August 1, 2009 10:36:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
"Yeah, Brother Fiddle Player, hey, hey, hey!" Hilton Hammond calls from the audience, clapping her hands as retired Air Force Col. Jim Fain launches into "Orange Blossom Special." The house band jumps in, and the audience is hooked, even the youngsters playing cards, or hide and seek under the tables.
It''s another Saturday night at the Columbus Opry, a warm, welcoming microcosm of music appreciation in East Columbus. No formal invitations, no dues, no cover charge, but there''s a whole lot of pickin'' and grinnin'' going on.
The scene replays every weekend like clockwork in a modest white house tucked inconspicuously behind Frank''s Pawn and Gun and Terry''s Upholstery Shop on Gardner Boulevard.
Inside, cooled air offers relief from the warm July night. Ceiling fans whir above about 40 adults, teens and children who have come out for the musical fellowship. Everyone makes themselves at home, chatting in familiar, neighborly fashion in comfortable, cushioned chairs.
Visitors are welcomed. On this night, a couple from Trebloc and a couple passing through, from Oklahoma, are in the house. They''re invited back to the pot luck supper held every first Saturday. On the raised stage at one end, running almost the width of the house, nine musicians with guitars, bass, drums and fiddle are gathered. The talent may vary from week to week -- usually a mix of former professionals and able homegrown pickers -- but there''s always a house band in full swing.
Emcee Benny Davis, looking the part in a crisp western-style shirt and black cowboy hat, can be counted on to keep things rolling with generous and good-natured banter, not to mention some ripping runs on electric and steel guitar. His wife, Linda, mans the bass guitar.
A veteran stage performer, Benny is skilled also on mandolin, banjo, harmonica, piano and fiddle. Music has been a "way of life" since he could walk. He and his brothers toured as the Davis Brothers gospel quartet for years. In the ''60s, based in Houston, he led Benny Ray Davis and the Country Showmen. He has performed with many, including Mac Wiseman, of bluegrass fame.
With a crinkling grin, Benny reflects on that long tenure: "All I know to tell you about my music is ... I played with some of the best, and I guess I played with some of the worst ... but I ain''t the best -- and I ain''t the worst either."
Play it again
Most of the Opry repertoire is rooted in country music, mixed with a little gospel and a pinch of rock and roll. From 7 p.m. to after 10 p.m., an evolving cast of players and singers work old favorites like "Walking the Dog" and "Folsom Prison Blues."
There''s time for everyone at the mic, even the young ones. Eight-year-old Alexis McCranie belts out "Long Black Train" and "You Are My Sunshine." Benny and Linda''s 5-year-old grandson, Ethan Garrett, sings "Rolling on the River."
And there''s always plenty of humor.
"Raise your hand ever who knows the Hadacol song," Benny calls out. Soon, accompanied by claps and whoops, Opry regular Ruby Bell is singing the "Hadacol Boogie," an amusing take on the vintage cure-all elixir that packed an alcoholic punch.
It''s the only whiff of spirits you''ll find here.
"There''s a sign -- ''No drinkin'', No smokin'', No cussin'' -- and we enforce that," Hammond stressed. The former school teacher makes the 35-mile trip to Columbus from Palmetto, Ala., every Saturday with her husband, John "Hap" Hammond, 90, and son, John Jr., 52. Hap plays guitar; John Jr. is the drummer.
Hap and Hilton have performed together since they married in 1938. They even ran a bluegrass barn behind their Pickens County home for 26 years, until the maintenance got to be too much.
It''s hard to believe she''s the 89 she purports to be, especially when she commands the microphone. With stage panache, she renders a string of numbers including "I Want to be a Cowboy''s Sweetheart" and "Remember Me."
Later, we''re not especially surprised to learn she cut some records in Nashville and Birmingham, Ala., in the ''60s and ''70s, under contract to K-Ark Records. It shows.
Keeping the doors open
Mid-evening, everyone takes a break while another of the Opry''s staunch proponents, James Cumberland, conducts an informal raffle. Goodies up for grabs include squash and cucumbers from the Hammond''s garden. The monies -- $105 was raised this time -- are necessary; they help cover the utilities and monthly property payment.
Cumberland (who taught bass guitar in the area for about 25 years) and his wife, Dale, support the Opry wholeheartedly, as performers and with the bottom line. They frequently donate major gifts from their Waterworks Road flea market to be raffled.
Much of the upkeep of the Opry house falls to Benny. By moving a small concession stand from one end of the house to the other, he enlarged the stage. Hammond approves.
"It was so crowded before, we were smellin'' each other''s armpits," she quips. Next on the want list is a wheelchair ramp.
We are family
"It''s really a family. We call it our music family," Hammond says. "It''s as much social as it is singing. I enjoy it thoroughly."
In addition to those mentioned, other "family" regulars on stage many weekends include Gene and Carolyn Reed, Ron Bailey, Doyle Spears, Leon Winters and Tommy Waldon.
Opry, of course, is simply the word "opera" morphed by the local dialect of the rural upland South. It is modelled on the mothership of country music, the grand Ole Opry. In scattered communities across the country, nights in little oprys much like this one unfold, nurturing a sense of tradition, culture and identity.
The Columbus Opry family puts the welcome mat out every Saturday for those who enjoy playing, singing or just listening. The invitation stands. Want to come on down?
Editor''s note: To learn more about the Columbus Opry, contact Benny or Linda Davis at 662-251-3950.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.