Russ Hayward can’t remember his exact age but “I was young” when his older brother Bob Hayward taught him to pluck his first chords on an acoustic guitar.

Then, “I taught myself to play the fiddle and steel guitar,” recalls Hayward, who lives in Bellevue.

In 1979, he started a band, and his brother Bob stepped to the plate again.

“He came up with the name Country Tradition, and it stuck,” Hayward said.

The band performed its first gig at Mooney Hollow Barn near Green Island that year.

“Then it just ballooned.”

Now 40 years later, that band booked a gig as the opening musical act for legendary country singer Charlie Pride. 

The public can catch the live show Friday, Oct. 18, at the Five Flags Center, Dubuque. Tickets are for sale now.

Sandy Manuel of Maquoketa used to play in Roy Orbison’s band, toured with the likes of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Neil Diamond, Ray Charles, and was inducted into the Iowa Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. He joined Country Tradition about 10 years ago.

“We were chosen over other local bands, I guess,” Manuel said. “We got a call from Charlie Pride’s road people. They’d done some scouting of some bands around here and asked us to do it.”

They consider it a fluke that Pride’s management team selected them as the opener.

“To be honest, we’re not professionals, but we have a great following,” Hayward said. “We all really like what we’re doing. I think because we’ve been doing it as long as we have, we have an older following, but we’re getting a lot of younger people out on the floor now, too.”

If you’ve attended a local dance, beef or dairy banquet, wedding, or other event with live music, chances are good Country Tradition was onstage. And if couples were two-stepping, slow dancing, or simply enjoying time on the dance floor, Country Tradition probably may have set those toes to tapping.

Country Tradition is well-known throughout Eastern Iowa and parts of the Midwest. The band performs covers of mostly classic country tunes but add some ’50s and ’60s music as well as a hint of bluegrass to the setlist.

Fans typically request Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn songs – that’s where Shawna Hayward, Russ’ wife, picks up the microphone as well as her bass guitar. She joined the band about 33 years ago and has had a “big influence on our music,” Hayward said. 

Dave Jargo joined about 20 years ago with lead guitar skills. Jim Welty brought his guitar skills to the band about six months or so ago. Hayward and Manuel (on drums) round out the band.

While the band’s sound has deviated little from traditional country over the years, its members have changed. Past band members include Bob Hayward, Francis Culver, Tim Tarr, Leon Kilburg, Greg Sieverding and Lisa Reese. Also in the band were Jerry Schubert, John McDermott, Jane Edwards, Bob Barker, Larry Keeney, Larry McPherson, Matt McPherson, Lloyd Bonifas, Rick Tittle, Mike Mayfield, and other fill-ins over the years.

The band’s most frequent requests include “Farewell Party,” “Orange Blossom Special,” “Thinking Problem,” “Shackles and Chain,” and “Pretty Woman.”

Is Country Tradition nervous about the Oct. 18 gig with Pride? 

No, Hayward said. The band has opened for Gene Watson, “Whispering Bill” Anderson, Moe Bandy, Georgette Jones, Roy Acuff, Faron Young, Porter Wagoner, Sonny James, Kitty Wells, Craig Morgan, Janie Frickie, Johnny Lee, David Ball, Merle Haggard and Kenny Price over the years.

“It’s been fun opening for all those popular acts,” Hayward said.

Country Tradition fans will finally get their wish starting with the Oct. 18 show. The band is in the studio feverishly working on its first-ever CD, titled “’Bout Time.” Shawna picked the name because fans had been asking to buy a CD for years, so “it’s about time,” Hayward said. The CDs will be for sale for the first time at the Charlie Pride concert.

What’s another benefit of playing together for decades? 

“We practice when we play,” Hayward said, laughing again because the band seldom has rehearsals. “We’ve been playing so long, we just get out there and play. 

“Of course, we screw up, too,” he said, winking.

They don’t have a setlist, “just play what the people want to hear. But we’ll have a setlist for Charlie, maybe just make it up and turn it loose on fans right before the Five Flags show,” Hayward said, a smile stretched across his face as he laughed again.

Tickets are still available for the Charlie Pride show in Dubuque Oct. 18.