'Bout every Saturday people gather from miles around at the Bible Grove opry house to hear local musicians pick and sing. Not much else to do on a Saturday night in this part of Illinois. Besides, it's free.
The music starts at 7, but you better get there early if you want a good seat. Used to, "good" meant a school-bus seat nailed to the floor instead of hard wooden church pews. Now there are plenty of school-bus seats--red, green, orange--but if you get there real early you can sit on restaurant benches in the first two rows.
This opry's been held in an old town meeting hall for 20 years. It's come a long way in the 10 years since the Barbee brothers, Jim and Bud (Bud's the one with the hat), bought the place. Got indoor plumbing in '83. Last summer they held a fund-raiser, threw in the money from the donation can on the refreshment counter, and hired a carpenter to add on to the stage using boards from a torn-down house and Jim's old barn. Jean Birch, Jim's songwriting partner, painted some of the roosters, chickens, cows, and sheep on the walls. The opry now can seat "'bout 200 if you cram 'em," according to Jim.
Bible Grove is about 200 miles south of here. You can take I-57 to Effingham and then get on U.S. 45 south; start watching out after you pass through Hord and you'll see the sign pointing east to Bible Grove. Several miles down the blacktop is a cluster of homes. Follow the hand-painted sign to the opry. The town's too small to get lost in. Just look for the white building with dozens of cars parked around it.
You walk in the door and people turn around to see if they know you. The stares soon wear off and the music starts. Nobody uses sheet music. Jim and Bud call out which of the dozen or so musicians will lead the next song. The leader rarely says what he or she wants to play. Three magic words like "key of G" are all the group needs to follow along.
Some of the musicians are real good. Their country and gospel music has been recorded in the national archives of the Smithsonian. Others are pretty good. A few are not very good at all, but they give it all they've got.
Most of the musicians are local, but anyone with an instrument can sit in. Folks in the audience come up, too. Kids waist-high and people in their 80s will stand by a microphone and sing. Don't think they haven't been anywhere either. Harley Howe, 85 years young, sang tenor harmony with Gene Autry in the 1930s. Claims Autry still owes him money.
When the Wayne Feeds clock on the wall hits ten the musicians play their last song. By the time they've packed up their instruments and shut off the lights, it's past 10:30. Outside it's so quiet you can hear Jim's footsteps crunch the gravel to his truck. It feels like he and you and a stray barking dog are the only souls still awake in Bible Grove this Saturday night. Jim talks about the traffic in the Miami suburbs where his daughter lives.
"You couldn't pay me to live there, even if you gave me the whole state of Florida. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else," Jim says.
I lived in this part of Illinois for about five years, and since coming back I can't go to the symphony anymore without remembering the opry musicians sitting on those padded vinyl kitchen chairs playing and singing and being themselves. At Orchestra Hall I wait for the conductor to turn up the lights at intermission and ask the audience, "Where y'all from?" but it never happens.
For information on the Bible Grove area, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Richard Younker.