The Oldfield Opry at one of their weekly performances in May 2015. After nearly three decades, the group is like a family. “I’ve been sitting by Steve for 25 years – that’s longer than most marriages,” says Opry Vocalist Kerre Thompson (third from left).
It’s Saturday night, and the routine is always the same: The lights dim, the crowd hushes and an emcee greets the audience. Then a stage full of musicians begins to play. These talented Ozarkers – on banjo, guitar, bass and harmonica – prove their chops as they launch into their opening number, a familiar tune that draws claps and toe taps from their listeners.
No, this isn’t the scene from a Branson theater or even a concert in the “big city” of Springfield. Instead, it’s just another night at the Oldfield Opry. And it’s been that way since 1977.
“It’s a fun place to be,” says Barbara Brown, an attendee who says she’s hardly missed a show in 10 years. “It’s great entertainment. They always manage to put on a good show.”
In the beginning, the opry was merely an informal jam session. Four musicians – Steve Beyers, Bill Gardner, Hank Thompson and Johnny Walker – met in what used to be a store on the main street of Oldfield to play. Back then, there wasn’t any audience to speak of. It was just a group of friends looking to have a good time.
But their tunes, quite literally, soon spread. “People would drive by, hear the music and come in and sit,” says Eddie Goins, the show’s emcee and bass player. It wasn’t long before the group’s weekly performances were commandeering a full house.
I like coming here better than Branson,” says Mona. “(The musicians) enjoy what they’re doing. They’re so talented. It’s such an enjoyable, down-home type show.”
Max and Mona Decker remember those times. “Back in the day, you had to stand up if you didn’t come hours before,” says Mona. Today, the husband and wife are just two of the opry’s dedicated audience members, making the drive from Ava nearly every single Saturday. “I like coming here better than Branson,” says Mona. “(The musicians) enjoy what they’re doing. They’re so talented. It’s such an enjoyable, down-home type show.”
Indeed, the show is chock full of family friendly entertainment. The jokes are ones that grandma would approve of, each garnering a round of laughter from the audience. At times, the show has even featured comedians who have gone on to considerable fame. But just as it was back then, people really come for the old-time country, bluegrass and gospel music.
The musicians take turns leading off, each careful to note which key they plan to play in – leading Doyle Yoder, the group’s harmonica player, to select which mouth harp he needs to use. The group runs through a list of time-tried tunes, such as “Crazy,” “Ramblin’ Fever” and “Orange Blossom Special,” demonstrating their talent by accepting requests from the audience and even inviting anyone who’d like to play up on stage at the end.
Two of the original four members – Steve and Hank – still appear at the opry on a regular basis. They perform alongside several other permanent and rotating musicians. “I do it for the fun of it,” says Steve, who sings and plays a mean guitar. And after performing every week for nearly 30 years, he admits that “it’d be kind of hard to give up now.”
Steve recalls a particular evening when the magnitude of what he was doing hit home. “I met a lady at the door and she said ‘I drove 90 miles to listen to you,’ he says. It was the first time he realized he had a fan. “It makes you feel good when someone says something like that.”
It’s true that the opry has developed quite a following. Guests show up for performances early, giving them a chance to catch up with other attendees – or, as they’re more commonly known, friends. “(It’s) one big family,” says Eddie. “People come here and fall in love with it.”
(It’s) one big family,” says Eddie. “People come here and fall in love with it.”
There’s a guest book that visitors are invited to sign, which reveals attendees from nearly every state and even other countries. On one particular evening, there were people there Texas, Washington, Delaware, Arizona and even France and Sweden. Each of these visitors is announced during the show, their presence garnering a hearty round of applause from the audience. And many of the local attendees aren’t so local themselves, coming from distances such as Marshfield, Halltown and Mount Vernon. “People drive from everywhere,” says Eddie.
Opry members are proud that everyone involved, from the performers to the concession workers, are volunteers. One of those people is Peggy Grimes (pictured at right), who used to bake 25 pies each week for the opry’s concession stand. Due to current health restrictions, the pies she sells today are store bought. But she’s still there every week to raise funds for the opry, and she’s not alone. You’ll also find her fiddle-wielding husband Jess, vocalist daughter Kerre and sound controller grandson Drew (above) at the opry. Sometimes, she even takes a break to sing a song on stage herself before the night’s over.
After the opry outgrew its original meeting place, that can-do volunteer spirit helped the group fundraise its way to new building in 1990. And twenty-five years later, the crowds – which at times surpass half of the entire village’s population – still come. “(For) a lot of them, this is the highlight of their whole week,” says Eddie. And as in any give and take relationship, that makes a difference to the musicians. “When the crowd has fun, we have fun.”
Want to go?
The Oldfield Opry (Oldfield, MO; 417-278-4462) performs every Saturday night from 7 to 9:30 p.m. The doors open at 5 p.m. Concessions – including burgers, chili and pie – are available. Admission is free, although donations are accepted. You can connect with them through their website or Facebook page.