By Gary E. McKee
There is a growing phenomenon in the small towns Central Texas of weeknight concerts in public halls given by area entertainers and emerging stars seeking an outlet for their music.
The term “Opry” originated at WSM, an AM Nashville radio station that first went on the air in 1925. WSM would broadcast a classical music and opera show followed by WSM Barn Dance. The story goes that in December of 1927, at the end of the first hour of classical music, the sound of a rushing locomotive filled the airwaves, and George D. Hay started his Barn Dance Show by announcing that “You have just heard opera. Now you’re going to hear opry.” With that introduction, DeFord Baily played a classic train song on his harmonica in contrast to the previous symphonic orchestra. Hay then spoke into the radio microphone “… For the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the ‘earthy’.” The show was soon renamed Grand Ole Opry and country music was changed forever. For the country music impaired readers, the Grand Ole Opry on high wattage WSM was heard hundreds of miles from Nashville. The show provided inspiration to hundreds of future country music stars listening to it on the family radio (pre-television days.) After the show was moved to the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, these Opry inspired musicians would go on to change music. Maybe you have heard of them, they had names such as Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins, Ernest Tubb, and hundreds more.
This tradition of bringing country music to the “earthy” people continues today in the form of small town opries throughout Central Texas. Though not directly associated with Nashville, each opry is operated differently to achieve a common cause. The formats are similar, there is a house band composed of veteran musicians, with local guest volunteer performers who have been vetted. This gives local people of all ages, with talent, an opportunity to stand in front of a crowd that is not their family and friends, with the spotlights in their eyes, and a crack band backing them up, to see if they have what it takes to become professional. Some of the performers are youngsters, which makes this a good proving ground. On the flip side, many folks have no desire to “make it big,” but just love to perform and this is their opportunity.
The Fayette County Country Music Opry in La Grange is managed by a small group of citizens who fourteen years ago decided that the town needed an affordable live music venue. Every third Monday of the month, anywhere from 200 to 500 people gather at the rented KC Hall, a special guest performs with a paid back-up band. Frenchie Burke, the Cajun fiddler, was there recently, and the Dujka Brothers played in December. At a recent performance the Jordan Sisters, Minnie (17) and Ella (14), blew the crowd away with their intertwining melodies and intricate fiddle work. Check them out on Facebook. The February show featured a Johnny Cash tribute with an impersonator performing the “early” Cash music. Admission to the shows is $5, which after expenses, leaves very little money in the kitty, however the proceeds are plowed back into a pool. This pool is used to pay for performers with different musical styles to display their music to Central Texians. The City of La Grange and local merchants provide assistance in various forms. This Opry is truly a work of love for Violet Zbranek, Cathy Walla, Geri Mendel, and Donella Cernosek the ladies who make this show possible.
Giddings, in Lee County, has the Lone Star Opry, which kicked off in 1993. This Opry is sponsored by the local Rotary Club. What started out as a fundraiser for the club has turned into their most successful “community service” project. Proceeds are used to fund scholarships for deserving high school students in Lee County. During the past 18 years, the club has awarded dozens of $1,000 scholarships. On the first Monday of each month an average of 500 people attend the show, with a large percentage being from out of town. They come in early, save their seats, and then shop or eat in town, contributing to local economy. Previous shows have highlighted Billy Mata and Ken Brothers.
The Silver Wings Ballroom in Brenham is the home of the Bluebonnet Opry, organized n 1998. Every third Thursday, guest artists perform with a great band, that polkabeat fans will recognize two members: John Dujka and Duane Wavra. Every year the Bluebonnet Opry donates $5,000 – $6,000 to the local Brazos Valley Hospice.
The Gulf Coast region music lovers are fortunate to have the Flag City Opry in Edna, every third Tuesday of the month, to see experienced musicians backing up such artists as Justin Trevino, Amber Digby and Tony Booth. Shane Lala, of the Red Ravens, is a frequent performer or band member. Local church and 4H groups sell refreshments and gate proceeds, after expenses, go to local hospices.
The Fayetteville Country Music Show, shepherded by the Peevler brothers, Mark and Greg, recreates the old style “hoot-nanny and barn dance” of yesteryear. The Peevlers spent their childhood playing music with their cousins who had a popular western swing band, The Country Cousins, in the mid 1900s. Mark’s daughter, Amanda, continues the family tradition by singing both solo and with her father and uncle. This opry performs every last Monday of the month in the Shelby American Legion Hall. Proceeds from the show go to various veteran assistance programs.
If you like “picking and grinning with the chickens,” then the Farm Street Opry in Bastrop is right in your barnyard. This monthly show is held in the Bastrop Convention & Exhibit Center. Recently, the Peevler Family from the Fayetteville Opry opened for Bobby Flores .
Traditional country music is alive and well in Central Texas thanks to the hard work of many people.
Lone Star Opry Giddings
The Gathering Music Show Geronimo
Crossroads Country Opry Victoria
Farm Street Opry Bastrop
Fayette County Country Music Opry La Grange
Flag City Opry Edna
Comal Country Music Show New Braunfels
Bluebonnet Opry Brenham
Fayetteville Country Music Show Shelby