By: Whitney Blair Wyckoff
By: Whitney Blair Wyckoff
By: Whitney Blair Wyckoff
The steel guitar warbled a gentle vibrato as traveling country singer Jerry Bennett brought his lips to his cordless microphone.
"Go rest high ... on that mountain," crooned Bement Country Opry's featured performer that evening. He looked like a lumberjack in his plaid shirt, aside from his soft smile. Susan Williams, a principal for the Vermilion Association for Special Education, who was the pinch-hitting guitar player, raised her subdued face to shine in a spotlight as she bounced a treble harmony on the line. She closed her eyes as Bennett crescendoed.
It's opry: a variety show for people with a sweet tooth for ballads or a passion for the bouncy country tunes of yesteryear. The bands in these country music houses will even play recent favorites, bluegrass, gospel and pop songs – but all with a country twist.
Opry houses are beacons of culture tucked away in small towns scattered throughout the rural Midwest. Two of these halls are located in East Central Illinois: the Bement Country Opry, which offers shows at least once a week in a converted auto shop garage, and the McLean County Country Opry Show in Bellflower, which performs monthly in a former school building. Opry is a family oriented show with "clean" jokes and songs with little more than innuendo.
"It's a show where you don't have the smoking, you don't have the drinking," said Sondra Wooley, who owns the Bement opry with her husband Larry. "It's a more controlled atmosphere, and it's more enjoyable because the people actually come to see what you're doing on the stage."
Wooley, a guitar player for her own house band, was introduced to opries in the mid-'70s when she asked to fill in at an opry in Bethany, Ill. The guitar player never came back, so Wooley took over and has been playing in opries ever since. She bought the opry at Bement in 2001. Her band is standard as opry bands go. Every Friday night, she fields a bass player, a drummer, a pianist, a few back-up singers and a steel guitar player. Most of the band members in both venues have day jobs and play in other ensembles. In fact, Wooley's piano player, Rick Roy, is also the owner of the opry in Bellflower.
Roy had planned to "semi-retire" from the country-music scene about 10 years ago when his cousin approached him about starting an opry in Bellflower's old school building.
"I had a lot of people over this way say, 'We like it when we come over there, but it is so far over. Why don't you do something toward Champaign County?'"
So Roy decided to make a go of it and used his own savings to help create the opry in Bellflower, which he co-owns with his son, a self-taught drummer.
Roy said the two opry shows are extremely similar, adding that both house bands share some of the same members. "It's just that every band does songs a little bit differently." Both bands play in front of a backdrop painted to look like the inside of a barn, complete with doors that have horseshoes above the threshold.
While the opry audience loves old-time country tunes, many are there to see friends.
"There's just a lot of interaction and joking around. It becomes a real show that involves more than just music," Williams said. "The same people come back week after week because it just starts to feel really like a family."
Even though Williams isn't a regular, whenever she returns to Bement, people are quick to welcome her, she said. "That's what really draws people to opry – whether it's this one or the many others that are around Illinois – it's just this sense of belonging and family."
The opry community is dedicated and tight-knit. Performers travel long distances to be in shows. Leon Mercer, who has played steel guitar in Bement for about a year, drives from outside Terre Haute, Ind., each week to play in the band. "It's fun," said Mercer, when asked why he makes the trek.
Erica Stovall drove from Iowa to be a featured guest at the McLean County Country Opry Show earlier this month.
When opry fans heard Roy was suffering from serious and expensive health problems, they held a benefit concert in his honor. Performers came from across the Midwest to perform at Rick's show.
There's no denying that opry is usually a pastime of people who are older. As Roy said, if you're 50 years old in an opry audience, you're young. But at the same time, a new generation is making its way onto the opry scene.
Wooley said she encourages new generations of performers to carry on the old traditions.
"I always try to give some of the newcomers and the new singers an opportunity to get involved with the opry and have them on our show and introduce them to this sort of atmosphere," Wooley said.
The young people involved in the shows usually were introduced to opry as children by a grandparent. Fifteen-year-old Mariah Henderson, who performs with the Bement show, started singing in opries when she was 7 years old. The audience members dote on her as if she were their grandchild, bragging about her accomplishments as a high school athlete and dance team member.
"I like the people," Mariah said with a smile.
Roy said it is important to protect the future of country music in Illinois.
"I guess what it all comes down to is support country not matter what the venue," Roy said. "If you enjoy it, support it. Or you won't have it."
To view a multimedia story about the area's country oprys with more photos, live interviews and music, visit online http://multi.media.illinois.edu/ng/opry.
This project was completed by students in a multi-media class in the Journalism Department at the University of Illinois, funded by the Marajen Stevick Chinigo Foundation.