The crowds who come to the New Salem Country Opry in Petersburg for a night of country music seem to get smaller and older every year. The opry scene has a rich past but seems to have little to look forward to if it does not find a way to adapt to an audience that is — for a lack of a better phrase — dying.
On Saturday, Roma and Jack Held, who live in a small town of about 400 people near Joliet, will drive 124.5 miles (Jack knows it by heart) for their weekly tradition: a night at the opry.
Every weekend for 20 years, the Helds - who recently celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary - have been braving rain, snow and (at least on Jan. 16) nearly opaque fog to listen to the swells of a steel guitar and the chirp of a fiddle at the New Salem Country Opry in Petersburg.
“We love every minute of this opry,” said Roma, 80, just after the lights dimmed and before the seven-piece band began playing the Chris LeDoux hit “Whatcha Gonna Do With a Cowboy.”
Seven musicians stand on a stage bordered with a red, white and blue rope light and in front of wood cutouts of a guitar and banjo, plastic music notes, cowboy hats and a homemade banner.
Jack, 85, and Roma settle into their seats near the rear of the auditorium, just three rows in front of the sound board manned by 73-year-old Joan Lewis, the wife of the band’s lead vocalist, 78-year-old Paul Lewis. The couple keeps their coats on and the band begins.
“Looks like we stayed home in droves,” Paul Lewis said to about 50 people scattered throughout the nearly 700 seats who braved the poor weather to hear some music.
Silver perms and baseball caps promoting a seed or trucking company punctuate the mostly empty auditorium on the foggy night. Though it’s considered a meager audience thanks to the weather, it’s not that much smaller — or older — than usual this time of year.
Jack and Roma suspect they have missed about 30 shows in the past two decades. And when Roma missed a few about a year ago after having back surgery, owner Doris Higdon sent her audio tapes of the show.
“We don’t know how long we’re going to make it, but we’re going to go until we can’t,” Roma said.
The average age of the opry-goer is over 60 and creeping up each year, according to several area opry owners. Recalling the days when country music giants were affordable enough to book in central Illinois is a favorite pastime of opry entertainers — but that was a long time ago.
The local country music scene has a rich past but seems to have little to look forward to if it does not find a way to adapt to an audience that is — for a lack of a better phrase — dying.
‘I don’t want to cover up all that history’
While the ticketholders listen to 76-year-old Kenny Decker slide through the scales of Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” Doris and Bill Higdon take a seat behind the opry’s concession stand and wait until intermission.
The Higdons own and operate this incarnation of the exclusively country music venue. In 1983, the Higdons bought and reopened what was once the Illinois Country Opry — a venue that drew artists such as Loretta Lynn, according to a 1977 show lineup. In those days, a ticket to see a star of that magnitude cost $6.50 for the cheap seats and $7.50 for a spot near the stage.
“You could probably add a zero to that price (today),” Doris, 66, said on a Tuesday in mid-January after a snowfall and cold snap caused a pipe to burst inside the building and spurred the Higdons to cancel the previous Saturday’s show.
The music and the building haven’t changed much since Lynn was there. Doris said she considered painting the concrete floor between the bathrooms and the counter where she sells hot dogs for $1 and candy for 75 cents. White lines are painted in rings up to the hallway to the building’s ticket booth. The lines, Doris said, were painted in the 1970s to assign chairs that sat beyond where a wall stands now.
“I used to say, ‘This floor looks so bad, we ought to paint it,’ but I don’t want to cover up all that history,” Doris said.
Doris can rattle off a dozen or more Nashville names that have walked through the opry’s doors over the years.
Kenny Rogers, The Oak Ridge Boys, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Lee Lewis, Patty Loveless, Porter Wagoner, Little Jimmy Dickens and Barbara Mandrell — just to name a few.
The Higdons want to build a new building just behind the current opry on Illinois 97 — something Lewis believes can only help the opry’s attendance.
“I think the people don’t come because the building is so old and moldy and it’s just bad for business,” said New Salem’s lead vocalist, Paul Lewis. “… I’m afraid they’re going to wait until I get too old.”
The ceiling tiles are yellowed, the parking lot is uneven gravel and on Jan. 23, a garbage can sitting in a hallway leading to the men’s dressing room was three-fourths full of rainwater that was dripping steadily from a makeshift particle-board ceiling before the 8 p.m. show even started.
The decor has not been updated in years — maybe in a couple decades, but the atmosphere feels timeless, not stale. And the patrons certainly don’t seem to mind.
“It may not be the prettiest in the world, but the music is good,” said Charlie Stock, 93, of the Arenzville and Virginia area. “I can put up with the overhead (problems).”
Stock sat second in a seated line along the northern wall of the concession area full of folding tables and chairs. On either side of him were 88-year-old Rusty Smith of Virginia, who began accompanying Charlie to the New Salem Country Opry after his wife, Loraine, died in 2000; and 77-year-old Bill Hoffman of San Jose. Beside Hoffman sat 80-year-old Derril Bentzinger of Bushnell.
Though the four live quite some distance from each other, the men sit together — chatting as old friends.
“If it weren’t for us old folks, there wouldn’t be a crowd,” Hoffman said before he took his post at the southern auditorium door to take tickets.
At the other door, Wayne Oldfield grabbed his plastic bucket and waited for ticketholders. At 66, Oldfield of Farmington is one of the younger opry patrons.
“A lot of them have died off,” said Oldfield, who started coming religiously about 20 years ago. “The last five years have been on a decline, I suppose. But it’s the best show there is around here.”
