Friday Night Lights
A night out in Chickasaw County at the Sparta Opry
Story Birney Imes | Photographs Chris Jenkins
Ruth called to say I shouldn’t worry about the hot sauce. she had it covered.
I had met Ruth Kendall and her husband Bob a month or so earlier on my first trip to the Sparta Opry. Ruth and Bob are among the scores of retired couples, widows and widowers who converge on this rural outpost each Friday evening to socialize and listen to live music.
Oh yeah, there’s fried catfish and hushpuppies. On my first visit, I brown-bagged a bottle of hot sauce. Just to be sure.
The place sits on the north side of County Road 419, south of Houston, in Chickasaw County, just over the Clay County line. On the second Friday in December, photographer Chris Jenkins and I set out for the Opry from Columbus around 4:30. We would take Highway 50 through West Point and then, about half way to Pheba, turn north on 46.
To say this area is rural is an understatement. The bare trees impart a rugged beauty, made more so by the fading winter light; plowed fields slope toward narrow two-lane roads. The farms are divided by stands of hardwood timber, and the landscape is garnished with groupings of one-story farm houses and weathered mobile homes. Many of them are decorated with a single strand of Christmas lights, a modest toast raised to the holiday season.
The Opry occupies a windowless metal building about the size of a high school gymnasium. Look for the red neon guitar..
For the first-time visitor entering the Opry, the experience is kaleidoscopic. It’s like you’ve crashed a family reunion in full swing. In no time at all, you are part of the family.
Story has it the Opry began in the summer of 1987, when Robert Eaton invited Joe Lee Huffman and Willie Gene Huffman for a chittlin’ supper in his backyard. The men often played gospel and old-time country music together and did so that night. They began meeting regularly; eventually others came, forcing a move to Eaton’s tractor shed.
Word got out and more and more people showed up — it was a fine way to shake off the workweek and ease into the weekend. For a while people brought covered dishes, then somebody started cooking hamburgers and serving ice cream. They moved around before setting up in an unoccupied house where walls had to be torn down to make room.
In time Eaton and the Huffmans were joined by Brittany “Spooky” Cole, George “Nood” Thompson, James “Red” Callahan and Jimmy Myers. They called themselves The Sparta Ramblers. Others showed up to play. Before long they outgrew the house.
A core group, the Ramblers and a handful of Opry mainstays, a dozen total, signed a 10-year, $50,000 note at Houston State Bank.
“When Willie Gene came in and told me about that loan, I like to have died,” said Faye Huffman, as she sliced an Elvis Presley cake. Faye is the widow of Willie Gene Huffman. She and Byron Wilson, a retired furniture production manager, oversee what is the Opry’s primary source of income, supper (admission is free).
A fish plate goes for $9 (“We don’t make any money on the fish,” Wilson said.). The cakes and pies donated by area women fetch $1 a slice. Drinks are free. There is no alcohol. The money goes for overhead and into a charitable fund for those beset by personal disaster: victims of a house fire, breast cancer, a car wreck or an unexpected financial need.
“If you can write a check for $500 and give it to a needy person, that’s a blessing,” said Faye.
She shouldn’t have worried about the loan; it was paid off in 7-1/2 years.
“This place is just like church,” Ruth explained. “You practically have an assigned seat. We have to give an accounting of ourselves if we’re not here.”
As they do every Friday afternoon, Ruth and Bob made the 18-mile trip from their home in Van Vleet to the Opry, arriving around 4:30, in time for catching up on the latest news.
Chocula was the brand of sauce I had with me that first visit, the one with the little round wooden top and the picture of the señorita standing with a platter of green chilies. A large, unopened bottle of
the same brand awaited me on my second visit. This hot sauce was one of many kind gestures we experienced during our short visit to the Opry. Everyone we encoutered there made sure we felt welcome.
We sat at one of about eight long rows of tables that fill the central area. A stage decorated with metallic streamers takes up most of one end of the room; at the other end folks help themselves to fish and hushpuppies. The walls are covered with montages of photos and newspaper clippings. The Opry’s 12 founders are memorialized on a metal plaque by the door. A large American flag hangs on a wall near the stage; red, white and blue bunting hangs from the rafters.
The evening’s lineup is posted on an erasable board near the restrooms. Musicians come from as far away as Tupelo, Corinth, Saltillo and Sturgis for the opportunity to grace the Opry’s stage.
Some acts are more eagerly anticipated than others.
Performers are not paid; the best they can hope for is a free meal (“If things are looking real good, I’ll tell ’em, ‘Get yourself a plate of fish,’” said Wilson.)
Many Opry performers — Verna Blissard, for one — have been making music all their lives. Blissard grew up singing with her sisters in Union County. In the ’50s she performed with Mack Banks and Glen Brown on Houston’s WCPC, the 50,000-watt country music/gospel radio station. The threesome played on the same bill with Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins when the future stars were barnstorming, playing concerts in school gymnasiums and National Guard armories.
Verna took the stage for the 6-6:30 timeslot. This was her 80th birthday, and her voice was strong and confident. Blissard zipped through her set: “The Holy Hills of Home,” “Picture on the Wall,” “I Bowed my Head and Cried Again” and “Love is Like a Rose.” She rebuffed a request to sing “The Intoxicated Rat,” another tune in her songbook.
When asked what keeps her coming back to perform, Blissard answered without hesitation.
“I just enjoy it,” she said. “I miss all my sisters. This is somewhere to go, eat and have a good time.”
About 8:30 Chris and I make ready for our departure and the hour-long drive home. We say our goodbyes and promise to be back. Outside, as Chris loads his cameras in the truck, I take one last look at the glowing neon guitar. The music inside is faint. Suddenly someone opens the door of the building and for a moment the light and the music and the sound of animated voices mix with the night air.