Traditional country fans, disappointed with the direction commercial country music has taken in the last several decades, have little interest in — and feel little connection to — modern pop/rock/country. They do, however, have affection for the music of Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Bob Wills — they love the old tunes. They like singing along. They like a joke between numbers now and then, and they don't care if every performance is perfect. They just want to be entertained. And in the tradition of the Grand Ole Opry, Ed Pryor is providing just the thing: the Pioneer Opry.
In 1999, Pryor decided to stage a country music variety show, donating the proceeds to Pioneer Hall. Built next to the Witte Museum as part of the Texas Centennial frenzy in 1936, the Hall houses exhibits about the Texas Rangers, Trail Drivers, and the State Association of Texas Pioneers. When Pryor's wife, Frances, served a two-year stint as president of the Pioneers, she discovered the difficulties of running an un-airconditioned museum in the heart of Texas. But the cost of adding an AC system was in the neigborhood of $175,000.
One of Pryor's earliest partners in the fund-raising effort was former Express-News music writer Wiley Alexander. "I asked him if he could temporarily be our emcee, and that was five years ago. Wiley's emceed every show that we've had," Pryor marvels. He also contacted Herman Wilburn of the Wilburn Brothers band to back all the entertainers, and put out the word to a number of singers and instrumentalists to drop in.
The first show was held, appropriately enough, in Pioneer Hall's second-floor ballroom, which has been used for dances since the '30s. The house band was paid minimally, but the rest of the performers were volunteers. Since its inception, the Pioneer Opry has moved to the Arneson River Theater, Redland Hall outside of Loop 1604, and briefly to the University of the Incarnate Word. On Thursday, June 20, the show moves to its new home at the Bluebonnet Palace in Schertz.
The Pioneer Opry has developed a dependable company of monthly entertainers who know what the audience wants — and are able to deliver. And special guests have become a show staple. "We always leave a spot open on the show for guest stars," says Pryor. "Richard Hailey, Geronimo Treviño, and Rick Cavender drop in several times a year." Singers John Wayne Schultz and Sally Carlson are also frequent guests. Pryor performs regularly with his "magical harmonicas." "I picked up my first harmonica when I was nine years old. I learned to play the old songs like 'Tennessee Waltz,' 'Down in the Valley,' 'You Are My Sunshine' — all the old standards in the '30s. I'm going to be 74 years old in June, and I still love to play the harmonica and sing. We're doing this because it's fun, and we're doing something for the Hall. There's so much talent out there, like Regina Matthews. She's been on our show since the beginning and we're really proud of her. She just turned 17, and she's a wonderful gal."
Matthews is a mainstay at the Pioneer Opry. A fiddle player who has taken trick fiddling lessons from Frenchie Burke, Matthews is a seasoned veteran despite her age. A junior at Antonian High School, Matthews is a favorite of the Opry audience.
A recent Opry audience saw Sue Kelly doing the old Bob Wills number, "Right or Wrong." "Sue Kelly is a wonderful vocalist. You talk about a powerful voice! She sings country and gospel and she's in the choir at Trinity Baptist Church," says Pryor. Following Kelly, singer Artie Morris, dapper in his crisply pressed Western shirt and cowboy hat, sang an old Merle Haggard tune. Continuing a tradition of Western singing that he traces all the way back to his great-great-grandfather Charley Willis, Willis was one of the black cowboys who went up the trail driving Texas longhorns to Kansas. "Artie's one of the best vocalists in town!" gushes Pryor.
"And Glen Deihl — what a voice! He's really got it!" Pryor enthusiastically sings the praises of his cast: "Bettye Jeane, Karl Moore, and J. Grimes are regulars on our show. They do the old country and gospel music. They own the Southside Music Store, you know." Bettye and Karl played on the original Grand Ole Opry with the great Patsy Montana, who had a million-seller in 1935 with "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart."
"Herman Wilburn and the Pioneer Opry Band can back up anybody," Ed says proudly. "Our steel player is Wayne Tanner. He's retired from the road." The 73-year-old Tanner is the real deal. He played with Charlie Walker, the Texas Tophands, and recorded with Big Bill Lister in the '50s.
Like a cross between Ed Sullivan and H. Ross Perot, emcee Wiley Alexander energetically keeps the show rolling. In his cowboy hat and Dallas Cowboys jacket, he's introducing acts and telling jokes while each new performer gets ready to go. He tells the audience, "This is where country music and only country music is performed. If you don't want to sing country music, go somewhere else!" This line is followed by enthusiastic applause, and a well-received repertoire of traditional country. At the end of the evening, Wiley stands at the door and talks to everyone as they leave, like an old country preacher.
This is a widespread movement. Opry-style shows featuring traditional country music have started to spring up all over the country, catering to disenfranchised country music fans. In Texas there are weekly shows in Copperas Cove, Mason, Llano, McDade, Chapman, Floresville, Temple, La Grange, Cibolo, Runge, Columbus, Pleasanton, Brenham, Gonzales, New Braunfels, Lockhart, and there is even a Brush Country Opry between George West and Three Rivers. Many performers travel from opry to opry across Texas and the United States. "I've had 'em come from far away to be on our show, and the young talent we have out here is great," says Pryor.
It's easy to see what San Antonio enjoys about its Opry. It is all the things that the big arena shows are not and can never be. The Solemn Old Judge who ran the Grand Ole Opry in the '30s used to tell performers to "keep it down to earth, boys," and that's what they do at the Pioneer Opry. It's a heartfelt tribute to the music that the musicians and audience all grew up with and can't find except at shows like the Pioneer Opry.
And after four years of fund-raising? Suffice it to say that the show must go on.
The Pioneer Opry
Thursday, June 20
$5 donation to the Pioneer Hall Air-Conditioning Fund
16847 IH-35 North