Talk to anyone who attends the shows and they’ll say the same thing. The rich, lonesome, country ballads move seamlessly into the faster numbers, filling the auditorium with a comfortable, clean sound that doesn’t ever get old to the opry’s patrons.
Kenny Decker, the best pedal steel guitar player in the area, according to his band mates, has been playing at the opry for more than 30 years. He says the nationally known acts have long since priced themselves out of the market for small-town venues.
“You can’t take a place this big and pay the acts $50,000 to $60,000,” he said.
These days, a good crowd in the winter months is about 100 people. And in the summer, Decker said, 250 to 300 people are “a decent crowd.”
Lewis, who has played in several oprys around the region, said Saturday crowds started dwindling noticeably about two years ago.
At just $8 a ticket, the opry doesn’t see much money come in when the weather’s bad. Many ticketholders are of an age that generally prefers to stay home when the weather is bad and when the economy is soft.
While most say the opry’s numbers are steadily decreasing, the reasons may be up for debate. Most say the crowd is too old and not replenishing itself. Others say it’s the economy.
Paul Lewis’ wife, Joan, who runs the sound board in Petersburg, said she saw a similar dropoff in attendance during the recession in the 1980s.
Priding itself as “family entertainment,” the opry — like most — does not allow alcohol or dancing at its shows — another reason the crowd stays the same, Doris suspects.
“Every now and then we have some younger folks that enjoy (classic country music) and keep coming back,” Doris said. “But it’s the younger generation that are still going for the alcohol and the dancing.”
Loyal, but small, audiences
Country music oprys and venues dot central Illinois, but few 20- and 30-somethings seem aware of their existence.
In Winchester, a town of about 1,600 people 20 miles southwest of Jacksonville, the Great River Road Opry in May 2009 became the area’s latest country music opry to fall victim to the loyal yet unchanging fans of classic country music.
The opry, which was housed in an old airplane hangar, could not consistently draw the necessary 150 people twice a month to break even.
“If we could’ve broken even, we would have kept going,” said 62-year-old Jeanne Craver, former owner of Great River Road. “I think a lot of the support for us — those people are getting older. There are some younger people enjoying (the music), but not enough. It’s an expensive, expensive place to operate, so we weren’t doing very well and we tried ... we all cried when we had to stop.”
Craver said that during the five years the opry was open, the crowds shrunk from about 400 down to 120 people coming to each semimonthly show. She blames the decrease on the economy and the age of those who want to listen to old George Jones songs.
But that’s not the case everywhere.
Barbara Newingham, manager of the Patterson Country Opry in Patterson, says she has seen a slight decrease in her monthly crowds, but still sees about 300 to 400 people buying the $6 tickets for dinner, dancing and music.
Twenty-six miles east of Decatur is a weekly show that draws from miles around. The Bement Country Opry, owned by Larry and Sondra Wooley of Decatur, has hosted names familiar to the region. Sondra Wooley said the crowds have remained consistent and loyal, though she admits they are gaining in age.
But that loyalty is what appeals to the entertainers who don’t seem to want to retire.
“You can get gigs in nightclubs and taverns and bar bands, but then you have to breathe cigarette smoke and (deal with) drunks,” Paul Lewis said. “You don’t have to put up with any of that (at an opry). You do your songs and come home, and that’s what I like about it.”
In Hopedale, Tim Harbaugh helps his family run the Kentuckiana Kampground and Country Opry. It will celebrate its 40th year when it reopens in May.
At 72, Tim’s father, Zane Harbaugh, still emcees the shows that take place during the camping season. Each show brings in about 350 people, Tim estimates.
But he used to see more than that.
About 74 miles northeast of Springfield, in McLean County, what could be a saving grace to the aging opry community plans to open at the end of February.
The Bellflower Country Opry in Bellflower will reopen as a show that was known to many as the McLean County Country Opry. It will open in the same community center that hosted the McLean County opry until it closed in August 2009.
Though attendance remained consistent at about 150 people per show, the former opry closed after Rick Roy, the opry’s founder, died in July 2009 at age 54.
After less than a year, the patrons decided to reopen.
Rick’s son, Derrick Roy, will play drums in the new opry’s band. And the younger Roy could be a key to keeping the opry from following in others’ footsteps.
At 25, Roy is easily one of the youngest in the central Illinois opry industry. He worked with his father at the McLean County Country Opry and briefly operated the now-defunct Nashville North, a music venue in Taylorville that drew the likes of Waylon Jennings, Craig Morgan and Aaron Tippin over the four decades it was open. Just before it closed in 2007, Taylor Swift was booked for $5,000 — though the place was shuttered before she could get there.
“Now she is close to $1 million,” Roy said.
Roy said the nine months he spent attempting to make Nashville North able to withstand Nashville prices showed him that unless his generation is willing to embrace steel guitars and fiddles, venues like the opry he’s about to help open may not make it another 20 years.
“Country (music) is a little bit cooler all the time,” Roy said. “There used to be stigma in the last 10 to 15 years ... especially older country being too twangy or too bluegrass, and then movies (were produced) like ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou,’ ‘Ray’ and (‘Walk The Line’), and now it’s kind of cool to pay homage to legendary artists.”
Twelve-year-old Madison Donaldson and her 9-year-old sister, Shelby, both of Ashland, find that stigma to be a turnoff despite finding themselves at the New Salem Country Opry with their grandma Jan. 23.
“It’s old, but I like the younger (music), but it’s fun to talk,” said Madison, who prefers Justin Bieber.
“The only real hope for the classic country and/or the oprys is that the younger crowds just embrace it and that part of country stays cooler,” Roy said.
Molly Beck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-788-1526.