Philo Country Music Show is a return to the traditional — and it's gaining popularity
The Philo Country Music Show isn't set to start for a few minutes. But the venue — a small old school gym — is packed.
Nearly 300 folks, most of them senior citizens, sit expectantly in seats arranged in neat rows on the gym floor. A couple dozen more, including a few kids who seem to be the only ones using hand-held mobile devices, take to the bleachers.
Marjorie Clem, who turns 94 in April, sits at a table near an entrance, greeting people as they enter the R.E. Franks Meeting Center and offering to put them on the show mailing list.
At a large table nearby, more Clem family members sell candy and soft drinks. And some of the youngest members of the Clem and Kinney families push free popcorn — compliments of Kinney and Clem Farms in Tolono.
Soon the lights dim. People clap — lightly. Emcee Willy Clem, an auctioneer, takes his place in front of the small stage, decorated for this Feb. 10 show with red hearts and balloons.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our third performance of the Philo Country Music Show," he says. "Our special guests today are Logan Kirby and Michele Osterbur Smith. Make them feel welcome.
"How are you? Why don't you come in? We're going to have a good time."
Over the next two hours, the performers and the audience do just that as the Western Wheels, led by Willy's brother Ed Clem and Chrissy Rigsby, crank through one traditional country song after another. With aplomb.
They stop a few times for comedic moments with 10-year-old Austin Corson and a baby goat. And to chat with a miniature white horse — Ed calls him Wilbur — decorated with red hearts and ribbons. Willy Clem provides the voice of Wilbur.
The band also stops the music to allow Ed Clem to take out his cellphone on stage and call Marvin Lee, king of the local country music scene. Lee's in Arizona — at a country music show, in fact. Everyone in the building in Philo sings "Happy Birthday" to him.
"That's the sweetest thing I ever heard," Lee's disembodied voice says after the crowd finishes the song.
"I can't say enough about Marvin Lee being a mentor for all of us," Clem says a few weeks later. "All of us have played with Marvin Lee at one time or another."
During the show Ed Clem also mentions family — many of his relatives help him and Rigsby promote and put on the show. At one point, the band pays tribute to Marjorie Clem by sending out Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" to her.
Because the Philo Country Music Show is a family show geared toward older folks, Clem aims for a "real squeaky clean" atmosphere and a "little 'Hee Haw' flavor." He wants to reach the elderly, saying they like country music and have few other places to go for live entertainment.
"I have a lot of old people mad at me for not doing a show in March," he says. "Those older folks really look forward to it."
Word about the event is spreading among them. At the second and third shows, 50 more people turned up than at the previous one.
For the most part, the Western Wheels try to please their elderly fans, sticking to covers of songs by Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams Sr., Elvis Presley, Buck Owens and others. And during the February show the band also saluted U.S. troops everywhere and back in time, playing the Civil War tune "Return to Antietam," with Jesse Francis playing a plaintive solo on his fiddle.
Rigsby and Ed Clem, whose father, Walter, used to play guitar and sing on the front porch of their family farmhouse outside Urbana, started the Philo Country Music Show this past fall after Lee couldn't make one of his Tuesday evening shows at Philo Park.
"Chrissy and I put together a band and did it," Clem said. "The response was wonderful so we thought, 'Let's put together a country music show.'"
The show features the Western Wheels, which has the exact lineup it did nearly 20 years ago: Francis on fiddle; Ed Clem on bass guitar and vocals; Rigsby on keyboard, sax and vocals; Dyke Corson on lead guitar and steel guitar; and Dave Ohlsson on drums.
Kirby, a 20-year-old musician from Fairmount who wears an elaborate black and red cowboy outfit to the February show, is a regular. Smith, who also plays harmonica, appears as often as she can.
Clem and Rigsby plan to present the Country Music Show once a month on Sunday afternoons inside the heated/air-conditioned R.E. Franks Meeting Center. It has no steps — perfect for the older crowd, he says.
The Sunday afternoon show also doesn't conflict with similar shows in Bement and Bellflower, or with Lee's summer shows on Tuesdays in the park.
Many fans at the Philo Country Music Show, among them Bob Dalbey, 82, of Urbana, take in all those events.
"I love traditional country music, and that's what you get here," Dalbey said.
Champaign resident Steve Kamradt, 52 — he jokes that he and his wife, Carol, bring down the average age of the audience — attends the Sunday show each month, too, because he's a fan of Corson and the Boat Drunks, a popular Jimmy Buffett tribute band in which Corson plays.
"It's a good afternoon," Kamradt says. "What else are you going to do on a Sunday afternoon? There's really nothing like this in the area."
If you go
What: Philo Country Music Show, featuring the Western Wheels led by Ed Clem and Chrissy Rigsby, playing traditional country music
When: Next show is 3 p.m. April 14
Where: R.E. Franks Meeting Center, 127 W. Washington St., Philo
Admission: $10; children 12 and younger admitted free