A die-hard musician for as long as he can remember, Terry Bellner formed the first of his three bands, Hogeye Navvy, in 1962. The group, known for its upbeat Irish, Scottish, American and English shanties, featured his family members in the early years (and it does again today) before undergoing many changes and being disbanded when Bellner was deployed to serve in the Vietnam War in 1967.
His four-year stint as a medic proved tragic when he was injured by friendly fire. As a result, he is disabled and has undergone 12 surgeries, including two knee replacements and having his back rebuilt. He won several medals of commendation but insists that he is no hero. “I did what any other person would have done,” he said.
“Despite what you read in the paper or hear about the Veterans Administration Hospital, it has been great to me,” emphasized Bellner, 68, who was born in Maumee, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo and near Lake Erie.
“I was out in a boat on the lake when I was 3 months old, and I had two uncles who served in the Navy and Coast Guard during World War II. I was always going fishing and always on the water. I guess that’s why I like the Navy work songs so much.”
And his band’s name reflects that fondness. While “hogeye” is a made-up word, Bellner said its origin stems from the hog farm that his uncle operated; eye was thrown in because sailors are known to squint in the sun. A navvy is any laborer who works in navigation and in the sun. “That’s pretty much how the name came about,” he laughed.
Bellner, who plays a small accordion, was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida during the war. After his stint in the military he quickly revived his band in the Sunshine State. But he couldn’t find a job so he borrowed money from his father to open an Ace Hardware store in Frankfort, Ind., where in no time at all another version of Hogeye Navvy was jamming again. While there he performed in a program that featured Will Greer, who old-timers will remember as Grandpa in the 1970s TV series “The Waltons.”
“I moved to Indiana because of its rich music heritage, said Bellner. He also lived near Monrovia and moved to Beech Grove 12 years ago.
He and his wife, Linda “Mac,” a minister who has played guitar in the band since before they were married in 1975, temporarily shied away from the group’s traditional songs when she joined the ensemble. “My wife came from a background of traditional gospel music, so we recorded some of it and some folk and pop music, including Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and James Taylor.
And while he only performs Scottish and Irish music, he prefers to listen to classic and pop rock.
Since 1986 the band has featured the Bellners, their son Johnandrew, a tenor banjoist; Eric Peterson, who plays a bouzouki (resembles a mandolin); and percussionist Gary Farren. Johnandrew’s wife, Debra Shebish, a classically trained violinist who studied at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, often plays with the group, and the Bellners’ other son, Stuart, occasionally joins in as a bassist.
One of only two living charter members of the Central Indiana Folk Music and Mountain Dulcimer Society, which was founded in 1971, Terry Bellner noted that his band has featured some topnotch musicians over the years. “Steve Dawson played for us about 25 years ago before he got his doctorate in music. He’s a teacher now.” Chris Layer plays in Sting’s Broadway musical play, and L.E. McCullough performed on the scores of several of Ken Burns’ series on PBS.
The band used to feature a bagpiper before he quit about six years ago. “Every once in a while we’ll get a piper on stage, and cloggers will perform with us at some festivals.”
The award-winning band has played Saturday nights and every St. Patrick’s Day at Aristocrat Pub & Restaurant, 5212 N. College Ave., for 28 years. The owner, Rick Rising-Moore, was instrumental in starting the Indianapolis 500 Gordon 500 Pipers.
“We all have a ball, and we all sing,” said Bellner of his group. “It’s a great time; it’s quite a hoot. Our grandkids come out to see us, and the sing-alongs are really popular. We don’t sing anything vulgar, and none of our music is amplified. It’s a fun place to bring the whole family. There’s Irish and locally crafted beer, spiked apple cider, good food and root beer for the kids.”
Seth Jenkins saw the band at the 40th annual Eagle Creek Folk Festival on June 8 and commented, ‘They were awesome. I even got to meet Mac Bellner.”
In discussing the shanties, or work songs as they are known in the Navy, Bellner said they are significant because sailors sing them to keep rhythm to the task at hand, e.g.: When seaman couldn’t hear their crew leader barking out orders over crashing waves as a heavy mast was raised, they joined in song to pull in tempo.
Hogeye Navvy will perform up to five times a week when the weather is nice. “We are popular because no other band does what we do,” he said. The group toured Ireland in 2001 and 2011 and Scotland in 2009. “We opened for some big groups in Ireland, as we have in the United States. But since I’m getting older, we don’t travel as much. I’m in pretty good shape considering everything that’s happened. I’ve got a big garden, and I like working in it.”
The band, which can be heard from 7:30-8 p.m. every Friday on WITT-FM 91.9, has performed at festivals throughout the Midwest, having played before 10,000 to 15,000 people at the Milwaukee Irish Fest. “It’s one of the biggest in the country. We have played there many times.
“If there’s a local Irish party going on, chances are we will be playing.”