about things his daddy used to tell him.

“My daddy said after you get 50 years old, age is nothing but a number and your health is all that matters,” said Pope. “He said what you need is all you need, and you should not spend your life trying to get what somebody else has got when you don’t really need it.”

Pope said he didn’t realize until he was about 16 that his daddy could not read or write, but he remembers his mama reading the Bible to his daddy.

Despite his age, Pope said he doesn’t have any health problems that he knows of except the “tip of my left thumb stings once in a while.”

“I eat what I want and I think it has been over 20 years since I went to the doctor,” said Pope. “I don’t know why, but mosquitoes don’t even bite me.”

Pope said his work, his music and singing and Nelda are what keep him going.

He music now consists of only gospel tunes that he performs at nursing homes or churches.

“I still love what I am doing and am as happy as I could be,” said Pope. “As long as the good Lord lets me, I am going to keep doing it.”

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