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Keeping country music alive in East Texas

By Meredith Shamburger
Nov. 25, 2017 at 9:20 p.m.

Emcee Gina Ivy-Mitchell helps Caitlin Drennan, 12, of Gilmer get dressed for her performance Saturday, September 9, 2017, at the Gladewater Saturday Night Opry. (Les Hassell/News-Journal Photo)

Nineteen-year-old Courtney Taylor has been singing since she was about 3 years old — "my whole life, really."

But it was a trip to the Gladewater Opry that really cemented her passion for music and performing. Taylor came with a friend who sang in the show, and she says she immediately fell in love.

"They had the fiddle and all the country music stuff going on," the Liberty City resident said. "The next Saturday, I came and auditioned, and they got me on the show. Been singing ever since."

Country music has been an East Texas staple for generations, providing a bevy of homegrown musicians who go on to make it big in the industry, from Carthage's Tex Ritter and Jim Reeves to Lindale's Miranda Lambert. And it's the local country music venues, such as the Gladewater Opry in Gladewater and the Country Music Hayride in Carthage, that help keep that tradition alive for new generations.

Taylor is a regular singer at the Opry, getting up on stage every second Saturday.

"It's just so much fun," she said. "You kind of feel famous after you've sung here this long. Everybody knows your name. It's been a lot of fun. This is my favorite place I've ever sung at in my life."

Small-town attractions

Nancy Ivy started the Gladewater Opry with her late husband Jim, buying the old 1930s CozyTheater downtown in 1996. The Opry puts on a two-hour show every Saturday in that venue, which once hosted young music contests in the 1950s (Elvis Presley was one such young artist to perform there).

Acting as a traditional Opry, the show features a house band performing background for various guest artists. Most of them are young people, Ivy notes, because they've always liked to concentrate on cultivating that talent. But they also have venues for older artists to perform as well.

"We try to do a little bit of everything," she said.

The Country Music Hayride, in contrast, hosts two shows each month: one a more traditional country and opry concert, and the other a southern rock and Texas country show.

The Hayride performs out of the old Esquire Theater in downtown Carthage. Built in the 1940s, the theater quit showing movies in the 1980s and started hosting a gospel opry, Hayride President Sarah Humphries said.

"Over the years, they've kind of morphed and changed," she said. "It always had guests on, just like the normal opry shows you see around Texas where they have entertainers who are kind of starting out wanting to get on stage with the live band."

Both venues act as downtown anchors, drawing people to the area when they otherwise might not come. That's something Ivy said she didn't realize. The Gladewater Opry draws in hundreds of people from Gladewater, Longview, Tyler and the surrounding area.

"I know the mayor came in here one day and said, 'Y'all do not realize what you have done for Gladewater,' " she said. "When we're doing it, you really don't think about that — what you're doing."

Carthage used to have a movie theater, a bowling alley and other attractions, but no longer. Humphries says the Hayride is trying to provide family-friendly entertainment.

"It's a nice thing to go out on a Saturday night; you don't have to worry about a whole lot," she said. "It's clean entertainment; you can bring your whole family from babies to grandparents."

But keeping the crowds can be hard for such small venues. Ivy said the Opry saw a slump last year, although attendance has gone back up. Humphries, too, said the Hayride hasn't seen the crowds it did in years past.

"Ten years ago, it used to be completely full, and then over the years some of the patrons were older and they've either quit or weren't able to come," she said. "We'd like to attract some of the younger generation and get them out because they're missing something that they might really enjoy."

For the Hayride, that means getting volunteers in to help repaint and adding dance floors. They're also planning to start showing movies again, starting with a Christmas double feature Dec. 9.

"It's got to a point where a lot of our sponsors were gone, but we're back to having 10 to 12 sponsors, and it's really starting to thrive again on its own," Hayride Vice President Chase Dawson said. "We're all happy to see that happening, because we're all committed to (the) building and the venue and the Country Music Hayride itself."

Cultivating local talent

Auditions to perform at the Gladewater Opry take place at 4:30 p.m. every Saturday.

Ivy said she's seen a lot of young people audition and then grow up singing in the Opry. She calls them "my kids." That includes 20-year-old Hunter Collins, who's been singing at the Opry for more than a decade.

"I think the impact of the Opry is huge," said Collins, a Longview resident,. "Especially for young entertainers, it kind of gives you a platform to start in a local place like this and work your way up. ... For me, I was 9 years old when I started, and it's really boosted my confidence and helped me get up on the stage and be able to sing in front of people."

Caitlin Drennan, 12, of Gilmer says performing at the Opry is her way of having fun and letting loose. Her favorite part, she said, was "probably letting people feel the meanings of the songs."

"Like I love it when people, like if it's a crying song, if they cry, if it's a dancing song, they dance," she said.

Dawson remembers being 6 years old when he first sang on the Hayride stage, and he says the show has had a big impact on him and a lot of other musicians in town. That's something he wants to keep going.

"There's tons of talent in Carthage, but they don't have anywhere to showcase their talent," he said. "So that's what we're trying to do is still be able to give those kids and those young adults and some adults a chance to get out in front of people and do what they love to do and have fun with it."

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