LIBERTY, NORTH CAROLINA — In the glorious “Mama’s Opry”, Iris Dement tells of her mother’s closeted desire to sing at the Grand Ole Opry. Like countless other backyard singers, Dement’s mama never made it to the Ryman stage, but her voice did serve as a lovely and loving soundtrack for a little girl’s early years, and no doubt an inspiration for her later ones. Opry is in the eye, and ear, of the beholder; a Nashville zip code is not required.
For instance, it could have an address in Liberty, a medium-sized dot on the North Carolina road atlas between Asheville, home of the state zoo, and Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina (draw your own comparisons). Established in 1809 — as declared by a welcome sign that announces the time and place for weekly Lions and Rotary Club meetings — Liberty is a typical small town, anchored on both ends by convenience stores with a one-block downtown in the middle featuring a hardware store and an ice cream parlor.
But what says the most about this section of central Carolina is a three-mile stretch as you approach Liberty on Highway 49, just as you enter Randolph County. On the left are three crosses that appear to be constructed out of clothesline poles, the entrance to Bass Mountain Music Park (a haven for bluegrass and traditional country music), and a sprawling tobacco field. It’s quite a holy trinity of Carolina culture: church, old-time country music, and cash crop. Or, if you will, the Father, Sun Records, and the holy smoke.
Grady Hockett found the old Curtis Cinema Theater a few miles past the tobacco field, on the corner of Highway 49 and Old Greensboro Road in Liberty, sitting empty save the ghosts of a thousand Raisinets. Hockett, owner of a furniture business in the area, was in search of a new spot for his Southeastern Barn Dance Show when he came across the abandoned theater in 1992. “The more I looked at it, the worse it looked,” admits Hockett, a fiftysomething gentleman with combed-back hair and laid-back demeanor, in a voice that instantly makes you picture him singing “How Great Thou Art”. (Sure enough, he spent 20 years in a bluegrass gospel group called the Jordan River Boys.) Still, there was no denying the great location, so the renovating began on what would become Randolph County’s Ol’ Opry House. In hindsight, it’s easy to think that the nickname for the new place should have been obvious, but that wasn’t the case. “Finally,” Hockett explains, “it just came to me, staring at the insets for the letters on the front of the building — the Rand Ol’ Opry.”
The building on the corner now had an instantly memorable name, but reconstruction dragged on, forcing Hockett to take action. “I set a date, March the 20th , ready or not. We hoped for 100 people, but we ’bout packed it the first night.” They’ve done so about every Saturday night since then too, except the two when the Opry was canceled because of freak Carolina snowstorms. And a full house is an achievement worth celebrating for a venue that seats close to 500 folks (320 on the floor and another 150 or so in the balcony).
Doors open at 6:30 ($5, $4 for seniors, $2 for kids under 12) and the show starts at 7:30, but people start lining up before 6 to claim the best of the floor seats — something that took me by surprise on my first visit to the Rand Ol’ Opry, as did the makeup of the early birds. A brochure describes the Opry as a “great variety show for the entire family,” but a quick, informal census put me as the only person in the front part of the line who was going to have to pay the full $5, making me feel a little like a gate-crasher at a retirement party.
Once inside, evidence of the theater’s past life is hard to miss, although it’s doubtful that the “Please Do Not Wear Clogging Shoes in the Concession Area” sign and the western wear/souvenir stand were present during the dollar matinee days. Plus, the stage is now set to resemble the living room in a rustic cabin, the backdrop complete with faux fireplace and antlers over the painted-on door.
At 7:30, after a prerecorded welcome announcement, a train whistle blows and the house band, Liberty Station, makes itself comfortable in the living room. Hockett, who serves as emcee for the Opry, put together this standard-issue country six-piece, and while it’s romantic to imagine him traveling the Piedmont to recruit pickers, the forming of the band was undoubtedly a lot less Seven Samurai than all that.
Fiddler Max Lanning has an insurance business, and lead guitarist Harold Saunders is also self-employed as a sales-and-serviceman. Pedal steel player Larry Jenkins and bassist “Uncle” Don Causey are both retired, while youngest buck Raymond Bradley works at the stone quarry in nearby Goldston. Drummer and resident humorist Martin Rudisill, who looks like Joe Namath masquerading as a Statler Brother and makes it a point to shake the hand of everybody in the audience before the show, drives a big rig for UPS.
As the show kicks into gear, Hockett welcomes members of Liberty Station up to the mike to take turns singing old favorites such as “Heartaches By the Number”, “Silver Wings” and “Walking the Floor Over You”, supplementing them with the random Wynn Stewart song or an instrumental breakdown like “The Woodchopper’s Ball”. The Opry’s three female vocalists — Lisa Cole, Jane Gray and Rhonda Robertson — get called to the stage a couple times a night, which means you can bet the farm on “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” or a Patsy Cline song.
And once or twice a show, Rudisill wanders upstage to trade a few jokes or stories with Hockett. Like it or not, for those of us who got our first real taste of country music courtesy another Saturday night institution, Hee Haw, the groan that follows a corny joke is as much a part of the aural experience as the sound of pedal steel or fiddle.
There aren’t many surprises, nor does the audience seem to expect or need any; the pre-show speculation on the identity of the guest artist, another Rand Ol’ Opry tradition, is apparently plenty. The guest may be crowd-pleaser Randall Hilton up from Nashville or Stan Morgan from over in Fayetteville. It could be sturdy Tony Straughn, who always does justice to a couple Randy Travis numbers and maybe one from John Conlee. Or, as was the case one eventful night, you could be blessed with fiddler Matthew “Sleepy” Marley and banjo player Joe Reitzel, two longtime Liberty-area musicians with a combined 130 years of making music between them.
Week in and week out, it’s 7:30-9:00, half-hour break, then back at it from 9:30-11:00, and everybody leaves happy and humming.
Driving home after an Opry visit, I inevitably find myself hoping my parents will make the 12-hour trek down from Upstate New York again soon so I can take them to Liberty. I can picture the scene: “Okay, let’s go check out the shit-kickers,” my dad will say. (Note: He grew up in a town of a dozen just outside Middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania, and hitchhiked to many a square dance, so he’s allowed to say that.) “Oh, Richard!” my mom will counter with exaggerated exasperation, while in the background plays a tape of assorted Roger Miller songs I just made her in honor of one of the four albums they had in the house when I was small, the Golden Hits collection on Smash.
Maybe not the stuff of an Iris Dement song, but as I chase 40 I’ve come to realize that those voices and sounds are part of my Opry, and that’s more than good enough for me. And once a week, for the good folks of Randolph County, so is Grady Hockett’s spruced-up old movie theater.