- Associated Press - Saturday, February 7, 2015

MILTON, W.Va. (AP) - Blankets, pads and sheets drape over more than 30 of the chairs near the stage at the Mountaineer Opry House.

It’s not laundry day - the drapery signifies the favorite seats claimed by long-time fans of one of the region’s main hubs for bluegrass music.

That’s just where they like to plop down for the regular Saturday shows, and don’t you sit there.

The Opry House has been drawing fans for a long time.

Paul King, a retired chemical truck driver for Union Carbide, opened the doors in 1972, hoping to supplement his retirement, according to a history of establishment in the Fall 2012 edition of Goldenseal magazine.

Tickets were just $1.50, as King hoped to create a sort of local version of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

That’s how it felt to fiddler Bobby Taylor, who is quoted in the Goldenseal history, remembering his early days as a performer there with the Teays Valley Boys.

“In its own way, it was our Grand Ole Opry, and we all were thrilled to step on that stage on Saturday night,” Taylor recalled.

Initially, the lineups included mainly local country, bluegrass and gospel acts with the occasional professional act appearing maybe once a month.

As the Opry House became better known, more national name acts played there. The theater seating for 550 would fill up and sometimes lead to standing-room only crowds in the mid ‘70s, when marquee acts like Ernest Tubb and Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys came to town.

After King’s wife died, he asked Larry Stephens to keep the music going in 1991.

“When she died he just didn’t want to fool with it anymore, and he asked me if I’d take it over,” Stephens said.

At the time, Stephens was still a lieutenant with the Cabell County Sheriff’s Department, where he had a 36-year career, 18 of those years as chief deputy.

He retired a dozen years ago and he and his wife, Mary, have been keeping a steady stream of bluegrass and bluegrass gospel music hitting the stage, starting at 7:30 p.m. most Saturdays of the year, with the occasional country act, like Rob McNurlin and the Beatnik Cowboys, thrown in.

Mary does the booking, although the Opry House is such a staple on the bluegrass circuit that most bands call them for bookings.

“We usually don’t have to call in bands to book, because we’ve been there as long as we have now. A lot of them are repeated from one year to the next,” Stephens said.

“Some of them when they play the Opry House they’ll say, ‘Well, I want this same date the next year.’”

The bands that perform are a who’s who of the national bluegrass and bluegrass gospel circuit, as well as up-and-coming stars. Stephens ran a few of the names:

“We just had the Grascals. IIId Tyme Out. Of course, as always we have Doyle Lawson twice a year. The Larry Stephenson Band. We’ve had Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. When Bill was alive we had Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. The Osborne Brothers. Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys. And the list just goes on and on.”

The green-walls of the stage feature a portrait of Monroe, as if casting his blessing over the proceedings. In the back of the room is a concession stand that serves up Mary’s hot dog chili, fresh popcorn, barbecue and soft drinks.

Depending on the fame of the band, crowds vary from perhaps 60 on the low end to a couple hundred on the upper end.

“It might average out to 150 to 200, if you averaged it into the year,” Stephens said.

Again, depending on the fame of the band, ticket prices vary: from $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $5 for children 12 and under to a straight $15 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under.

He and his wife are certainly not in it for the money, Stephens said.

“If I did it for a living, I’d quit. It’s more of a hobby for me and Mary. You’re not going to make any money from it. If you don’t do it because you like it you might as well forget it.

“Both of us are retired and I have volunteer people to help me with it. So, I’ve got no expense in that respect. I don’t have to pay people to help me. Otherwise, if you did, we just couldn’t do it.”

The Opry House is a reliable Saturday night destination for some fine bluegrass music in a family-friendly setting, Stephens said.

“Mary and I, we just try to keep it going as a place for people to come and enjoy themselves. It’s family entertainment. We have no drinking, no drugs, no smoking. We try to keep it strictly family.

“It’s sort of old school. It’s kind of down-to-earth,” he said. “Just put it this way, we sell more senior tickets than we do adult tickets.”

He not only likes the music on the stage but the people that the music draws.

“There’s one thing I found about it is people that come are just some of the finest people you’d just ever want to meet. They’re just good down-to-earth people.”

How long can the Opry House keep going?

That’s an open question since the heirs of Paul King still own the property and building, located right off the Milton exit of Interstate 64, and not much has been done to the old building over the years.

“One of these days, they’ll probably sell and somebody will buy it and it’ll probably be gone.”

Upcoming acts at the Opry House include:

Feb. 14: The Corey Hensley Band

Feb. 21: The Hart Brothers

Feb. 28: The Clinton Gregory Bluegrass Band

For more information, visit www.mountaineeropry.com .

___

Information from: The Charleston Gazette, https://www.wvgazette.com


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